Andreas Tielmann, Managing Director of IHK Lahn-Dill. (Images: Ralf A. Niggemann)
Andreas Tielmann, Managing Director of IHK Lahn-Dill. (Images: Ralf A. Niggemann)

IHK Lahn-Dill

Looking Ahead

This year, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry (IHK) for the Lahn-Dill region is celebrating its 150th anniversary. General Manager, Andreas Tielmann, talks about the business region’s past, present and future.

It would be an exaggeration to call the wood-paneled hall of the Wetzlar branch venerable, as the breath of history is intermingled with a wind of change. And Andreas Tielmann reveals that the past of the IHK and the industrial region has indeed always been a story of change – in the positive sense of the word.

W3+: Mr Tielmann, many people say that everything was better in the good old days. How much does this attitude affect the 150th anniversary celebrations of the IHK Lahn-Dill?

Andreas Tielmann: Not at all, really. It’s definitely not true that everything was better in the “good old days”, but a lot of things were different, certainly. Looking back at the past is not necessarily a nostalgic exercise – it can create the opportunity to put the present and future in a different light. What the past really shows us is the way people managed to master great challenges by focusing on the future. This applies just as much today as it did all those years ago.

W3+: What were the big challenges in those days?

AT: As you know, the IHK Lahn-Dill was founded during the industrialization era, a time when raw materials were being mined and industrially processed. The production and distribution of goods demanded a totally new infrastructure, and this was not so easy in the narrow valleys of the rivers Lahn and Dill. It was in the interest of the entrepreneurs to press ahead with this development, but the responsibility lay ultimately with the princely and royal houses. It was the business community that campaigned against the feudal landowners of the time for the setting up of a Chamber of Commerce and Industry in their region. So the founding of the “Dillenburg Chamber of Commerce” in 1865 and later the IHK Wetzlar is thanks to a citizens’ initiative which pursued the goal of bringing economic progress to the region.

W3+: So the chambers of commerce and industry played a key intermediary role from the very beginning, acting not only on behalf of businessmen but also in the public interest?

AT: It was a question of both. In the course of industrialization, as you know, a transition was made from agricultural to industrial production. This entailed a dramatic change in people’s social life and jobs. They were used to being practically self-sufficient with agriculture as their main source of income. Industry, on the other hand, needed more and more qualified workers with technical or commercial skills. To recognize these requirements of the companies and to train people to specifically meet them was and still is one of the most important tasks of the chambers of commerce and industry. It has ultimately led to our dual vocational training system, which is the envy of many other countries today.

W3+: But the issues you mentioned, infrastructure and education, are traditionally within the remit of the state. How much political influence do you exert?

AT: As regards vocational training, we are the competent authority; we organize the training courses in close cooperation with the vocational colleges. In the field of infrastructure planning we act as a body responsible for public affairs. That sounds technocratic, but in fact it is associated with very practical concerns. If, for instance, the state intends to build a freeway from A to B or a local authority plans a new business park, the IHK has to be involved. This strong position is not the result of a hereditary right passed down from generation to generation, but of the special competence and far-sightedness of the regional chambers of trade and industry. From this position of strength we advise politicians to be able to get an exact idea of current regional requirements and have a positive influence on political decision-making for the future.

W3+: What can we learn from the past for the future?

AT: A great deal! We are not a land where milk and honey flow – or to put it differently: a land where natural resources could bring us decades of growth and prosperity. And we’re not a region that depends on one single industry. That means that industry has always had to keep re-inventing itself to have a future. Take the Isabellenhütte metal works in Dillenburg for example, one of the oldest industrial enterprises in Hessen. Mentioned in a document for the first time in 1482 as “copper works“, it has been owned by the Heusler family since 1827. The Isabellenhütte Heusler is now one of the world’s leading manufacturers of innovative alloys for precision and power resistors. Then there’s the Weiss Chemie + Technik company, which started up exactly two hundred years ago as a glue factory in Haiger. Today, the surface, construction and specialty adhesives of the Weiss company set standards all over the world.

W3+: Are you saying that the specialty of the region is its particularly courageous approach to change?

AT: More than anything, I think it’s the mentality of the people in this region that makes them special: they’ve always been driven by looking ahead. It’s hard to say whether the courage you are talking about was born out of necessity or already inborn (laughs). The motto of our anniversary year, “The Courage to Move Forward”, is no coincidence, and it is primarily the courage of the owners of small and medium-sized enterprises that has made our industrial region what it is today. A major role has also been played by innovative companies such as Buderus. Without them, the development of the industrial region in the Lahn-Dill district might have taken a different course at the dawn of the 20th century, and certainly not such a fast one. And of course, entrepreneurs such as Ernst Leitz made an exceptional contribution in this context, when you consider the conditions in which he revolutionized first microscopy, then photography and, in the process, metrology as well. In turn, many former Leitz employees have gone on to establish their own highly specialized companies.

W3+: You call it specialization, one could call it variety.

AT: That‘s right. All the same, you have to take a closer look. Specialization may mean that a whole region ends up depending on one single industry. That has never been the case in our region. Here, specialization has led to differentiation, engendering a large number of small and highly specialized companies capable of quick and flexible reaction. The same applies to the variety of our local industries. The pillars of our industrial region are metalworking and optics, of course, but we have ceramic and plastics processing companies, engineering and mold-making industries, electronics and sensor companies, etc. that are equally strong.

W3+: Is this rather small-scale structure an advantage?

AT: Looking at the recent development of the global economy, I would definitely say so. Mainstream production is happening elsewhere. In contrast, the companies in our region are concentrating on their unique expertise in high-quality niches. This know-how is valued all over the world. However, in an SME-oriented structure it’s all the more important that all parts interact and play out their common strengths. I’m not only referring to the networking of the industry sectors here, but also to the increasing commitment of the companies to their region.

W3+: How does the pooling of regional strengths translate into reality?

AT: The comparably new initiative Studium Plus at the University of Applied Sciences for Central Hessen is a very good example. Many of the region’s companies have joined this initiative, which originated from a task force at our IHK, because they all have a common goal: to train qualified young people for the future of their business. The industry network Wetzlar Network has set a lot of things in motion in the region, not only because it strengthens the areas of optics, electronics and mechanical engineering, but also because it networks them internally and externally. In turn, the cooperation between Wetzlar Network and the IHK has generated the initiative for an endowed professorship in Optic Technologies and the planned Optics Center in Wetzlar. The companies’ commitment to this pioneering project is truly remarkable. And it shows once again the effectiveness of joining regional forces for advancing the interests of the individual and society at large.

W3+: So everything is pointing to a rosy future?

AT: Whether the future is rosy or not depends on a number of factors, some of which are naturally beyond our control. But within our sphere of activity we can lay the right foundations. In my estimation, the region’s economy has never been better, looking at the region’s innovation potential, the unique concentration of expertise and the many initiatives for securing a supply of qualified employees. Then, as I mentioned, there’s the mentality of the people here, who are driven by courage, responsibility and a clear focus on the road ahead. If we manage to carry this culture, that made us strong in the past, into the future, then we will have every reason to be optimistic.


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