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Holger Wilhelm has already had a successful career. After working in the automotive industry for 20 years, he was hired by Swiss logistics giant Kuehne+Nagel. Wilhelm has come this far by constantly challenging himself and broadening his horizons – the MBA he received last year from the WU Executive Academy is proof of that. And Wilhelm is far from done.
“I did not have to look for it, logistics definitely found me” – Holger Wilhelm is one of those people that know what their strengths are and how to work relentlessly to expand them. After one short semester of studying law, Wilhelm decided, it was not for him. He switched to business with a focus on logistics at the Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU). The topic seems to run in his veins: His father helped Volkswagen (VW) get its first factory on American soil running. His son continued on this path as he worked in the automotive logistics industry for over twenty years. Now living in Zurich, he’s Vice President for Business Development at Kuehne+Nagel, one of the biggest logistics providers worldwide.
Logistics can be seen as the lifeblood of our global economy. In a world in which everything from clothing to electronic gadgets and food is today being shipped around the globe to reach the end customer, the global economy would crumble without logistics. At the same time, it is in a state of constant transformation and ongoing challenges. These are mostly due to unforeseeable events like the Covid-19 pandemic or the blockade of the Suez Canal (through which a third of global container traffic passes each day) in March 2021. Tensions around trade wars between the US and China as well as the war in Ukraine increase the pressure on logistics providers. “In this industry, you always have to keep learning. Only if you constantly challenge yourself you can attain the necessary skills to stay in the game,” says Wilhelm.
Whoever’s not working to become more sustainable today will not be around tomorrow.
The expert sees three big trends within his industry. The first is a result of the Corona pandemic, which has highlighted the importance of supply chain resilience and agility. As a result, companies are reevaluating the status quo and exploring new locations for production. This is especially true for essential industries like semiconductors, according to Wilhelm.
The second trend is the increasing relevance of small start-ups. Unlike other industries, these newcomers do not necessarily aim at replacing the giants (running a logistics firm requires managing a large fleet of airplanes, trucks and shipping containers) – instead, start-ups are using software and automation to make processes more efficient and design leaner supply chains.
As a result, companies like Kuehne+Nagel need to keep an eye on new processes and invest in promising start-ups – to not risk falling behind the competition. And the more chances new technologies like AI, the blockchain and cloud computing offer, the easier it becomes to miss big opportunities.
The third big shift is an increased focus on sustainability. Wilhelm: “It is not even a trend anymore. Whoever’s not working to become more sustainable today will not be around tomorrow.” He goes on to explain a conundrum: “Younger generations are fond of inexpensive clothing, they like throwaway-items. At the same time, they want companies to produce more sustainably.” More carbon-efficient shipping is one way in which businesses are trying to adjust to these new expectations, opening up opportunities for logistics firms.
Wilhelm was born in 1973 in Wolfsburg, Germany. His father’s job required the family to move constantly. “We were an expat family,” Wilhelm says without regret. For example: His father helped build the first factory for VW in the US. In 1998, Wilhelm started studying Logistics at WU, only to drop out just before graduating – a decision that would later bring him back to the university.
Through his mother he found out about a trainee leadership program at the German logistics firm Schnellecke. He worked there for over ten years, the last three as Executive Director, and took up his father’s lifestyle: His work started in Germany but soon brought him to Poland and later to India.
In 2014 Wilhelm was offered a position at CEVA Logistics, one of the top ten logistics firms globally, where he led the automotive business development branch in Europe for three years. In 2017, he transferred to the US to lead the automotive business development for North America until 2019, when he was offered the opportunity to lead the global automotive logistics business for Imperial Logistics. Wilhelm accepted: “I had helped build businesses in Europe, Asia and North America. It was the logical next step to now do the same on a global level.”
During the lockdowns of the Covid pandemic, Wilhelm suffered, as many did, from a lack of social contact. “I needed to collaborate and argue with others. I needed other people to interact with,” the German native says. But his colleagues and friends were out of reach – as was everything beyond his own four walls. How to deal with this problem? Wilhelm decided to look for a new challenge – or rather: an old one he never completed.
Wilhelm went back to WU to finally get his degree. In April 2021, he started the MBA program at the WU Executive Academy, the WU’s business school which offers numerous MBA programs. Wilhelm: “It was a lucky strike for me. I had been toying with the idea of doing an MBA there for some time, but had never found the perfect moment. When the pandemic struck, I knew that it had come.” When asked why he chose to do his MBA at WU, Wilhelm answers: “The double-degree MBA the WU Executive Academy offers was really attractive to me and the price-performance ratio was good. But I also knew that the WU and especially its MBA programs have a stellar reputation in Europe.”
At some point during his program, Wilhelm wrote a business case with an IT-Firm, the name of which he cannot disclose. One year later, when Wilhelm was applying for his current job at Kuehne+Nagel he mentioned his work with the firm. Today it is his biggest client. “Did the project at the WU Executive Academy get me my current job? I couldn’t say. But it was one of my biggest selling points, for sure,” Wilhelm recalls, before adding: “And you can only boast of something like that if you constantly look for new challenges, always give your best and set new goals.” Not only did the MBA finally give Wilhelm his long-overdue degree, it also allowed him to reach a goal he had set almost twenty years earlier: “When I was around 30 years old, I decided to one day work for Kuehne+Nagel,” the logistics expert explains.
Today, Wilhelm is responsible for business relations with Kuehne+Nagel’s high-tech clients. He acts as a link between his company and its customers, finding out what the client needs and communicating the possibilities Kuehne+Nagel offer back to them.
Last month, Kuehne+Nagel announced a partnership with the Chinese IT firm Lenovo. The cooperation, in which Wilhelm was deeply involved, allows Lenovo’s customers to ship IT equipment emission free with Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), which is produced from non-fossil fuels. Just like kerosene, the standard jet fuel, SAF emits CO2when burned. But during SAF-production, CO2 is sucked out of the atmosphere, reducing the overall amount of CO2in the atmosphere.
The use of SAF in aviation is nothing new. But Kuehne+Nagel developed an innovative sustainability solution as a service that allows both Lenovo and their customers to benefit from the initiative; this is certified according to GHG (Greenhouse Gas) protocol standards. In a world in which ever more companies are setting sustainability targets, such certificates are an essential tool to prove to stakeholders how much progress has been made to reach the sustainability goals.
According to Wilhelm, the MBA helped him gain a deeper understanding of his field, which has enabled him to succeed in projects like the one with Lenovo. “Especially regarding skills like negotiating with customers or leading an international team, my lessons at the WU Executive Academy have helped a lot,” the German says. He already had a lot of experience before taking the program but it enabled him to gain a more academic perspective on his field: “I already knew how to do many things out of intuition and experience. But the MBA program helped me to reflect on those things and see how I could optimize them even more,” says Wilhelm.
Another useful aspect was the fact that the program allowed Wilhelm to break out of his logistics-bubble of contacts. Meeting people from other professions and nationalities rewarded him with a more comprehensive understanding of the business world, he says.
When asked about his plans for the future, Wilhelm takes a moment to reflect on his career: “I have worked for some of the biggest names in logistics on three different continents and changed either employer or location almost every two years. I am quite happy with my career.” But it would not be Holger Wilhelm if he just stayed content: “I am happy but I want to keep expanding my comfort zone. My plan so far has been to challenge myself every three to five years. I intend to keep it that way.”
Holger Wilhelm has worked in the automotive industry for 20 years and on three different continents. Last year, his journey took him to Kuehne+Nagel, one of the biggest logistics firms globally.
Text: Erik Fleischmann
Fotos: Killian J. Kessler