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Intrapreneur by heart: How a generational change in the family business can succeed

Treating hard water in a sustainable way: This is the aim of AQON Pure. One year ago, we featured founder and TUM School of Management alumnus Maximilan Wilk. Much has happened since: After being nominated for the German Sustainability Award Design 2021 this year, the two founders were also delighted to receive the Hessian Founders’ Award in the category “Sustainable Succession”. We sat down again with Maximilian and talked about how the award came about, what has changed at the young start-up over the past year, and where AQON Pure is headed in the future.

Dr. Ingo Wiedemeier, Konstantin Wilk, Maximilian Wilk, and Minister Tarek Al-Wazir Copyright: JÜRGEN BAUMHAUER | © HESSISCHER GRÜNDERPREIS

Congratulations on the Hessian Founders’ Prize 2021! How did it come about?

We applied this year in June. When it comes to other awards, we have always been a bit of a special case because we are not entrepreneurs in the classical sense, but, as they say in the industry jargon, intrapreneurs. The category ‘succession’ was exactly the right one.  Succession can be quite difficult, also for the person handing over the business. We didn’t just take over the company from our father, we turned everything upside down. My father had a lot of business projects in which he sold water treatment for industry for a few large customers a year. When my brother and I became involved in 2017, we investigated where an easily accessible market could open up. We then saw that the term ‘water treatment systems’ had four million searches – by 2020 it was nine million. The competition wasn’t really strong online yet, hence it made sense for us to try it out. By now, we have thousands of private customers a year and have thus completely switched from B2B to B2C. This makes us future-ready. Our team has grown from nine employees in 2020 to 16 today. In addition to the growth in turnover and staff, we were also able to increase our partner network of installers incredibly. Now, we have 270 partner companies spread all over Germany.

When a generational change in the company is imminent, what are the challenges?

We were well aware that my father would pull out and that the decisions would then be ours to make. What wasn’t entirely clear at times, was the path to get there and how quickly the transformation would take place. We always had a timetable with the goal to hand over the shares in 2021. Until we got there, though, there were many discussions about how to operate in the company. That refers not only to the choice of customers, but also how to communicate, for example.

There is no switch that is flipped and all of a sudden the next generation is in charge. Of course, there is also much emotional attachment and that means that the involvement within the company remains for a long time. As before, though, I totally appreciate my father’s advice because he has plenty of experience. Yet sometimes you have to find your own line, stick to it and say: This is the right way and this is how we do it.

What advice would you give to others who are facing a generational change in the family business?

You should clearly define the point at which the succession should be completed. Furthermore, you should always communicate how you are going to get there. For us, it worked best to proceed in monthly steps and regularly sit down together and review the whole process. In doing so, you should involve everyone and make joint decisions. An external advisor can structure the process well and support communication within the company. We had a consultant who accompanied us for about a year, which was very helpful.

What are your future plans?

We have two specific goals for the future: Firstly, we want to grow not only by acquiring online customers, but also by being included in the stationary portfolio. And secondly, we are already thinking about international expansion. We want to tackle France and England as new markets next year. Our model has proven to be successful here, and hard water exists everywhere. The potential is huge.

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