Vor almost exactly a year, Gordon Riske was last in the United States. It’s been a long time for the CEO of Kion – first, he’s American, second, his daughter and two grandchildren live in America, and third, he’s usually over there once a quarter. After all, the group, which has a turnover of almost 9 billion euros a year with forklifts and warehouse technology, also has some American locations. Around 6000 of the 35,000 employees worldwide work there alone.
The pandemic has also kept risks away from home. She has not become a stranger to him, although he has been working in Germany for 30 years. But the 63-year-old from Detroit, who previously worked for the robot company Kuka in Augsburg and the engine manufacturer Deutz in Cologne, hated the division and aggressiveness in the country. In this respect, the handover of power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden this Wednesday is a good date for him. A point of honor for him to watch it live. Riske says: “I am glad that an era of anger, fear and screaming is over – and that we can return to openness, honesty and reliability.”
America’s division is reflected in the workforce
Trump was less able to harm Kion than most other German mechanical engineers, Riske says in his office at Frankfurt Airport, where the former Linde subsidiary is now based in Wiesbaden after many years. Because the company is more global. Kion has around two dozen plants around the world, so trade barriers are harmful, but not threaten the existence of the company. Nonetheless, Trump’s policy also got through to Kion directly – apart from the reduction of bureaucracy and ultra-loose monetary policy, which would undoubtedly have spurred the buying mood.
At one of the locations in the United States, for example, American-Chinese teams developed and built products for the American market, with supplies from China. Due to the punitive tariff of 25 percent, these have become practically unsaleable. Although only a single-digit million amount was lost, around two percent of sales there. But it was still madness. Especially since the division in American society – here Trump supporters, there Trump opponents – is sometimes also reflected in its own workforce.
Riske is a mechanical engineer through and through; he studied electrical engineering at the Lawrence Institute of Technology in Southfield, Michigan. And when he raves about the mechanical engineering landscape in Germany, the many companies, the leading regions, it quickly becomes clear that this is one of the reasons why he feels at home in this country and has stayed so long after moving in 1991. Apart from the attractive places. In addition, his wife is German, a Franconian. He even speaks a little Franconian, he says. In addition, his parents are refugees from East Prussia, and they too show a strong bond with Germany to this day.
After living in America for 50 years, Riske brought them to Germany a long time ago. Today, in their late 80s, they live in Fritzlar in northern Hesse – the place where they got engaged more than 60 years ago. No wonder he will remain connected to Europe when he has reached retirement age, which is no longer so distant. Next to Germany, the center of his life will be Greece, where he already spends a lot of time with his wife – and where there is “the most beautiful light on the planet”.
Booming online trade is helping
Before that, however, the focus of his life alongside his family is the company, his employer since 2007. Since 2013 he has been CEO. Riske recently brought two new members to the board of the M-Dax company and initiated a capital increase. The proceeds from 13 million new shares – around 800 million euros – will be used to discharge debts and invest. Because the CEO expects accelerated growth after the pandemic. The figures for 2020 will not be presented until the beginning of March, but it is foreseeable that Kion and its brands such as Linde, Still, Baoli and Fenwick have been less shaken than many others.
In the first three quarters of 2020, sales had already declined by 8 percent, but incoming orders grew by almost 3 percent despite the crisis. The question will be how which business area got through this year of crisis – i.e. the classic and supposedly more unstable industrial business with forklifts at the top and the storage technology of the subsidiary Dematic, which benefits in particular from the soaring of online trading.
The fact that Gordon Riske Kion has brought about a considerable upswing in recent years with his calm demeanor should be able to win a majority in the workforce. The question remains whether, like many other top managers, he should have spoken louder in the Trump era. Critics in America and Germany complain that the business elite have turned good faces into bad games for too long. “Donald Trump was democratically elected, we had to accept that,” says Riske. “But it is important that you never sacrifice your democratic principles – we did not do that, and we will never do that.”