The Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy of Saint Vincent de Paul is the sole shareholder of one of the most successful mineral water companies in Germany, Adelholzener Alpenquellen GmbH. The order uses the company’s profits to finance social and charity projects. How compatible are Christian values and business-minded thinking? How do these values shape corporate culture? An interview with Superior General Sister Rosa Maria Dick and Adelholzener Managing Director Stefan Hoechter.
FLORIAN HALLER: Sustainability is one of the most important issues of our time – if not the most important. You might say that sustainability is part of Adelholzener’s DNA. Mr Hoechter, what is sustainable brand management in your view?
STEFAN HOECHTER: We have just completed the first Adelholzener Alpenquellen sustainability report and couldn’t help but notice how much people’s understanding of sustainability has changed. It used to be about how much energy the company needed or where savings could be made. Today, sustainability is defined in much broader terms. It not only includes ecological and economic responsibility but social responsibility too. Within these three areas, we identified our materiality matrix with the relevant areas of responsibility – such as climate protection and energy – and this forms the basis for our sustainability strategy.
How do you practise ecological sus-tainability in your brand management activities?
SH: Sustainability is something we take very seriously indeed. Even though our Active O2 water and parts of our Adelholzener range are distributed throughout Germany, the main focus of our sales is right here in Bavaria. This is also where our advertising is primarily concentrated and where we record our strongest growth. We have also come up with a very future-oriented packaging – and have a reuse quota of over 80%, which is way above the rest of the sector.
Sustainability and good sales figures aren’t always 100% compatible. Or are they?
SH: It is possible to have sustainable business practices and still be economically viable. We are reinforcing this trend, for example by selling our products in reusable packaging in the region and highlighting this in our advertising. We generally set great store by gearing our brand management firmly towards consumers. Only companies that truly understand consumers and have a certain humility towards them will ultimately be able to develop and market products that are target group-specific and geared towards actual usage situations.
As shareholders, what role does the order play in determining the com-pany’s direction and shaping the corporate culture?
SH: When Sister Rosa Maria took over as Superior General in 2016, it soon became very clear that the values the order stands for are the same ones that are growing in importance at Adelholzener Alpenquellen. The order wanted us to implement these values proactively and in the company’s everyday activities. To begin with, it wasn’t clear whether they could be applied in the same way to a business entity. We embarked on a journey together, a journey with an unknown destination that involved lots of discussions and values workshops. In the end, we actually succeeded in reinterpreting the congregation’s five values for our company and also made them readily understandable for all our employees. We are currently in the process of anchoring these values even more firmly within the company by holding employee training courses. Regardless of the values, the fact that our shareholder is a religious order that invests the company’s profits – after making the operational investments needed to safeguard jobs in the long term – entirely in social projects, is social responsi-bility in its purest form.
Sister Rosa Maria, what made you want to anchor your order’s values in the company as well?
Sr. ROSA MARIA DICK: We formulated he five classic values of the Munich Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy back in 2006, adding a mission based on these values a year later. What prompted this was the fact that more and more Sisters had left active service within the company and were being replaced by lay employees. They did a good job, but we weren’t sure if they had sufficient moral guidance. We felt an obligation to provide this moral guidance and, with this in mind, defined our values clearly – in the form they currently take. In other words, what do I understand by mercy and compassion, or by the value ‘Serving – with one another – for one another’? What does that mean for us as an order, in the hospital run by the order – or at Adelholzener?
What relevance do Christian values have in the modern world?
Sr. RMD: The possibilities that are now being offered by science, technology and the digital revolution know virtually no bounds. And this is precisely why human and Christian values are so important in the modern world. I recently read ‘Digital Ethics’ by Professor Sarah Spiekermann, in which she writes about the importance of human values. These are particularly relevant now because there is a greater danger than ever of our being steamrolled by digital technology. And this technology can no longer be seen as a good thing if it replaces people rather than assisting them. However, there has been a slight change in how these values are experienced these days. This is why I have always believed that it’s important for people to be able to ‘experience’ our five values and feel them within themselves – and our values workshops are set up along these lines as well. For instance, we deal with the following question: what does a value like mercy or compassion mean to me in my personal and professional surroundings?
SH: Our code of values includes the following: “We create and nurture a culture of appreciation. We are cordial, benevolent, trusting and appreciative by conviction. Because this inspires and strengthens us. We respect and appreciate each person and what makes them different. To be able to appreciate other people, I first need to be able to appreciate myself. We maintain this culture of appreciation together so that we can grow, develop and be grateful and happy.” The point about appreciating yourself came from Sister Rosa Maria. If you don’t strengthen yourself, you won’t have the strength to help others. And if you’re feeling run down, you won’t have the energy to live your life. We feel that this values-based training enriches us as a company.
And how are these values put into practice in everyday company life?
Sr. RMD: In every values workshop, I point out once again that values are not something that can be prescribed and then taken “three times a day”. People need to be able to experience values themselves. I need to be familiar with values, understand them, question them and then accept them for myself. Only then can I apply them and pass them on to others.
SH: We are currently in the process of preparing guidelines in which these very values are anchored. My fellow managing directors and I are making every effort to apply these values in our organisation and to make them tangible at all times. Of course, we don’t always succeed. In some areas, this is still quite a challenge, but we have every confidence that we will be able to communicate the values here in the future too.
Sr. RMD: We employ almost 600 people at Adelholzener. Our values are a kind of guardrail when working with all these people in all kinds of situations. They are not a nice-to-have addition or a cherry on top, but are primarily there to help us structure and live our everyday lives. This includes making decisions, finding the right staff, encouraging them and also trying to resolve crises in a way that is in keeping with our values. For instance, if we have to part ways with an employee, how can this be done in a manner that reflects these values?
Quite a challenge for managers, I would imagine…
Sr. RMD: Values are not always all that easy to put into practice. Of course our employees look to their managers but they aren’t infallible either. Values-based work can sometimes mean admitting mistakes and apologising to their staff. Values like ‘appreciating life’, ‘serving – with one another – for one another’ and ‘creating and nurturing a culture of ap-preciation’ can also be conveyed through an apology.
Sister Rosa Maria, has there ever been a situation in which you were forced to choose between church values and economic viability?
Sr. RMD: There was one time we had a very strong season that led to sup-ply bottlenecks. Our management had no choice other than to ask employees to come in to work on Sundays as well. This represented a moral dilemma for me too because Sunday has been a protected day of rest for decades and I was being asked to make a decision on the spot. First of all, management defined what exactly was meant by Sunday work. In this case, it meant that about 75 employees would be working for ten or twelve Sundays at the most – they would work for ten days and have four days off. This was also family-friendly and would go on for no more than half a year. And we saw that it worked! Management could easily have said: “Wake up and get real! Can’t you see that we might go out of business if we can’t keep our customers supplied?” Instead, they were respectful of the Sisters, of Sunday as a day of rest and of our employees at all times. I recall thinking that our management were now better than we were at putting values-based work into practice.
Adelholzener’s profits are channel-led into the charities you support, for example providing additional staff for retirement homes and a new hospital with beds for homeless people, to name just two. Is that something that motivates the people working at the company?
SH: When talking to employees about value-based work, we used to hear questions like: “Okay, but how does that affect forklift drivers?” Even just knowing that the end result of their work is going to help other people motivates them. We sell mineral water, which is a great and healthy product. And, once we have made the necessary investments in our operations, the remaining profits will go to areas where we all know that they will benefit people who really need it. Everything we earn goes to ill or needy people. And that is a satisfying and rewarding feeling.
Would you say that companies with a religious order or church as their shareholder are often so successful because they are focused on a long-term corporate strategy rather than on quarterly figures?
SH: The point about the long-term strategy is certainly true. The congrega-tion takes a more long-term view of business than a stock company would, for example. But, interestingly enough, that doesn’t mean that there is less of a focus on profits. We can sense that the Sisters are involved and are keeping a close eye on our business. And yes, we are earning money – we want to, and we need to as well. But it’s different in our case. We know that the order congregation trusts us and this in turn creates an obligation on our part. I’d be devastated if this mutual trust and appreciation between the order congregation and our management team were to break down for some reason. The mutual appreciation is always there and it commits us to one another.
The order is not only Adelholzener’s sole shareholder but, through the advisory board, is also involved in all business decisions. Do you discuss everything together?
SH: There hasn’t been a single advertisement or product that wasn’t seen and approved by the Sisters before being released. Everything we do also needs to have the blessing of the Sisters and the advisory board.
Are there times when you have to put your foot down, Sister Rosa Maria?
Sr. RMD: Last year, we rejected an advertising slogan that didn’t sit right for us. But then we quickly came up with a new suggestion together that everyone was happy with.
Why have you been a little less reticent about talking about your charity projects in your more recent company communications?
SH: People today want to know everything about how a company creates its products, how it treats its employees and what its attitude towards sustainability is. At the same time, social media are becoming more and more important. Given these trends, we see no reason not to shine a spotlight on the good work we do. Such as letting people know that we are building a lift in a retirement and care home and will be covering all the costs so that resident fees won’t be affected in any way. I think these are the things that people really want to know about. We had also discussed the possibility of having slogans – for example, two of these translate roughly as “Drink for a good cause” or “The power to do good” – and there are a variety of approaches that can be used to communicate this.
These days, very few women join religious orders. What does that mean for your order – and what does it mean for the future of Adelholzener?
Sr. RMD: The order is getting smaller and may even cease to exist one day. But I have no doubt that our mission – to spread mercy and compassion – will remain. We will need this in the future. That is the reason for our values-based work, which I am sure will be continued by other people in some form or other. Our mission as an order is to create opportunities for ourselves and for lay employees to help people who are less fortunate than themselves. There are many young people who are looking for meaning in their lives and, yes, maybe we could be even a little more inventive and create new places for them to come together.
Thank you for talking to us.
This artice first appeared in TWELVE, Serviceplan Group’s magazine for brands, media and communication. In the eighth issue, you will find further inspiring articles, essays and interviews by and with prominent guest authors and renowned experts centred around the magazine’s theme “A human-driven future: How humans are shaping the digital world of tomorrow”. The e-paper is available here.