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Manfred Bogdahn

Manfred Bogdahn, World leader for retracting dog leads – Interview

“Businesses need more freedom and less state regulation”

It was his love of dogs that gave Manfred Bogdahn the idea for a retracting dog lead. The head of the retracting dog lead manufacturer ʽflexiʼ likes to compare his one-product company with a world class sportsman focusing on a single discipline and achieving world-class results. His appeal to politicians is for more freedom for business. His criticism: There is too much regulation, costing too much money and limiting opportunities for business.

ITN: “Mr. Bogdahn, at the Hidden Champions summit in October, it became clear that each one of these unknown world leaders has his own personal success story. Can you tell us the secret to your success as the world leading manufacturer of retractable dog leads?”

Manfred Bogdahn: “We decided to focus on this one product: self-retracting dog leads. That is the basis of our success. As a young man, I read an essay by Wolfgang Mewes, the pioneer of cybernetics in Germany. In it he said, ‘Focus on a narrow target group and make yourself the biggest fish in a small pool.’ I could not get this sentence out of my head – it was definitely something I was thinking about when I started with dog leads in 1973.”

ITN: “Besides your focus on a single product, were there any other success factors?”

Manfred Bogdahn: “Looking back, pushing forward an enterprise like this was probably in my genes. Anyone else but me would most likely have thrown in the towel in the difficult early years. I just gritted my teeth in the certainty that I could do it. I have always had visions in my life that have pushed me towards my goals.”

ITN: “Are you a dog lover? The leads create a connection between man and animal, and both have different needs.”

Manfred Bogdahn: “I have always liked dogs. It was being a dog owner that gave me the idea for the business in the first place. I was thoroughly fed up with getting tangled up in a long lead, so I took the pulley starter mechanism from a chain saw and fitted it into a wooden housing to make a prototype.”

ITN: “How important is feedback from dog owners?”

Manfred Bogdahn: “It is the central plank of our testing phase. 50 or 100 models are distributed to consumers, for example, when we want to test a new braking system in practice. Only when they have proven their effectiveness and the dog owners say ‘wow, that’s it’ do we include these innovations in our product range.”

ITN: “Regarding international expansion, where are your growth markets?”

Manfred Bogdahn: “We have a lot of new areas: South America – in particular Mexico – Brazil, Russia and Asia, above all China. We are very active in China at the moment, and our products are very popular there.”

ITN: “Is your strategy of international expansion something you have pursued from the beginning or did your global activities arise by chance in a similar way to how the company was founded?”

Manfred Bogdahn: “The strategy of international growth has been there since the start as it was in my previous employment with other companies. I knew from the beginning that we had to try to have a sales presence for our leads wherever there are dog owners.”

ITN: “Can you list some of the international milestones?”

Manfred Bogdahn: “There is an expo that 40 years ago was not nearly as important as it is today: the Interzoo in Nuremberg. Back then it was held in Wiesbaden and in 1974 we were there with an exhibition stand measuring 4 m2 in total. As it was a specialist trade exhibition, it drew in a lot interested visitors from abroad and we were able to make several good international contacts shortly after the company was founded. Initially, we were active in Europe, starting with neighbouring countries and soon moving further to Italy. I can remember the difficulties we encountered in the beginning in England only too well. People there were very cautious about imports while we at home thought it was only normal to import and export goods.”

ITN: “Your company exports 90% of what it makes. Is there still room for further growth?”

Manfred Bogdahn: “Certainly. If we look at Germany first, we have reached a certain limit. We measure our annual turnover against the number of dogs in each country. In Germany there are around six million dogs and we sell roughly 1.2 million dog leads; that is the equivalent of approximately 20% of the dog population. In industrialised countries our aim is to increase our share to 10% of the dog population. If I tell you that there are around 250 million dogs with responsible owners in industrialised countries worldwide then you get a rough idea of what we are aiming for.”

ITN: “A glance at your company’s website gives an insight into the multi-faceted world of retractable dog leads: leads that go far beyond their actual function and are presented as a lifestyle product. Is this a trend development that you sensed among dog lovers and then responded to?“

Manfred Bogdahn: “In answer to your question: we are working on becoming a lifestyle product. We are the ones who introduced this idea to the market. In doing so I am taking advantage of a number of interesting developments. We have allowed a Japanese company that we supply with standard leads to decorate these leads in Japanese style. The design they have developed is amazing and I can envisage a further cooperation with this company in order to make it available to dog owners worldwide. Of course we are also continuously launching new innovations. At the moment we have a series of limited promotions, for example the Coffee range in dark, medium and light shades of brown. A “Fresh” series came out in Spring to reflect the joy of the season. There is a lot going on in our product ranges.”

ITN: “So, it would be fair to say that fashion and lifestyle aspects are gaining in importance?”

Manfred Bogdahn: “Yes, we have brought out a leather encased lead which has proved very popular. And in Russia in particular, our luxury range featuring Swarovski crystals is highly sought after.”

ITN: “In summary: You are a one product company and adapt that product in myriad different ways to match the zeitgeist, the region and the culture. In other words: A product with a clear basic function can be infinitely varied so that it is possible over time to create hundreds and possibly thousands of products, all of which are in essence the same thing – a dog lead.”

Manfred Bogdahn: “You have hit the nail right on the head. When 300 employees spend all their time on a single product then it is bound to be good. Essentially, we are like a world class athlete whose specialist discipline is the long jump. If he competed as a decathlete then he would not perform as well in all ten disciplines.”

ITN: “At the Hidden Champions meeting we spoke briefly about innovation. Will the technology used in your dog leads evolve still further – perhaps to include radio, a GPS system or other electronic features?”

Manfred Bogdahn: “Electronic features are at the top of the agenda. The cost of GPS will come down significantly in the next few years and is therefore an important priority.”

ITN: “How would you describe your management philosophy, and what characterises your personal leadership style?”

Manfred Bogdahn: “Team work is an important part of the decision-making process. However, on a ship under steam and under sail, there has to be someone making decisions and ensuring that they are put into action. That is my job.”

ITN: “What do you get out of your job on a personal level?”

Manfred Bogdahn: “I get up every morning and look forward to going to the office. My environment consistently confirms that this attitude influences office life.”

ITN: “Hidden Champions face new challenges. As the case of the concrete pump manufacturer Putzmeister shows, even little-known world leaders are not safe from a Chinese takeover. How do you see these developments and their impact on your company?”

Manfred Bogdahn: “Each year we receive at least two or three serious enquiries asking whether we want to sell. So far I have dismissed these entirely, and I am not interested in such a move.”

ITN: “What concrete demands do you wish to make of politicians? Mr Rösler is busy inviting Chinese companies to invest in Germany. What conditions do world market leaders need in order to continue to be successful in Germany?”

Manfred Bogdahn: “Politicians do not have to create any conditions for us; we can do that ourselves. General Secretary of the SPD Andrea Nahles recently said on Günther Jauch’s chatshow, ‘We are politicians and must pass legislation.’ I see things differently. We have so much legislation that we have to take account of what costs us a great deal of money. Parts of the labour protection legislation are damaging to business; all of the laws protecting workers from dismissal serve only to restrict employment. Mr. Rösler is welcome to invite Chinese companies to Germany – that is his day-to-day business. However, he does not know what is really going on in the economy. No politician does. It would be better if the FDP would just get back to its fundamental values. For we need more freedom in our companies and we need people to take more personal responsibility.”

ITN: “What is your opinion of the prevailing crisis in Europe?”

Manfred Bogdahn: “The biggest mistake in the history of the EU was the introduction of the euro in its current form. If it had been launched in the core countries which roughly conform to the same criteria then I would have accepted it. However, the situation that we have today and the growing mountain of debt will lead to a massive explosion in the future. That is why I think it is best to work and live to the best of one’s ability in the here and now so that you have something to fall back on when times are hard.”

ITN: “Mr. Bogdahn, thank you for your time.”

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Export Quota

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