Interview with Dr. Hubertus Schneider on the 60th Jubilee of AHT GROUP GmbH
C.L.: Dr Schneider, congratulations! The AHT GROUP GmbH turned 60 in April of this year – 60 years of company history working in international cooperation. Could you tell us a little about the early years of the AHT and the major company milestones over the decades?
H.S.: The roots of the company go back to 1960 and the founding of Agrar- und Hydrotechnik GmbH by Ferrostaal AG. In the course of the decolonisation of Asia and Africa, new markets opened up and Ferrostaal AG, as a supplier of agro-industrial plants, needed a project developer in advance. With the establishment of the different development aid institutions in the mid-60s, the focus on development cooperation increased. On October 1st 1965, the Dutchman Mr. Johannes C.J. Mohrmann then took over the management of Agrar- und Hydrotechnik GmbH. For years prior to this he had been the head of the agricultural department of the European Development Fund of the European Economic Community (EEC) and so had an excellent, worldwide network. He was responsible for bringing talented experts from various European countries to the AHT and built up the consulting company which has since won the approval of clients at home and abroad and has gained worldwide recognition. In 1982, a management buyout led by 6 senior employees took place and the company broke away from the parent company, Gutehoffnungshütte. The AHT developed rapidly under the new management and, together with the newly founded Gesellschaft für angewandte Fernerkundung (GAF), the Deutsche Projektunion (DPU) and the AEW, benefited from the economic development happening in Germany. In the shareholder agreement of the management buyout, it was agreed that the shareholders would withdraw from the company on reaching retirement age and offer their shares to the remaining shareholders. In 1994, following difficult negotiations, Mr. Gerardus van Wissen succeeded in acquiring all the shares in Agrar- und Hydrotechnik. Mr. van Wissen shaped the AHT over the following decades, expanding upon its business in development cooperation and adding on agricultural interests in Eastern Europe, particularly in Russia, through daughter companies. In 1995, Agrar- und Hydrotechnik GmbH was re-named AHT International GmbH. In the previous year, AHT Group GmbH had been founded, which eventually merged with AHT International GmbH in 2003. I have been managing director of AHT GROUP GmbH since 2005. Under my leadership, AHT has further evolved in its traditional area of development cooperation and both turnover and profits have increased considerably. In 2017 and 2018, AHT GROUP GmbH was bought over in a two-step deal by the RAG Stiftung Beteiligungsgesellschaft (RSBG). The AHT is now part of the RSINTEG Cluster, benefitting from the group of firms through management support, trainings etc.
C.L.: How has the Team Composition changed over the years? How would you describe the AHT today?
H.S.: Today, in 2020, the AHT is younger, more female, more dynamic, more international and more flexible than ever. When I started working at AHT in 1993 as a junior expert in hydraulic engineering and cultivation engineering there wasn't a single woman working in the operative side of the business and, at 33, I was by far the youngest employee. Today, the situation is completely different. We have many female project managers and technical experts, in addition to women working in the administrative areas. Our employees are much younger and come from many countries, and AHT has a successful and flexible approach to parental leave, part-time work and working from home. In the past, employees either left AHT during their trial period or stayed until their retirement. Today we have a larger fluctuation in staff, which has both advantages and disadvantages, depending on the perspective. In general, AHT has managed to move with the times and adapt well to changes in society.
C.L.: Tell us something about the internal structure of the AHT. What company strategies are you following?
H.S:The strategy in recent years has primarily been based on the following principles: 1. Technical organisation of the company, 2. Concentration on the core business, 3. Regional focus, and 4. Building and developing strategic partnerships. Following several company reorganisations (including profit centres, regional orientation, etc.) it was decided to organise the company according to technical criteria so corresponding technical departments were formed. AHT is currently divided into four technical departments: · Water Resource Management and Irrigation; · Nature Conservation, Forestry and Agriculture; · Communal Infrastructure and Governance; and our youngest technical department that was only founded 5 years ago, · Information Technology and Software Development. With this technical focus, we are well prepared and positioned for the most important topics that bilateral and international donors are currently pursuing. Before restructuring, AHT was active worldwide with no regional focus. But country offices founded around the world (in Tunisia, Romania, Uzbekistan, Guatemala, etc.) weren't very successful. This led to the strategic decision of focussing on the francophone countries in Africa and the countries in Southeast Asia. Another important element for the successful implementation of this regionally focussed strategy was the establishment and further development of strategic partnerships in the partner countries. AHT is now particularly successful in countries where long-term, strategic partnerships with local partner companies have been successfully established. We have been working with some of these partner companies for decades and these national networks of local partner companies are becoming increasingly important regarding early information on tenders and the selection and provision of local expertise.
C.L.: You mentioned the "youngest" department at AHT is the Department for Information Technology and Software Development. We live in a world where digitalisation is everywhere, in our daily lives and at work. How is digitalisation being experienced within development work? Can you tell us a little bit about AHTs work in this area?
H.S.: AHT has been working with digitisation and information technology since its foundation. The pioneer in this area was Dr. Günther Keser, who recognised the advantages of digitisation at a very early stage and made sure that AHT invested in these areas. Great examples of this are the development of the nationwide, digital water management framework plans for Tunisia, Jordan and Macedonia in the '90s. A real breakthrough happened in 2015 when the IT Department was converted from an internal service department to a technical department, which independently carries out operational projects. Under the direction of Thorsten Kisner, we have been able to develop specific "tailor-made" IT solutions for our clients in the projects. Most of these are developed using "open source software", meaning the client doesn't need to pay license fees. The IT Department is also responsible for the management of all digital processes in the head office and in the projects, and the specialists of the department are currently working on developing an Enterprise Resources Planning (ERP) system for internal use, which is specifically adapted to the needs of a consulting company. Particularly during the Corona crisis, we've really grown to appreciate the strengths of our IT Department, as their quick action allowed us to continue our daily business even through shutdown without any major frictional losses.
C.L.: How do you see the future of AHT GROUP GmbH?
H.S.: I think the AHT is very well equipped to face the future. The implementation of the previously mentioned strategies we've developed have led to a strong economic and financial development in recent years. With our current technical departments, we are well placed to address the major topics of development cooperation and, with the RSBG as owner, we have a strong partner at our side.
C.L.: Dr. Schneider, thank you for your time.
The interview was conducted by Catherine Lieberei, Head of Business Development and Marketing at AHT GROUP GmbH, in April 2020.