Alois Kinder: Dialogue with an Adventist businessman in Austria
Optimo is a manufacturing company that represents Christian optimism at its best. It had its birth in Braunau, Austria, the town where Hitler was born. There ends the comparison between the two. Founded in an abandoned cowshed to provide work opportunities for students at the nearby Adventist Seminary in Bogenhofen, Optimo has had a unique history in post-war European business. Its primary function is to put people to a good night of rest. Modern beds, bedframes, and mattresses of all types, manufactured with high-quality standards under the brand name of Optimo, are well known in Austria, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Scandinavia, and many other countries.
In the beginning, during the post-war economic struggle, Optimo found itself a dwarf fighting for survival in the midst of manufacturing giants. It had to compete with 17 other companies in the bed-making business. But after years of steady growth, Optimo is today the larger of two bed-frame makers in Austria. From a little cowshed, the company has grown to become a manufacturing center that operates from six enormous halls, producing 2,000 bedframes a day as contrasted withy 1,600 per year in 1955.
The man behind this remarkable success story is Alois Kinder. But he would be the first to deny any such personal credit. To this Adventist businessman, all glory must go to God. Kinder sees Optimo as a business that was born with a great dream, and it is that vision and faith that helped in the success and growth of this company.
Alois Kinder is a self-made man. At the end of World War II, he and his German family had to flee Yugoslavia, leaving everything they had. The flight took Alois to Austria where he worked on farms and took care of cows. But God had other plans for him. At the suggestion of a cousin, Alois joined the Adventist Seminary in Bogenhofen. The seminary business manager saw an industrious potential in Alois and drafted him in getting Optimo on its feet. Alois immersed himself so fully in the project that he soon became the head of Optimo, and turned it into what it is today.
Retired in 1996 and with the day-to-day operations of the company in the hands of the next generation, Alois Kinder continues to bear witness to what God can do through committed and
Would you see yourself as a self-made person?
Not quite. You see, I was never alone. I always felt God’s guidance in my life. Everything I have done—including Optimo—is a gift from God. He gave the talents, the motivation, and the ability to move ahead. He helped me turn every liability into a possibility. I did not have formal education. The war caused my family to leave our home and everything we had in Yugoslavia. But then, I was never alone. God was good to me.
From the time you founded Optimo, you immersed yourself so fully into this project that all who knew you said that you were married to Optimo.
Even my wife has made that kind of joke! But success in any endeavor cannot come without total commitment. Of course, that does not mean one should get so preoccupied with business that it affects one’s relationship in other areas, such as God or one’s family.
When we were building up the company, I found myself torn between my desire to achieve success in business and my duties as a husband and father. It was not uncommon for me to work well into the night and then go on a business trip. There were occasions when I hardly had any free time to be with my family. However, I always knew I could not let business diminish my love and closeness to my family. More important, my wife and children knew that, too. The household was in my wife’s very capable hands. She had a great understanding of my situation. And I am grateful to God that our three daughters had the same feelings.
The business world today is a harsh place where human kindness is hard to find. Has this been your experience, too?
Life seems to have changed dramatically in recent years. Right after World War II, when poverty was common, people were not as arrogant and indifferent to one another as they are today. In those days, when I visited clients, I got to know them and also their families. “Take a look through the house!” was an invitation I heard often. I knew the children. Often these children would become heads of their parents’ business and then become themselves my clients. In those days, human kindness was expected and freely given. Today, in the age of super technology and sharp competition, everyone and everything seems to have become part of a gigantic machine. An invisible wall has risen between individuals—in the community, in the workplace, and even in the church.
You mean coldness and mistrust have crept in everywhere?
For sure. Let me tell a personal experience. Not too long ago I was visiting a client, and he told me, “Mr. Kinder, kindly sit here, and please do not go through the furniture store!” I was surprised and unsure as to how to react to such statement. Although I wanted to walk around in the store, as I usually do, I was prevented from doing so. The explanation came later. It was feared that I could be spying for the competition. A ludicrous idea, but that is how things are today.
In the difficult world of business, is it possible to practice Christian principles? Would you encourage Adventists to enter the business world?
Yes, I certainly would. But it is important to have solid principles and to stick to them. Practically all my business partners know that I do not drink or smoke and they refrain from certain activities when I’m in their company. They accept this and, in fact, they respect my principles. People like to do business with those who have a reputation for integrity. As our Lord said, “‘Simply let your “Yes” be “Yes,” and your “No,” ‘No”’” (Matthew 5:37, NIV).
How extensive is Optimo’s business?
At the beginning, Optimo was manufacturing only bed frames. Later, mattresses were added. Today, we can rightfully say that we are responsible for the restful and healthy sleep of the Austrians. I am not exaggerating when I say that most Austrians and many Germans sleep on our products. We deliver to 1,000 furniture stores in Austria, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Scandinavia and even Israel. Thirty-nine percent of the goods we produce are exported.
Human relations play a major role in the success of a company. As an entrepreneur and a successful businessman, what would you say about this?
Without adequate and proper human relations, nothing in life can succeed. Even when making difficult and perhaps negative decisions in business, one must not diminish the dignity of the other person. I have always tried to respect the human quality in others. This is very important. People become aware of this and tend to reciprocate. Such an approach has practical consequences too. Even to this day, trade unions have been unable to gain a foothold in our company and, as a result, drive a wedge between management and workers. They still come now and again to try to convince our workers to join them, but no one is interested.
How do problems in the workplace at Optimo get solved?
People in leadership positions need to show understanding and empathy. At Optimo, we seek to understand people from their perspective and then begin to tackle the problem. Some times it may be necessary to go some distance—that extra mile—to meet people where they are. After retirement, my special task is to dialogue with our workers. Many of them have numerous problems. Their marriages may be on the rocks. Women may need flex time to care for their family responsibilities. Each employee is different, and each problem is different. We try to listen. We show understanding. That kind of a relationship usually creates a good environment in the workplace.
Company bosses are often authoritative with their workers. How is it at Optimo?
A business can be run in two ways. First, the autocratic way. The manager lays down the rule, sets the objective, and expects the workers to do the job. Work gets accomplished, but at a price. The second way is the more pleasant one. The administrator views the workers as partners. They are all in it together. There’s give and take. There’s cooperation. Work becomes a joint venture. This is what Optimo has tried to do. Often I have joined employees at the workbench. My co-workers are my friends. Often they have better ideas on how to perform a task faster and more efficiently. I recognized and honored them. We sought to achieve a common business objective together. With that kind of atmosphere in the company, one can accomplish much more.
As a Christian and a successful businessman, what would you say is your business philosophy, and what would your counsel be to Adventist young men and women planning to get into business?
My philosophy of business is rather simple. We are stewards of what God has entrusted to us. Whether it is business, industry, education, or any other profession, what we have is not ours. It is a gift of God, and we need to sense God’s ownership and manifest our stewardship. Success and personal fulfillment will come naturally with commitment to that kind of a philosophy. Adventist youth aspiring to enter a business or an industry must ensure that their doing so is motivated by a desire to fulfill God’s will for them. Materialism should hardly be the motive. Become a channel of God’s blessings, and you will see true joy and fulfillment in life.
Interview by Hans Matschek. Hans Matschek teaches English at the Seventh-day Adventist Seminary, Bogenhofen, Austria. Optimo’s address: Industriezeile 10; A - 5280 Braunau, Austria. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org