It is no secret that successful entrepreneurs tend to be extremely adventurous folks. Examples include Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, who has kitesurfed across the English Channel, and Mr Elon Musk, the mastermind behind SpaceX and Tesla Motors, who once wing walked on a bi-plane mid-air during his vacation.
Perhaps the commonly held view that entrepreneurs are born, not made is true. If so, then Mr Peter Michael Belz, founder of AEB GmbH, can be seen as a poster boy of entrepreneurship, together with Sir Branson and Mr Musk.
But while the smart businessman can definitely be described as a risk-taker, he, however, believes there is a more important trait than that to be a successful entrepreneur.
“It takes more than just being a good salesman or an adventurous person. I greatly believe in the business of treating everyone, including my employees and customers, with respect. This is why till today, AEB is still managing customers whom we have partnered with since our establishment in 1979. We also still have employees who have been with us for decades. I think my belief to be a gentleman with others has an effect on them,” said Mr Belz, who founded PMB GmbH in 1973, and it eventually became the parent company and service provider for established subsidiaries AEB and AFI GmbH.
In this issue of Supply Chain Asia magazine, Mr Belz recounted his adventures that made him who he is as a businessman, discussed AEB’s unique selling point and shared the company’s hopes for the thriving ASEAN region.
From the Alps to the Middle East
People say your twenties is the time to find yourself and discover who you are. It is the same for Mr Belz, though unlike others, his period of self-discovery took him all the way from Austria to Syria by road.
“I chose to continue my education in Austria, mainly because this allowed me to ski often in the Alps. Then, while I was in the University of Graz, I met someone who was looking for a partner to drive all the way to Africa. It sounded like such an interesting adventure, I barely thought twice before accepting it,” said the Stuttgart-born, who studied mechanical engineering for his degree.
The two gentlemen then drove south to Turkey, cutting through Syria and ending up in Jerusalem. In those days, the Iron Curtain was still in effect. Travelling through Europe by road was not as safe and convenient as it is today.
“It was quite a dangerous period, but our trip went relatively smoothly until we reached Jerusalem. Unfortunately, the city was closed and we were unable to cross to Egypt to reach Africa. We had no choice but to backtrack and find an alternative route. When we reached Damascus, however, my partner suddenly left me! I was stranded alone and penniless in a foreign land,” recalled Mr Belz, who managed to return home safely since his father reported him missing to Interpol.
But the most important takeaway from this adventure wasn’t his ability to overcome adversity, nor his calm demeanor when faced with a dire situation. The critical takeaway is the lesson that the Syrians taught him on how to treat others, and this lesson became a critical part of Mr Belz as a businessman and a human being.
“Why is it important that I tell this story? It was my very first experience with foreigners. Syrians took me in without expecting anything in return. They gave me shelter and food and showed me around the beautiful city of Damascus. This experience deeply founded my belief to be open and friendly to people,” shared Mr Belz, who is understandably saddened by the current condition of the war-torn country.
Upon his graduation, he worked at Allianz and liaised often with shipping companies. His interest in the supply chain and logistics industry further grew when he temporarily became a seaman on a ship to Nigeria. When he subsequently worked at IBM for almost ten years, it is no surprise that Mr Belz’s professional background eventually shaped his expertise in selling software that supports supply chain and logistics operations.
More than just selling software
According to research firm Gartner, at 10.8 per cent annual growth, supply chain management and procurement applications outpaced most software markets to total $9.9bn in 2014. In such a competitive market, how does AEB stand out from the rest?
“I think the combination of service craftsmanship, which includes competency, reliability, availability, friendliness and trust, coupled with effective software solutions, make us special. A lot of our customers have continued to be with us for a number of years. The fittings specialist Häfele in Nagold and AEG in Winnenden were among the first customers of AEB. To this day, seven of the first ten customers are still AEB clients – this is proof of a longstanding, trusted cooperation,” said the founder.
There are no boundaries for AEB when it comes to fulfilling customer service to the best of their capabilities. The company even believes in following their customers outside the comfort zone to expand their reach.
“If our clients have already established a solid base in Europe, why not be by their side when they reach out to the Asia Pacific market? AEB did this for Epcos (now part of TDK Group) and Infineon. We followed Epcos when they set up their factories in Penang and Malacca. We learnt that friendliness and reliability are some of the key characteristics that are important to Asians, and we are very serious in ensuring that AEB is able to fulfill these traits,” explained Mr Belz, who believes in the importance of meeting the demands of his clients to a T.
“When companies choose to adopt a massive system, every minor customisation can easily implode into a huge project. Our system is flexible and robust enough to be easily customised, which is why our clients stay with us from the start. Imagine a company that invested about 40,000 Deutsche Mark (worth US$16,700 in 1976, and US$70,000 in 2016) some forty years ago into a software that is still relevant today. Can you imagine the return of investment on that? It’s unbelievable, but that’s what we have done,” shared Mr Belz, who had received many prestigious overseas job offers but chose to develop his own companies. While AEB’s system has to be tweaked from time to time, Mr Belz believes it is up to the company to make the necessary updates without a system overhaul.
“This is what makes us special to a certain degree. This has allowed us to be successful for 40 years, and I am confident that the principle that lies behind what we are doing will continue to provide us success for another 20 or 30 years,” added Mr Belz.
Capitalising on Asia’s growth
This is an exciting time for AEB in Asia Pacific. In the next five years, AEB plans to build its existing customer base and channel partners, while continuing to enhance the company’s value to multiple service providers and manufacturers in the region.
In addition, due to the development of Free Trade Agreements, many companies in this region are expected to take the opportunity to sell outside of the borders of their respective country. The importance of trading securely and safely will become even more paramount, and this is the gap AEB’s solutions are expected to fill by providing solutions that mitigate the risks related to compliance. With AEB’s establishment of a regional office in Singapore 15 years ago, the company is confident that its understanding of the region and investment in Asia will pay dividends.
“We have all the core capabilities in Singapore, such as a team of project managers, technical service staff, as well as a sales and marketing department. Throughout the years, we have established partnerships with local companies in the region, even those outside of Singapore, such as the Philippines and Indonesia,” says the German.
Retirement? What retirement?
It seems Mr Belz takes the quote if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life quite seriously. He enjoys traveling and meeting new people so much he has not seriously considered retirement yet. In fact, he has not even considered taking a break from his adventures.
“Adventures are a permanent fixture in my life. Just this year, I rode my bicycle for roughly 800 kilometres from Stuttgart to Italy through the mountains of Switzerland in the rain. It took me 14 days and I was alone. I had my drawing materials with me but since it was pouring, I was not able to draw during the trip,” recalled the 78-year-old businessman.
During his current travel to Singapore, Mr Belz has also remarked on the number of Germans living in the country, and the importance of trade partnership between Germany and Singapore.
“Recently, we had a meeting with the German ambassador on Germany’s national day. The first person I spoke to there was from Häfele, my first client for AEB – what a coincidence! The world is so small. Many German companies are very much engaged with this region. There are about 20,000 Germans are living in Singapore, with more than 1,500 German companies setting up their bases here. Germany is the largest trading partner in European Union for Singapore and I am impressed with both countries’ partnership,” commented Mr Belz, who is a strong believe in long-standing, trusted cooperation.
Due to the strong partnership, AEB is expected to continue to establish its presence in Singapore to reach out more intensely into the region. “We have been positioned here for over a decade. It is an excellent platform for us to tentacle out to other countries. Everything is perfect here to communicate with our colleagues and clients. We feel very much at home here,” added Mr Belz.