Interview with CEO Bernhard Sommer
“For our industry, trust is a rising topic.”
“At the time, I had not thought about leaving Somfy and the Blackforest at all. But in 2013, I got the opportunity to take up an exciting challenge at SimonsVoss in Munich. I’ve been in Munich for 7 years now, and live close to the office. It’s a nice city and I have grown together with SimonsVoss. We have a friendly no-nonsense culture with open doors and minimal staff turnover. In such an environment, you get to know each other through and through. Many colleagues have been working here from the very beginning. That says a lot. And as a sports fan I’m in no time in the middle of lakes and mountains.”
People don’t leave companies, people leave their bosses.
From hi-tech straight into nature. Which of those do you prefer?
“I need them both. I love technology, it’s an important part of my life. Outdoor sports are great for relaxing. But the main thing for me is the people around me. Helping people grow is my main motivation. That starts with trust. I’m not interested in political games. Be honest and walk your talk.
In the end, we have to get it all done; the bar is set high at SimonsVoss. That also means that if things don’t work out, you have to explain that. That too requires mutual trust and a high degree of teamwork. We see this concretely in our relations with customers and partners. In the end, you are treated like you treat others. I’m deeply convinced of these principles.”
From time to time you can sense that start-up spirit of 25 years ago.
Some of your employees have been with the company from the start. Aren’t lifetime jobs a thing of the past?
“Nonsense. There is more mobility than in the past, but people usually don’t leave companies, people leave their bosses. Often there is something wrong in the way people are managed. And often that’s a lack of trust. We don’t have those issues. I believe we can fully rely on our transparent culture. We take the feedback from our people and our customers seriously.”
Do you meet customers to hear their needs?
“I regularly speak with end users of our locking systems and with our channel partners. We look back, and we discuss their plans and our innovations. We need their feedback. That includes our processes. We want to further digitalize and provide full insight into workflows and order status. Our quality levels are sublime and we like to show that. More transparency means that they can plan their project more efficiently. That’s the whole point.”
Bernhard Sommer (55) grew up in the Black Forest. After studying economics and engineering in Freiburg and Leicester ( (England) he worked for more than 20 years in various commercial and general management roles for the French technology giant Somfy. Bernhard has been the CEO of SimonsVoss since 2013 and coordinated the acquisition by Allegion in 2015. Since 2019 he has also managed Interflex, part of the Allegion group of brands. In his spare time, Bernhard is a triathlete, sailor and amateur pilot, and follows his favorite soccer club SC Freiburg.
Focus on quality may hinder the speed.
“True. But that has more to do with the innovations, those often require more time. We have very little room for concessions. We have many customers that demand the highest level of security. Plus, we promise our customers that our products will remain compatible with new product generations. Such a promise means extra challenges for us. It makes our product development complex, especially with our quality standards.
We develop and produce everything right here in Germany, locally. It’s not the cheapest place, but we are convinced that we have the right people here, with the right knowledge. We have short supply times, all our suppliers are nearby, there are no language and cultural barriers. That quality is more important than anything. Of course, we need to compromise sometimes. When we innovate, sometimes it takes longer than planned. Sometimes it hurts, especially for our sales people and customer who want it to be ready yesterday. But in a way I find it a charming side of our company. From time to time you can sense that start-up spirit of 25 years ago.”
The original production facility has been doubled in size and capacity in 2020.
I like to compare our business with that of the Swiss watchmakers.
In 2015, you were acquired by Allegion, a listed $3 billion multinational. Doesn’t that mean the end of quality thinking, engagement and the start-up vibe? Anything for the margin and shareholder value?
“You’d think so. But David Petratis, the CEO of Allegion, asked me to stay when they took us over. He was clear about the deal: you run the company as if it were yours. Of course, we are involved in financial reporting, compliance and anti-trust which makes a lot of sense, but nothing at the expense of our customers and employees. And we get a lot in return. We’re now part of a global market leader in security technology with over 30 brands and with sales in 130 countries. That brings interesting opportunities. Diversity is the key, that’s what Allegion seeks.”
How is your market developing?
“A number of trends continues strongly, some of them because of COVID-19. The need for better, digital access control and security is growing, organizations are becoming more flexible and there’s also a great demand for smooth integration with touchless access systems, visitor registration and space management applications. Hospitals, nursing homes and schools need special protection and we help them with that.”
I believe that granting each other a decent business is mandatory for durable cooperation.
SimonsVoss influenced this industry substantially for the past 25 years. What else can customers expect from you?
“I like to compare our business with that of the Swiss watchmakers. We are constantly working on the miniaturization of mechanics and electronics. We are at the forefront and have even developed our own chips. We’re in the right region for this and have our own specialists.
Miniaturization is crucial because the new generation of technology is no longer installed outside, on the wall or the door, but in a protected space inside. A door and a lock have fixed dimensions and you have to make do with that. The smaller we make our parts, the more space there will be left for other important things, such as battery life. Our energy management is one of the best in the world, with good reason. You can’t really overrate that importance. It makes our electronic locks virtually maintenance-free. That reliability is of great value to our customers. For our industry as a whole, this trust is a rising topic.”
Does that mean trust is at stake?
“We work in a micro-mechanical and electronic world with stressful conditions. An average door deals with intensive, daily use, with impacts and force, and often with weather influences like humidity, cold, and heat. It’s a huge challenge to make electronic locks that stay robust for more than ten years. This is what our customers expect from us. We see that some of our competitors fail in this and that’s not a good thing. I’m worried about that. We all benefit from trust in electronic solutions.There is still a tremendous market of mechanical locks to be won. We want to turn that into electronic. The least those customers may expect is that their new locks are safer and more reliable than their mechanical ones. Our entire industry has a role to play here. We need to focus maximally on quality and excellent service.”
You may be able to copy a product, but not the culture of an organization.
Maximally? What does that mean for you?
“Our quality level is the highest you will find in our industry. If you invest in our product today, you can be sure that in twenty years’ time it will still work well, that you can still add on, or replace the product, and that it will be compatible with the newer product generations. No competitor can match that. Twenty percent of our employees work in R&D and engineering, that’s a major investment. Together with our excellent service, it accounts for more than 20% of our investments.”
Doesn’t everyone talks about excellent service?
“Yes, so you have to explain it. Service is a broad concept. Fast delivery and our people’s skills are examples of what’s important. The most important thing for our customers is that they really feel that service. To experience that it’s more than just a phone number or a department. That’s in your culture, in the basic attitude of your people. Never leave a customer out in the cold. That’s in our DNA. It may seem abstract, but the opposite is true. Every day, we work hard to protect this. It’s what we stand for and it’s also an invaluable asset. You may be able to copy a product, but not the culture of an organization.”
What role do your channel partners play in this? After all they’re your face in the market?
“Channel partners are crucial to us. They maintain relationships with the end users, and if our service fails, they’re the first to take the punches. But they know how we stand on this. They, in turn, know their local market very well and add value to our solutions. What’s more, we provide a good revenue model. I believe that granting each other a decent business is mandatory for durable cooperation. Besides, if our partners are struggling to keep afloat, our customers will eventually be affected by that too. We will continue to invest in our partners and increase efficiency to save them time and costs.”
Customers want to know where their product comes from and how it’s made.
This year, the new factory was realized. Have you noticed the effect yet?
“The number of orders has increased significantly this year, and we used our new production facility right away for that. In the past, we had to divide the production over two locations, which was a little, logistic monster for us. Now our customers are already profiting from faster deliveries. We will be introducing new products next year and those production lines are ready for that. In 2021, our customers will see more of this on all fronts.”
No grand opening this year. Will it be possible to visit at a later stage?
“The sooner the better. Customers want to know where and how their products are made. We can show it all, everything is ‘Made in Germany’. No need to travel to China. On top of that, it’s a very nice and green factory that we’re proud of. We have a range of environmentally friendly measures and our suppliers are within driving distance of our factory, so we don’t need planes for the delivery of components. This means that we really mean something for our immediate environment. Quite a few families depend on our supply chain and we know many of these people. That makes it even more special to us to keep running at full speed during this pandemic. As soon as it’s possible, we will open our doors. I really look forward to it.”
The new SimonsVoss factory in Osterfeld, Germany