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"My father would have to give up his office"

The age difference between the siblings Franziska and Johanna Graef is just nine months.

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"My father would have to give up his office"

The age difference between the siblings Franziska and Johanna Graef is just nine months. Nevertheless, Franziska Graef always speaks of her "older sister", and in a way as if there were several years between them. In fact, the differences between the two family entrepreneurs are great.

Her parents had decided on two adoptions. Through the organizations Terres des Hommes and the International Social Service they first took in their son Fabian and a few years later their first daughter Johanna. When they were just a few months old, they brought their two children from South Korea to Arnsberg in Sauerland.

A little later, a biological daughter, Franziska, was added. "We grew up like twins," says Johanna Graef. She never felt like an adoptive child and grew up very sheltered and down-to-earth, she explains. The young woman with the long dark hair has not been to South Korea to this day.

Around three decades later, the sisters, in their early 30s, are facing a major test: They will soon take over overall responsibility for the Graef family business. In the 1960s, the company was the inventor of the food slicer for the home kitchen, and to this day it is the market leader in German-speaking countries.

Later, cutting machines for commercial customers such as sausage factories or hotel kitchens were added. Father Hermann Graef, a tall and loudly laughing Sauerlander, who appends a "Woll" to his sentences as confirmation, wants to retire "at the end of 2024 or beginning of 2025", as he says. After four decades of grueling work as a medium-sized company.

Franziska Graef (32) has been with the company for six years and is in charge of marketing. Johanna Graef (33) came to the company three years earlier, directly after studying business administration in Bielefeld and Cologne, and has now worked her way up to sales manager. But unlike the senior, the position in management should not involve so much operational work for the sisters – and it shouldn’t last from early in the morning until late in the evening.

Around 3.4 million companies in Germany are small or medium-sized, the vast majority of which are family businesses. Together they generate a third of the total turnover of companies in Germany and employ a good half of the country's employees. According to estimates, around 38,000 company handovers take place every year. All of this is data from the Bonn Institute for SME Research.

Graef is a case in point. The family business wants to be perceived as down-to-earth, with a commitment to social responsibility for the current 160 employees and to thinking in generations instead of from quarter to quarter.

Hermann Graef and his daughter Franziska, a rather shy woman in jeans and a jacket who listens attentively, came together to the company building in Arnsberg for the interview. The sister is going on her first family holiday in the Allgäu. A few months ago she had twins, a boy and a girl.

"I will return to the company part-time at the beginning of 2023 and initially work half the week at home," says Johanna Graef during a longer video call. Franziska Graef also became a mother last year. Now she is back in the company part-time, a nanny takes care of the little daughter.

"Our rule is that everyone has to work their way up and earn their salary in the company," says Johanna Graef. For her, that meant starting as an assistant, then various positions and finally succeeding the sales manager after his retirement. "It was important for me that my father wasn't my boss in the beginning," says Johanna Graef. The sales manager "definitely didn't spare them" and sent them to the company's own repair shop for household appliances first.

Her sister, who was successful as a rider in show jumping tournaments, built up Graef's marketing, actually she created it in the first place. The change to a brand manufacturer in the premium sector was probably decisive for the survival of the company.

"We were a product-oriented company and not one that was geared to the market," says father Hermann Graef. He realized that the company had no future with cutting machines made in Germany alone. Other devices were added: espresso portafilter machines, coffee grinders and most recently a food processor for bread dough.

Since then, household appliances can also be found in their own online shops or on marketplaces such as Amazon, instead of only in specialist shops or chains such as Media-Saturn. Franziska Graef brought the brand into her time via social media, YouTube videos or kitchen professionals from the blogger scene. She wrote her master's thesis on the connection between emotions and brands.

It all seems to be paying off: Graef recorded double-digit growth rates during the corona pandemic and the months of retreat to his own kitchen. Between 2018 and 2021, sales doubled to 45 million euros. However, this medium-sized company is also feeling the effects of the current demand crisis in retail. In addition, supplier companies have increased their prices by an average of a quarter. Graef is currently doing short-time work in production.

Unlike the father, the two daughters want to organize their work in the management "further away from the operative business", as Johanna Graef says. Strategy, corporate culture and development should be the focus. "The picture of how we imagine the division is slowly becoming more concrete," says Franziska Graef, who first studied law before joining the company and then completed a degree in economics in Iserlohn.

Again, unlike the father, the employees should not come to you with problems, but with suggestions for solutions. According to the family, it was clear to the brother Fabian Graef early on that he was not aiming for a managerial position in the company. Nevertheless, the media designer and photographer also works in the company.

"It is clear to me that my daughters have to find a better balance between working for the family company and life than I did," says Hermann Graef. He himself only ever had time for the company. When his father fell ill, he took over responsibility for the company at the age of 24 right after his studies.

Now he and his daughters are in the process of changing the organization. External managers will be responsible for the business areas of production, sales, human resources and supply chain management. Above this in the hierarchy, Hermann Graef and his cousin Andreas Schmidt, who is responsible for technology, work on the management board – until the father hands over his task to the daughters. There is no exact date for this. But it should be a real separation. "My father would have to give up his office," says Franziska Graef.

The sisters describe each other as "very different". Johanna Graef says about herself that she occasionally suffers from organizational mania and is inflexible in some situations. Her sister is the opposite on these points. However, this means that Franziska Graef is occasionally chaotic. "Sometimes I do something at the very last minute," she admits.

The decision for the family business was absolute, she didn't have a plan B for herself. "I want to carry the company into the next generation," says Franziska Graef. Her sister describes her as responsible and opinionated. "Our paths may be different, but they all lead to a common goal."

The father finds himself with some character traits in his daughter Franziska. "She's not quite as consistent and sometimes does things herself that she wanted to delegate. But that depends on me," says Hermann Graef.

Both daughters describe the father as the “absolute haven of peace” in the family. "Sometimes he cares too much about everything and everyone," says Johanna Graef. Hermann Graef openly admits that. "I was often too much of the caretaker," he says of his work attitude. "But I was also alone with myself." That, in turn, will not be the two sisters.

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