October 26, 2018. During the International Astronautical Congress IAC, which recently took place in my home city of Bremen, I had an appointment that I was particularly looking forward to. Jim Bridenstine, the new administrator at NASA, paid OHB a visit. The conversation was highly interesting. Bridenstine has defined some ambitious goals which we Germans can certainly help him to achieve. What I personally found most inspiring about this meeting was that I could sense how impressed he was by the fact that a garage business had evolved into one of the top three European space companies in less than 40 years without the backing of any major investors.
No, it was a married couple from Bremen who had set their minds on playing an important role in space travel as a family business. My mother, who took over OHB in 1981 when it was still a ship repair company, was also present during the conversation and explained how a few years later she and my father made the very courageous decision to focus on space technology.
Start-Up and the “David vs. Goliath” Narrative
As a member of the second generation of our family business, I am always impressed by the impact that the story of OHB’s origins has on others. This mixture of a start-up and the “David vs. Goliath” narrative has a special appeal for Americans in particular - this story of a nobody who has the courage, passion and tenacity to take on the giants of the industry and does so successfully has all the makings of the American “rags-to-riches” dream.
I am often asked what makes OHB special for me. And my answer is this: OHB is one of the only independent and family-run space companies that I am aware of. And, if I add the adjective “German”, then I am quite sure that we are the only ones. Another unique feature is that since our stock market flotation in 2001 we have always financed our steady growth internally. We have never had to dilute the shares held by the family in the company. And nor do we have any intention of doing so in the future.
the real value of such a structure lies in the independence
That is why I always stress that the real value of such a structure lies in the independence that it allows us to achieve. We are able to act on a less tactical basis oriented to the needs of the capital markets. As a family-run company, we are able to take a longer-term approach to corporate governance and management. Ultimately, it is the owner who has the greatest incentive for ensuring that the company is in good condition as he has the most to lose. Family-run companies avoid certain dubious things solely out of self-preservation.
family businesses are islands of stability and anchors for continuity
These are important values in times characterized by so much uncertainty and even fear in some parts of society. From this perspective, family businesses can exert greater influence than they may realize on the state of society through their culture and their more sustainable strategy. They are islands of stability and anchors for continuity in these turbulent times. They take a longer-term approach and are ultimately built on human relationships. This is very much in the employees’ interests. This type of corporate culture engenders trust and reliability.
I believe that I can state for us at OHB and quite explicitly for myself as the owner that we are committed to these values. Family-run companies also tend to be willing to work for smaller margins as long as the business is in good condition. This is possible because the company is seen as an institution closely related to the family. It is something that you actually own yourself and this means that you automatically take a different approach. By the same token, employees have to accept all the peculiarities that come with working for a family business. In this respect, OHB is no different from the many thousands of other companies of this kind in Germany.
In the early years, it was great of course because everyone knew everyone else and there was a certain degree of carefreeness. On the other hand, I now appreciate the value of the professional standards applied outside the family culture which have become necessary as we have grown. We must be a modern enterprise without losing our standing as a family-run company. That’s not always easy. But to my mind, the decisive point is this: We are an independent company where OHB employees come to work each day with the feeling of being part of something quite special. This not only has positive effects for the company, but also for society as a whole.
Born in 1962, Marco Fuchs studied law in Berlin, Hamburg and New York. He worked as an attorney in New York and Frankfurt am Main from 1992 to 1995. In 1995, he joined OHB, the company that his parents had built up. He has been Chief Executive Officer of OHB SE since 2000 and of OHB System AG since 2011. Marco Fuchs is married and has two children.