Daniela and Emanuel Steiner
After studying at the University of St. Gallen, Daniela Steiner worked for Partners Group in New York and San Francisco, where she was responsible for Venture & Growth within the Investment Team. Inspired by the start-up scene, she returned to Zurich in 2013 and founded HEYLIFE, a drinks company that she later sold. It was around then that she met Emanuel Steiner. Following studies at Columbia and Harvard, he worked for BCG in Zurich before creating FELFEL. Today, Emanuel Steiner leads the company as CEO and Chairman of the Board of Directors, focusing on strategy, product innovation and customers. His wife Daniela Steiner is on the Board of Directors and Executive Committee, where she is responsible for product development and corporate culture. The family-run business with locations in Lausanne and Zurich – and partners throughout Switzerland – is shaped by the trust, motivation and passion of every individual at FELFEL. FELFEL uses an intelligent fridge to provide companies throughout Switzerland with food that is healthy, affordable and easy to access.
Watch an extract from the interview
What has changed most over the last three to four months?
Emanuel: Before coronavirus, hardly anyone ever said thank you for the – at times tough – task of leading people. The crisis has given leaders a platform on which to prove themselves to their teams. This period has demanded some specific leadership qualities. Team members appreciated or came to appreciate bosses that took the initiative and cared about their wellbeing. I think this is something that will remain.
What challenges did you face?
Emanuel: We learned how important it is to invest time in communication. We never understood before why you need someone for internal communications. Now we get it. It takes a lot of time and effort, it’s extremely important and it’s hard – especially if you can’t stand up and talk directly to your people but have to communicate through a screen on Google Hangouts or Zoom. We made a bit of a faux pas when communicating our remote working policy, for example. We focused too strongly on the people who could work from home and forgot that a sixth of our employees have to come into work because they’re in the warehouse, installing fridges or creating products. So it’s really vital to be inclusive in all communications. To ensure you don’t leave anyone out and do keep everyone in the loop.
It’s really vital to be inclusive in all communications. To ensure you don’t leave anyone out and do keep everyone in the loop.
What other lessons learned in this crisis will you be taking with you into the future?
Daniela: The first reaction is usually to be on the defensive, to hide away; whatever you do, don’t say anything, just wait until customers approach you. We consciously did the opposite of that quite soon. I think this was one of the biggest lessons learned during this phase – that’s it’s worth proactively approaching people, developing relationships, creating transparency and seeing what you can do to help.
It’s worth proactively approaching people, developing relationships, creating transparency and seeing what you can do to help.
With hindsight, is there anything that you would have done better or differently?
Emanuel: Never stop hiring. When everything was looking so uncertain back in February and March, we decided to freeze plans to hire 40 or 50 new people. We’re now having to make up for every week we waited. This is time that’s difficult to claw back. Over the next year, we’ll be looking for 70 new people. If you’re in a high-growth business, you should never stop hiring.
If you’re in a high-growth business, you should never stop hiring.
Will the way you work change forever?
Emanuel: Employees, especially of big organizations, have now demonstrated to their employers that they can work very well from home. These companies will be much more comfortable with remote working in the future. I predict that they’ll get rid of large offices. But they will still need a base where people can get together; it’s very difficult to cultivate corporate culture via Zoom. To get people back into the office, you need to offer an attractive space. In Switzerland, the hurdle for returning to the office is relatively high as so many people commute. So I think that many organizations will reduce their office space but will invest more instead in the space they do have and the quality of that space. That starts with nice furniture and ends with food – with FELFEL.
Daniela: The culture issue is something that’s still not entirely been resolved, it’s a topic many companies need to think about. In Switzerland we have a large service industry and I think clients ultimately often choose their provider because they have a cool culture and great people. This will be the big challenge and many will have to think about how they want to do things in the future, how they’re going to cultivate culture.
The culture issue is something that’s still not entirely been resolved, it’s a topic many companies need to think about.
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