Matthias Schulz on Staying Relevant in an Ever-Changing World

Matthias Schulz joined Otto Krahn Group in 2018 to drive its digitalization initiatives, gradually moving into his current role as Director New Business and Innovation at Otto Krahn New Business. He has more than 15 years’ experience in management and business development functions at start-ups as well as established companies in the e-commerce space before joining the chemical industry

by Rachel Johnson | Apr 18, 2023

“History has already shown that companies, as well as their leadership teams, need to be open, curious, and prepared to take risks about future topics if they don’t want to be obsolete one day.”

1. What are the most important drivers of business today?

The chemical industry is still in the early stages of a transformation into a sustainable and circular economy. This transformation requires a level of innovation that can hardly be done as an internal R&D activity. Thus, an openness for external input with new ideas and technologies, a collaboration with start-ups developing these as well as building new partnerships for future circular value chains is core to building the business of the future.

2. What are the biggest challenges?

In my eyes, the main challenge is the move from a linear value chain to circular streams of materials. With high investment needs and the “circular economy” already being used heavily as a buzzword, the biggest changes in the value chain still lie in front of us. It won’t be an easy transition – especially if our economy is affected by one crisis after the other.

Digitization – often proclaimed to be one way to reduce costs – is also still in the beginning stages in the chemical industry. Due to the complexity of materials and the need of technical expertise, there still haven’t been any breakthroughs in digitization of sales channels. While I see good examples of the digitization of processes, it’s not always easy to use innovative approaches from start-ups in the production space.

3. Which innovations and tech trends do you find particularly exciting?

Obviously, my focus right now is on sustainability innovations: I’m super excited about the amount of innovations and start-ups dealing with sustainable alternatives – be it bio-based chemicals, polymers, or even fillers. In addition, we are looking out for players who deal with end-of-life scenarios of today’s products, develop circular services and structures, or those who develop technologies for an industrial CO2 reduction or production of sustainable energy.

4. What thought leader has inspired you?

An important thought leader for me was definitely Simon Sinek with his book Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action and the “Golden Circle” model. It provides not only a valuable approach on how to define a company’s strategy, but the book also helped me to personally deal with uncertainty in my roles as innovation activities and new ventures involve a lot of uncertainty. If you define your objectives and measure your success based on a why and some kind of progress towards a future vision, you can still be highly motivated even if the individual projects might fail or don’t get enough support and acceptance.

5. Why do cultural change and digital transformation go together?

Digital transformation also means a change from an isolated internal innovation to an (open) innovation approach with start-ups, partners across the value chain, and even cross-industry networks. Most of the current business challenges cannot be solved by a single player alone. Increasing focus on innovation and external exchange won’t be possible without an adaptation of the internal culture.

6. In one sentence, what is one topic we shouldn’t be discussing in five years?

We should leave behind the debate of if companies need cultural change towards an innovation and purpose-driven mindset to stay relevant in the future – driven by both, the expectation from customers as well as the new generations of employees.

7. What makes companies and leadership successful in the long term?

History has already shown that companies, as well as their leadership teams, need to be open, curious, and prepared to take risks about future topics if they don’t want to be obsolete one day. They should invest in their people, create spaces to be innovative, and remain attractive for employees.