“A stress test for us all”

Ingo Müller and Dr. Frank Claassen on DMK and the coronavirus, the international outlook amid border closures and empty supermarket shelves

Mr. Müller, Dr. Claassen, how have the last few weeks been for you?

Müller: When we decided on new structures for the DMK Group, we were aware that we were putting huge changes into motion, so we decided to talk with lots of farmers, employees, customers and politicians. We knew that we were making major demands of everyone involved. In the last few weeks, what we’ve experienced amid the coronavirus is a whole new level I couldn’t have imagined. It’s a stress test for us all. But let me say right away that I am really positively surprised how well our company and our community is managing this situation. 

Dr. Claassen:What impressed me the most is how everyone is pulling together. We had to adapt to completely new working conditions within just a few days — remote working, additional hygiene and social distancing requirements in production and logistics. I have enormous respect for the fact that we are managing to keep so many projects on track and kept working on them after only a brief interruption.

Many consumers only realized how serious things were when they saw the empty shelves in the supermarkets — is this a good time for food retailers?

Müller: If only! But we have to take a closer look at the market. Restaurants, canteens, all the areas that our Food Service unit handles saw business shut down completely for several weeks. We can partly balance that out because we supply food retailers where demand has increased enormously. But many rivals who only supply the catering trade are now trying to break into the retail market with products at cut-throat prices. That’s normal competition, though.

At the beginning of the crisis, politicians called on shoppers to be sensible and at the same time told retailers to look to local agricultural producers as a guarantee, to avoid shelves becoming empty...

Dr. Claassen: The German Chancellor and the Agriculture Ministry invited retailers and farmers to Berlin and called on retailers not to offer food for the lowest prices possible. Food is valuable!

Müller:There are some contradictions in terms of what’s happened since then. Consider the advertising campaigns that retailers ran at the height of the crisis. They mainly directed their thanks towards their own employees. That’s definitely well-earned, but it would have also been appropriate to mention farmers and the industry that’s making sure shelves stay well-stocked. We did see some of that but relatively little in comparison. Because without them and without us, cashiers wouldn’t have had any products to scan.

Nonetheless, consumers still felt as though there could be shortages of some products and started stockpiling UHT milk and pasta ...

Müller: We didn’t have any supply shortages. On the contrary: We increased our supplies of particular products by 30 % within a short period of time. That was a huge production and logistical challenge. Our customers saw how valuable that is and realized what an extremely reliable supplier we are. We owe thanks to each and every employee for this achievement. I would like to express my special thanks to every single one of our workers!

That was not the only challenge though ...

Dr. Claassen: No. DMK’s Service area also had to react quickly. We had to introduce Microsoft Teams more quickly in order to be able to organize video conferences faster. For employees working from home, that was a relief, meaning we could continue working together even if we didn’t meet at the office. The One Finance project shows we barely lost any momentum.

Borders were closed for months and some still haven’t been re-opened. What does that mean for internationalizing our business?

Müller: We are continuing to press ahead with our activities abroad. That applies to core markets in the Netherlands, Russia and China. What counts here is that we see these countries as their own separate markets that we want to serve individually from those locations. We’re working to create closer and better connections between the different sites so everyone can learn from each other and to unify and simplify processes. That’s what our MAXIMA project is about in the Netherlands, that’s what we’re doing as we expand our business in Russia, and also in our activities in China.

When will life at DMK go back to normal?

Müller: When someone asked me when things will calm down, I said: Probably never. We are in an extremely dynamic environment and the coronavirus has only made it more so. That means we have to be agile too, and recognize and manage changes. And that’s an additional task for our managers who have to motivate our employees and keep them up to date while remaining open for feedback and criticism. We are seeing that the coronavirus pandemic is by no means over – quite the opposite. We have all learned a great deal in the past few months. In the future, we will go on, armed with this knowledge and taking appropriate care.

Looking back at the last few weeks, what made the biggest impression on you?

Dr. Claassen: I am really impressed by our employees’ flexibility and creativity.

Müller: We talk a lot about our company values. I really feel that we are actually living them, too, when I look back at the past few weeks: Entrepreneurial, fair and innovative.

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