—— What does acting responsibly mean for a company? One aspect is dependability, says Chairman of the Board of Management of TÜV SÜD AG Axel Stepken. We spoke about security during times of crisis, active commitment and the new awareness of what really counts.
Mr. Stepken, for a company during a time of crisis, strengthening one’s own brand is certainly challenging. What has TÜV SÜD done better than other companies?
I don’t want to judge whether we have done things better than others. What I do know is that there were some things we did correctly and that we perhaps reacted more quickly than others. After all, we were at the epicenter of the outbreak of this illness with our location in Wuhan, China. With that experience, we were able to define three clear goals at the start of the pandemic: the first was that the health of our employees and their families was the most important thing for us. That was always our top priority! At the same time, it was also important to maintain our operations to the greatest extent possible. Even during a lockdown, industrial facilities, power plants and other infrastructure must be safe! Our third goal was to safeguard all the jobs in the company.
How easy or difficult was it to maintain operations during times of restrictions on leaving home and rules about maintaining a safe distance from others?
It was sometimes very cumbersome, since we weren’t willing to compromise the safety of our employees or that of our customers. On the one hand, for example, we kept our network of vehicle inspection stations in Germany open nationwide, but implemented very strict measures: some are physical, such as barriers, hygiene measures, plexiglass panels and partitioning spaces, while others are organizational, as with split shifts. For audits and certifications, and also in the area of training, we were able to offer remote services relatively quickly, thus eliminating the need to be physically present. This all cost a lot of money, of course, but without having taken these measures we couldn’t have kept the business running.
Was it worth it?
Absolutely. We’ve received very positive feedback from customers as well as from governmental agencies. In Singapore, for instance, our very rapid response in supporting the authorities by testing protective equipment and restarting facilities was very well received. The same was true in Italy, where we carried out food testing and inspections of petrochemical plants during the entire strict lockdown.
That puts us right in the middle of the topic of responsibility.
Yes, I think we’ve really shown that we can be relied upon during a crisis. I’m very thankful to our employees, who with great personal dedication—and, despite all the protective measures, still accepting a certain residual risk—have ensured that vital public infrastructure continues to function. Many of the people working for TÜV SÜD are among those who are actually essential workers, without making a big deal about it.
Was the crisis also an opportunity to show the general public how many companies and people are necessary to keep our society running?
The crisis definitely raised awareness of how important certain services are for society. A year ago, who would have been discussing such unassuming yet significant jobs such as geriatric nurses, trash collectors or supermarket cashiers? Or, in this case, the people who ensure technical safety? “Essential workers” have suddenly acquired a face.
Getting back to responsibility once again: What distinguishes a company that is acting responsibly?
That’s not so easy to answer. Certainly the topic of sustainability in all of its facets is an important aspect. Entrepreneurial action that is directed against people, society or the environment would be irresponsible. But I also find it very important to show appreciation for the people who work for the company. By the way, that’s why economic efficiency is also part of responsible entrepreneurial action: only a profitable company can make investments in innovations to provide the company’s employees job security over the long term and be able to pay attractive wages.
And if something does go wrong? How does TÜV SÜD assume responsibility if damages occur despite a variety of safeguards?
Our mission is to protect people and the environment from technical risks. What’s crucial for us is to investigate the cause of any incident and provide a detailed description of the risks. For instance, if a technical accident is caused by an inadequate code or standard, then we help to adapt the standard accordingly—or to improve the testing procedures so that the same type of accident can’t happen again. This continual improvement process, which is also accompanied by ongoing training and a review of in-house processes, is very important and also a sign of taking responsibility.
You mentioned the topic of sustainability. Does TÜV SÜD work in a sustainable way?
That is our aspiration—and worldwide, at that. Our current Sustainability Status Report, which we’ve published on the internet, offers a good overview of our activities. In fact, the issue is even part of the company’s DNA: for more than 150 years, we have been protecting people, material assets and the environment from technical risks, thereby enabling progress and safeguarding new technologies. This is the basic idea behind sustainability. This is where we want to make a contribution to making the world a safer, fairer and, over the long term, more livable place in all respects. Considering environmental aspects, we naturally have a smaller footprint than manufacturing companies, but we still want to reduce our footprint in the future. The agreement on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals from the United Nations also sets out important and specific objectives for this—in implementing them, we can and want to make an important contribution to sustainability in our industry and as a company.
What do you mean specifically?
Take for instance the goal of ensuring access to sustainable and modern energy for all. The continuing development of renewable energy will only succeed if all of the necessary infrastructure is safe and dependable. This requires companies like TÜV SÜD. At the start of the year, we developed a strategy on hydrogen, with which we want to make a targeted contribution to achieving this UN goal. Or another example: the UN goal for clean water and sanitation. This is another area where we can contribute. Our team in Singapore has developed standards for toilet systems that work without major technical requirements or even a sewer system. Simple, affordable concepts that will also work in the world’s most impoverished areas—and thereby prevent illnesses. TÜV SÜD is supporting and championing sustainable action in many fields. Every little bit counts and contributes to the bigger picture. We’re consistently working on this: taking on responsibility for the world of tomorrow.