Prym Group – Five Reliable Centuries

We learn how the Prym Group has thrived for nearly 500 years.

When we talk to companies about the challenges they have faced, they will sometimes tell us about recent trials, and sometimes they will talk about difficulties they have overcome within the last decade or so. But when we ask Dr Ansgar Nonn, the CEO of the Prym Group, about the challenges his company has overcome, he takes us back nearly 500 years. to the city of Aachen, in Germany.

“The city was Catholic at the time, but Christian Prym and his family were not,” Nonn recalls. “After a few years, they threw him out of the city because he wasn’t Catholic, so that was one of the company’s first challenges. He overcame this and moved to Stolberg, where we are now, and you can find copper, zinc, and other useful materials.”

In our conversation, it is clear that Nonn views Prym Group’s epic history, and its strong ties to its owner-family, as key parts of its identity.

“What characterises Prym for me is that it is close to 500 years old and has always been owned by the Prym family. That has an impact on the company culture and success factors,” Nonn explains.

“We have a diverse business model, with four divisions and the success factors of each division are very different. They are all, to some degree, selling small metal pieces, but for very different applications.”

The Prym Group is a large, mid-sized company, smaller than a huge conglomerate, but remains the oldest industrial family-owned company in Germany. With an international reach and a staff of 3,500 people, the company has built well on its centuries-long legacy.

“If we were an automotive manufacturer, you would advertise our German engineering, although within our Group the engineering is not done in Germany alone anymore, but what comes with that is quality, reliability, technical innovation,” Nonn says.

“This is what the company stands for. These three attributes are something all four divisions of the company have in common.”

Taking the Long-View

Another thing that has not changed throughout the company’s history is its owner’s commitment to the firm.

“Despite the fact we are approaching 500-years-old there is a strong owners’ commitment to the company,” Nonn says. “Two-thirds of our owners answer to the last name of Prym and have carried that commitment through every generation of the family. Some of our owners are 18, some are 80-something, but they are all committed to the company. Selling is not an option.”

This means Prym has a uniquely long-term perspective to its business strategy that you might not find in more private equity-funded businesses.

“This is about investment. I’ve worked for companies where the first question is ‘What’s the payback?’ and if it will take more than two years to pay off, they won’t follow it up,” Nonn tells us. “Here, the next question is ‘How does it make us stronger?’ even if that is over the next 100 years. We can do things that would be unpopular in a private equity environment.”

New Challenges

The Prym Group’s long history has encompassed several pandemics, but the latest has still had an impact on the company.

“The Corona Pandemic has been a challenge in the automotive industry and the fashion industry, but we’ve recovered nicely from that,” Nonn says. “Six months ago, we also had a flood which caused 20 million euros damage, so we’re cleaning that up at the moment. I’m sure there will be more challenges in the future. It’s more about how you deal with these challenges.”

Indeed, the flood proved to be an outstanding example of how Prym’s longstanding values have helped it to withstand the greatest challenges.

“Our culture as a mid-size, family-owned company is one of quick and decisive action. When we had the flooding here, I was positively surprised by the engagement of the employees,” Nonn says. “If disaster strikes, then being a part of Prym and a member of the Prym Group brings out the best in people. They worked here day and night to clean out the mess. Our people have been quick, active and decisive, with a high commitment to the company.”

That commitment meant that Prym has been by far the fastest company in the region to recover from the flood.

Creating a time with that level of commitment does not happen by accident.

“We have a sophisticated professional selection process for key employees,” Nonn tells us. “Our CHRO, Malcolm Louth, for instance is British. Most of the people we hire, we don’t hire from within Germany. We have a sophisticated approach to selecting people.”

That process continues long past recruitment.

“We give feedback, developing a plan with our staff to let our people grow,” Nonn explains. “At the end of the month what matters most to you is your paycheque and what you’ve learned. Those are big motivators for people to join our company & stay with us.”

Looking to the future of Prym, attracting talent remains a strong motivator for the company.

As Nonn points out, “We’re not up there with companies like BMW, but we’re not the carpenter around the corner, so we position ourselves as a sustainable, responsible decision-maker because we’re international but family-owned, with the size to still make a difference personally.”

Generations to Come

With this team behind it, the Prym Group has big plans for the future. The firm is actively recruiting as it expands, particularly through online channels such as LinkedIn.

“We have a programme with 13-14 items on it to execute over the next few years,” says Nonn. “The focus is growth. There are still spots on the map we don’t cover. The other big challenge is the change to online sales which will be a tremendous booster through the coronavirus pandemic. That is a priority one two and three.”

Who knows where Prym will be in another 500 years, but Nonn is confident that the way the company is structured will ensure it continues for many more generations.

“The governance model is an attractive one. We have our owners, supervisory and professional external management, and no mix-up between them,” he tells us. “There are no owners among the management. The supervisory board is elected from the owners, but they are professionals from the outside world, and help pool the interests of the owners who are a diverse group. Some of them live off their dividend, some make their own living. A lot of family-owned companies are killed because the owners can’t agree on a direction, but this approach ensures the survival of the company.”

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