Meet the Boss: Karsten Wellner, CEO, Ascendis Health
1. What was your first job?
It was in a furniture shop in Germany. It was my dad’s business… but it wasn’t full time. I worked there sometimes on Saturdays as a 13- or 14-year-old to earn some money or during my school holidays.
2. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?
Honestly, nothing keeps me awake because I can sleep very well. I am one of those blessed people.
Of course when investors ask me that question they always want to hear the one answer which they think keeps me awake – the foreign exchange rate. However, that is no longer an issue because we just announced two big deals which will work as a foreign exchange hedge against event-induced volatility in our business.
But what is of concern is having the right mix in our business between entrepreneurial spirit and corporate know-how. So on one hand it is about getting economies of scale in order to corporatise your business to a size where it can be a global player but, at the same time, not losing entrepreneurial spirit. And I think that is the major issue that is important for me. It is not worrying me or keeping me awake, but it is something that I constantly have to focus on and believe is important when I look at our business.
3. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?
The biggest impact on my career was the decision, when I was a student, to do a traineeship in South Africa. That traineeship came with a student organisation called the International Association of Students in Economy and Commerce (AIESEC), and they organised for me a traineeship with Esso Oil South Africa in Sandton. It was there that I fell in love with the country and the people, and it probably actually changed my life. I did my PhD on economic sanctions against South Africa and researched and travelled the country.
I married a South African some years later and have been living here since 2000. So that decision to do a traineeship probably changed my business career and my life tremendously.
4. What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
Whatever you do, do it with passion. And I think that is probably the big advice I am using throughout my life and expect from the people working around me. It was once said in a TV interview that I can’t stand energy suckers; I want to have positive energy contributors. And quite often you have people sitting in a meeting and you can immediately feel whether that person contributes positive energy to the room or consumes energy.
For me it is important to be surrounded by people who have passion, high energy levels and who are positive contributors as opposed to negative, impassionate thinkers. It is important in our business and is how we decide who we employ.
5. The top reasons why you have been successful in business?
Like I said, what I am doing, I am doing with passion. The second reason is I don’t give up. I have some endurance which also comes from [participating] in sport. For several years I did the Ironman. To do the Ironman you don’t have to be the most-gifted sporty person. What is most important is having endurance – your brain has to pull you through those times when the muscles don’t want to work anymore. And it is the same as in the job.
And the last reason is my international openness. I think I am quite cosmopolitan. Of course it is easy to say you are cosmopolitan when living in South Africa and speaking in a German accent, but I have worked in many markets in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa. I have travelled so many markets worldwide in my ex-jobs and I think that opens your eyes to different perspectives and puts things into context.
So I think it is the mix between that openness for different things and passion and endurance.
6. Where’s the best place to prepare for leadership? Business school or on the job?
I think you need both and I can answer that quite confidently because I worked for five years at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, and have been teaching MBA classes in international management and market-entry strategies. You get a mix of quite different people there, like doctors, municipal workers, lawyers, financially-trained people, engineers and self-made businessmen across various age groups. None of them would be able to be as good if they didn’t have some theoretical knowledge. However, if this is not paired with good operational experience, it is a waste.
So you need both and I think that’s why business schools are important next to university because business schools have a more practical approach. But even some really big, relevant, international business schools, only accept people who have actually had work experience. They don’t accept anyone who comes immediately out of university. They first need operational experience.
So I think that there is no black or white answer to your question, you need both. You need the operational experience and you need the theoretical tool kit. For example, you can give a carpenter the best tool kit but if he doesn’t have operational experience, like how to use the tools in his toolbox, then it doesn’t work. It’s the same in business and we see it.
7. How do you relax?
Sport and pursuing things passionately in my private life. If I do sport, I put a lot of effort in. If I spend time with my family, I try to have quality time and not just time.
8. By what time in the morning do you like to be at your desk?
I don’t have a fixed desk. I have an office in Cape Town, Johannesburg and spend quite a lot of time on aeroplanes. Already I have been in 16 different countries this year… So a lot of my time is actually spent going to the airport and travelling from meeting to meeting. So there is no real time when I am in the office.
But I put a lot of hours in. The most important is the quality of the hours and because I travel a lot I have to put in more hours in order to get to the places I have to be.
9. Your favourite job interview question?
I like to ask what [potential employees] have excelled at or done well outside of their job. So we try to find, let’s say, the chess champion, the debating-club president, the guy who has done triathlons and got national colours, or the guy who has climbed Kilimanjaro. Something out of the normal where they show me that they have passion for something. You can ask them everything about the job and they will tell you what they have done, but I try to find that passion or x-factor in the person during the interview. I try to find out what excites them, what makes them tick, what makes them to go the extra mile. I think that is probably a question I ask candidates quite often in interviews.
10. What is your message to Africa’s aspiring business leaders and entrepreneurs?
It is the same advice I give my 19-year-old daughter who is studying at the moment in Stellenbosch: don’t take things for granted and, next to your theoretical education, try doing as many traineeships as possible in order to look into different businesses – even if it is only for two or three weeks. Try to apply for jobs in companies where you can shadow somebody, and even if you don’t get money for it, you will get life experience.
Try to mix theoretical education with practical experience. Sometimes people have this entitlement attitude of thinking because they have studied, they should get a job. But in order to get a good job you must actually show you have done more than just studying. The competition is big and if I have two CVs on my desk – one from someone who studied and has seven As and another from a person with three As but practical experience – I would always go for the person with practical experience.
Dr Karsten Wellner is the CEO of Ascendis Health, a Johannesburg Stock Exchange-listed company which owns a portfolio of natural remedies and wellness-related brands. Prior to joining the group in 2011, he headed up Fresenius Kabi South Africa where he was responsible for the African and Middle Eastern region for eight years. He also previously ran Fresenius Switzerland for five years and oversaw pharmaceutical exports and developing markets.