Interview with SimonsVoss founder and CTO Ludger Voss
“We’re only just scratching the surface of a huge market.”
“My parents gave me one of those experimenting kits as a gift when I was twelve years old. That kept me busy for hours; it was my introduction to electronics. I built all kinds of electronic devices.”
“During my military service, I was in a unit that maintained the electronics of Starfighters. That might seem exciting, but I am not exactly a military guy, and it cooled my love for electronics for a while. My father knew a lot of people in the mining industry and advised me to study that.
So it happened that as an intern I spent a year deep underground with the miners in the coal mines and another three months in one of those gigantic, open pits. I can tell you, that does change your view of things. After that I switched courses and graduated as an Electrical Engineer.
Looking back, coal wasn’t the future anyhow, but that’s easy to say now of course. I broadened my horizons, experienced up close that there are other, very different lives.”
In May of 1996, we were all sitting around a huge wooden conference table. Oliver and I, and a group of bankers from different banks.
Ludger Voss (61) is CTO at SimonsVoss Technologies and one of the two founders. After studying Electrical Engineering, he landed in Munich for a traineeship at Siemens. There, 25 years ago, originated his idea for a completely new locking system that would have a major impact on the entire industry. The idea in all its glory came about this close to being shot down. A story about guts, stress, grit, and love for the idea.
We talk with Ludger at his office in Unterföhring, on the outskirts of Munich.
Ludger has lived in Munich since 1986. “I started flat-sharing with some friends and never left the city again.” Today he lives with his wife and two children in a quiet suburb, right on the other side of town.
Ludger spent most of his youth in Düsseldorf, later he studied electrical engineering in Aachen. Coincidence or not, his birthplace was in Münster, near the factories of today’s competitor Winkhaus. “As toddlers, we played there and the employees gave us small padlocks. We loved that of course. Who knows what they sparked with that.”
So it happened that as an intern I spent a year deep underground with the miners in the coal mines.
You worked at Siemens for seven years before you started SimonsVoss.
“In the final stages of my studies, I wanted to gain some hands-on experience. In 1986 I got an opportunity as a working student at Siemens to do research on speech recognition for my thesis. At that time, in 1986, Siemens already had a system that was a bit like Siri. You could ask a question and the computer would get started with it. Then you could just take your time and get a cup of coffee, catch up a little with your colleague, and half an hour later, you’d have your answer.
I graduated and was invited to work as a trainee at Siemens. That’s how I circled through the company and got to know Herbert Meyerle. He’s the smartest system architect I know. He later became part of our founding team and is now our strategist. Herbert is the man behind all mechanics and electronics. It turns out getting to know him was very important for the creation of SimonsVoss.”
I was surrounded by brochures from that security fair, showing massive switch cabinets and control panels that could operate five or six doors.
The two of you came up with the new company?
“No, a lot happened before that. I had already come into contact with electronic access control at Siemens. Those systems were incredibly unwieldy and not user-friendly. I developed the idea to do that battery-powered and wirelessly. But the idea of pouring it into my own business came from my college friend Oliver Simons.
“We were already earning money together during our studies by organizing student parties. Oliver went to work for McKinsey, but the entrepreneurship wouldn’t let him go. The security market was booming and he stumbled upon a startup that did something with biometrics and access control. Oliver asked me to look into and advise him before he would invest.”
“We went on the road together in Oliver’s car, a five-hour drive to this startup. I was surrounded by brochures from that security fair, showing massive switch cabinets and control panels that could operate five or six doors. Doors that had to be wired, with huge installation costs and expensive parts. That was when I said to Oliver: “Forget about the biometric stuff. This can be much cheaper and safer.” I explained my idea of the wireless solution and Oliver was enthusiastic. He suggested working together and promised to raise the money for our startup. Oliver kept his promise: he arranged a loan of a few million Deutschmarks. He can excite people like no other, especially bankers.”
It took us years before we had a stable and affordable product.
A multi-million loan for an idea?
“Yes, that was unique at that time. We only had a concept and a demo product. In May of 1996, we were all sitting around a huge wooden conference table. Oliver and I, and a group of bankers from different banks. In the middle of the table was our electronic lock, mounted on a wooden frame that you could open with some kind of transponder.
But nothing worked. It was a prototype of a prototype. Oliver talked and talked, and we couldn’t show anything. Towards the end of the meeting, the bankers were really impressed. Maybe, they sensed that there was something bigger behind it. Anyway, they looked at each other and said: “Gentlemen, no venture capital conditions needed here, this is an almost finished product we’re looking at.” Unbelievable looking back. It took us years before we had a stable and affordable product.”
SimonsVoss launching project for the networked locking system was a 44-story office of a leading Singaporese bank.
From one day to another you were an entrepreneur. How’d you feel about that?
“Enormous stress. We were running out of money all the time. Following our business plan, we had to start delivering by the end of 1996. They kept threatening to stop funding and then it’d be all over. At the time, we thought those couple of millions were already a lot, but it ended up being fifteen, and seven years to become profitable.
The turnaround came when, under all the pressure, we decided in 1997 to integrate the electronics even further into the knobs of a mechanic knob cylinder. And that was it. Within six months, we had our first prototypes, and in the meantime, our sales team went on the road with wooden demo-cylinders. It was a madhouse, but we were finally off the ground.”
It’s a garden where you plant ideas and see them grow.
What type of clients bought your products?
“At that time, mainly high-level segment, like banks and universities. Our first client for the networked locking system was one of the biggest banks in Singapore. A demanding client with a 44-story office on the other side of the world. Just to make things easy.
They wanted to be fully wireless and we had to deliver by June 2003, with a penalty clause of one thousand Singapore dollars per floor, per delayed day. You can imagine the stress. To notch up suspense, the project manager had left us shortly before. It was chaos. I went to Singapore myself, together with one of our smartest engineers, to take care of things. Which worked out great: a well-functioning 44-story tower and the marriage to my Singaporean wife.”
From that moment things went upwards?
“Our marketing and sales were strong. That combination together with our technology helped us enormously. Our sales reps connected with traditional key suppliers throughout Europe. For them, our product was a big improvement. It still looked like a mechanical lock, without cables. Even the software looked like a classic locking plan. They immediately felt that they could handle this switch, even though – back then – some of them were behind a PC for the first time. Their knowledge of the market and our solution turned out to be a strong combination.”
We wanted to reach the top and we did.
Oliver Simons left the company in 1999, you’re still there after 25 years. What motivates you?
“For a long time, financing was a frustrating job. That was mainly on Oliver’s plate, and with the arrival of new investors, we had to dilute our share several times. We lost our majority stake, and with that Oliver also lost the joy of it. He had started mainly because of entrepreneurship and there he had to make considerable concessions. While I had started the adventure because of the idea. Our concept just kept developing and so did my pleasure and engagement with SimonsVoss. It’s a garden where you plant ideas and see them grow.”
You’re not the only one who has worked at SimonsVoss for so long.
“That’s right, our staff turnover is extremely low. Partly because our people are enthusiastic about the product and the market. But much more important is that everyone feels part of the family. Mutual trust is high: everyone can express their ideas and we listen to them.
At R&D, for example, we encourage everyone to take a critical look at our product requirements. We want everyone to really understand what we do and why. If someone has a bad feeling about a certain choice, then we help to make it concrete. Behind criticism, there can be a better idea. Sometimes, that provides diamonds.”
COVID-19 may surprise the world, but not our systems.
How do you see the future of SimonsVoss?
“Digitizing mechanical locks is a huge market and we’re just only scratching the surface of it. In Europe alone, our market has 300 million cylinders of which only a small percentage is digital. There’s still so much to do. We also invest heavily in cloud and connectivity.
This allows offering our clients the complete solution as a managed service. Another point is the authentication. Smartphones are increasingly playing a role in this. We want to improve that user experience. Currently, a simple tag or card works faster and more convenient, also in managing it. But we have ideas on how to improve it. In the end, we have since 2003 experience with what is now called the Internet of Things. We’re continuously investing in new technology for more ease of use and better security. Companies and governments deploy our systems to the very highest levels of security. We want to remain the forerunner in this field.”
Behind criticism there can be a better idea. Sometimes, that provides diamonds.
Has COVID-19 impacted your product development?
“COVID-19 touches the heart of our solutions. People work, meet, and move differently than before, with a greater need for flexibility. Also security is becoming more complex, in offices, hospitals, schools, and industries. They need to be able to react extremely fast to unexpected circumstances. This is about more than just COVID-19. Aggression in healthcare is increasing, as are threats around schools and government institutions.
Our answer lies mainly in our marketing and sales, to help translate our solutions to those new circumstances. But for our product development, it’s business as usual. When we talk about a robust access control system, it also means that such a system can withstand change. COVID-19 may surprise the world, but not our systems.”
Has SimonsVoss become what you dreamed of 25 years ago?
“In terms of technology and fun, for sure. We wanted to reach the top and we did. Our first business plan, on the other hand, was a bit too fancy. I had already skipped some zeros for myself at the time and it still looked great. After a few years of struggling, we thought we would either go bankrupt or conquer the world after all. Eventually, we ended up about halfway there. And that’s a lot healthier, I think. The reason we exist is for people. It’s for the employees, for the clients and their employees, for our partners, our suppliers.
On top, we’re financially strong. If we keep all that nicely balanced, we’ll continue growing firmly in the coming years. And then we’ll also have a satisfied owner. Allegion has dozens of security-related companies worldwide. There is a lot of potential to be mined through collaboration. We still have plenty of ideas.”
The reason we exist is for people.
The new SimonsVoss factory in Osterfeld, Germany (Picture: HKS Architekten)