Interview: Antje von Dewitz, CEO of Vaude

Antje von Dewitz, the second-generation CEO of Vaude. 
Antje von Dewitz, the second-generation CEO of Vaude. 

It makes sense for a business that makes outdoor-wear to care about the environment, but none is as dedicated to sustainability as Vaude, which is run by Antje von Dewitz, the daughter of the brand’s founder Albrecht. Since she took over as CEO in 2009 she has turned her family business into a contender for the most sustainable, ethical business anywhere. None of it would be possible if hers wasn’t a family-owned firm. 

Not only do Vaude’s products reach the highest environmental standards, but 35% of senior managers are women. The firm says that workers in its Vietnam manufacturing business are paid 115% above the average wage. Vaude’s good work continues close to home, too. When the swimming baths in the 800-person town of Obereisenbach, where Vaude is based, were about to be closed by the council the business took over managing it.

As you might expect, they are family-friendly too. Von Dewitz says that 50% of Vaude’s staff – men and women – work part time, and currently 45 of the 500-strong workforce are on parental leave. The company runs a creche for 31 children, and there is a rule that every new baby has to come in and see the CEO, and the parents get some “baby money” from the firm. There were 20 in 2013 lone. “I feel like I have a baby in my office every week,” jokes von Dewitz.

The obvious question is: why? It has a lot to do with the convictions of the owner. Von Dewitz says that before she joined the firm she wanted to “save the world” either working for an NGO or as a journalist, but everything changed when she took a traineeship with the family firm. “My father asked me to create an entire business unit,” she says, “for packs and bags. It was a pretty big traineeship. It was a little scary and I made a lot of mistakes because of the freedom I was given, but at the same time it was fascinating to experience what you can do as an entrepreneur, what room for creativity you have and the freedom you have to work with products and clients.”

That was in 1997 and, apart from three years spent in Stuttgart (where she was a chair of entrepreneurship at the university) she has been at Vaude ever since. “I had always wanted to live in a big town, but I knew my heart was here. I grew up as an entrepreneur’s daughter and this feels like home,” she says. 

The succession was done slowly, and carefully. “When I spoke to my father about my desire to take over the company he said, okay, that’s fine, I want to work until I’m 65 and then I will step back.” Von Dewitz worked part-time while her children were small, then spent five years preparing to take over the business. “I realized that I and the company needed this time,” she says. “The processes and responsibilities were created much more around my father as the founder of the company, and I couldn’t step into his position. So there was a lot of work to be done in the company to get ready for me.”

Part of bringing her conviction into the company was making it sustainable, in every sense. There had been some earlier experiments with recyclable clothing but they had not been very successful. “So we decided that either we go for total sustainability, or not at all,” von Dewitz explains. “We found that doing it a little bit doesn’t work for us. If you go this way, you need to do it fully, otherwise people don’t go with you. They always ask, is it greenwashing? Or, if you have taken this step, why not this one? So the only way was to do it with total conviction so that people believe it from the outside.”

And so Vaude always looks to the highest standards they can find for every part of their business. The result is that the brand, which competes against companies with much deeper pockets, has a strong image that appeals to customers.

Which is great, of course, but is it sustainable financially? Von Dewitz estimated that their way of doing things makes production 15% more expensive. But on the other hand, Vaude is a preferred employer in a region with almost no unemployment and lots of other bigger employers who offer a 35-hour week and high pay. “Even though people come and go because of parental leave we really have a stable team because everyone comes back,” says von Dewitz.

She is certain that none of this would have been possible if Vaude was not a family firm. “We have a long-term vision, we stay on the same path and don’t zigzag because of external events like other companies,” von Dewitz says.

“Being a family business is the only way to do this, that is what makes it so hard,” she adds. “We have a clear profile, a strong brand, people believe us, and they trust. We know that we will not get the money back at the end of the year, but that it will take several. We started this in 2009 and we are starting to see the benefit now.”