Business efficiency with a personal touch

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Sabine Brünger-Weilandt, president and CEO of Germany's Fachinformationszentrum (FIZ) Karlsruhe.

The information world is a strange mix of commerce and public service. On the one hand, the world benefits from the free flow of information but, on the other, someone has to pay for the work required to make sure it flows and maintains quality.

Sabine Brünger-Weilandt

This puts FIZ Karlsruhe in an unusual position. This well-known provider of databases has its origins in the German government rather than the purely commercial world or the learned societies. It has to compete in the open market but has a special responsibility to consider the social role of scientific information.

Running such an organisation requires someone with a wide understanding of both the social world and the business world. The social agenda would be lost if the business went bust, now that it no longer receives substantial government funding. With this in mind, Sabine Brünger-Weilandt was probably regarded as something of a find when she applied for the CEO job two years ago. She has a pedigree in online information from her early career but went on to develop as a well-rounded manager with skills in marketing and communication from the 'outside world'. Her appointment is having a radical impact on the way FIZ Karlsruhe is run internally and its image in the industry.

For one thing, she has worked hard to raise FIZ Karlsruhe's profile and enhance its brand. This means positioning the company as a quality information provider but also building on its heritage in public service to put it in the forefront of developments in open access.

Bob Massie, CEO of the Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS), has worked closely with Brünger-Weilandt for the last two years through the STN International joint venture. He has been impressed by both her management and communications skills and believes she has already made a significant impact in modernising FIZ Karlsruhe.

He said: 'Sabine is a high-energy and dynamic leader. She is very customer-oriented and an outstanding communicator, in both German and English. She has an impressive flair for language and can captivate an audience with her presentation. She is very analytical but she has a broad perspective, which is useful on the international scene.

Management and communication

'She is also a very good manager, who has re-organised FIZ Karlsruhe along more logical lines and has streamlined it to make it more effective. Looking at it from the outside it was the right way for the organisation to go. She is very people-oriented. I understand that she met personally with every one of the staff of FIZ Karlsruhe who were affected by the re-organisation, and talked with them. You get the sense that, even if they were not happy with the new role, they respected the fact that she took the time to explain the situation. It shows that she understands that organisations are made up of people.

'From what I know, Sabine has been very well accepted in the scientific community for her leadership and knowledge of the information business. She has been invited to serve on several councils and I sense that her star is very high in the information community.

'There is no shortage of good scientists in Germany. What they value in her is the ability to translate scientific information into a business setting and understand customer needs. She has struck a partnership with the Max Planck Institute, which is a real coup. Sabine is adept at making partnerships and creating a win-win situation.'

Brünger-Weilandt was born near Essen in western Germany. She studied German literature, history and philosophy at university, first in Bonn and then in Tübingen, in the south of Germany. She spent a total of six years studying, supporting herself with jobs in a hospital, mostly working night shifts. Later, she got a job as a research assistant to her professor, specialising in 19th century history.

Her professor was involved in an organisation which looked at the history of companies and he was asked by Deutsche Bank to suggest someone who could work in its archive department. He put them in touch with Bruenger-Weilandt and she got her first professional break. She started working at its documentation centre as a historian. Her first task there was to investigate the history of the bank during the Nazi era in Germany.

She said: 'It was at the time when the documentation centre was changing from paper documents to using computers; it was the beginning of the development of databases. I thought it must be interesting for a person educated in the humanities to get some knowledge of how IT works, so I started to get involved. Eventually I was made responsible for establishing the bank's first historical databases, and providing the bank with information such as press clippings and economic data. At the time there were very few data sources and the bank wanted to build up its own resource.'

Her experience with economic databases opened up new opportunities and she moved to the Handelsblatt publishing house; where she was responsible for the GENIOS database, one of the most important German economic databases. She was responsible for sales and training. After four years she moved to a bigger job in a smaller company that produced databases for the insurance industry.

Building business experience

After 10 years in the online-information business she decided it was time for a change. She took a job in a major management consulting company advising clients on strategy. She said: 'I had become more interested in management and wanted to improve my own skills and knowledge. I did some very interesting projects and learned a lot of management theory and about leading people and leading projects. The thing I did not like with that kind of consulting is at the end you give your advice and then you leave people alone with their problems and they have to solve them on their own. That kind of job does not suit my personality. I like to get more personally involved.'

Personal involvement

She saw a job advertised in the newspaper with Greenpeace International. She had never been an active ecological campaigner but she was interested in what it did. At the time, in Germany, the Green Party was at its peak in German politics and she thought the move would make for a more satisfying job. She was responsible for marketing and fundraising.

She said: 'I read the ad in the newspaper and I thought that it might be an interesting experience to bring my skills in management, marketing and information systems to a non-governmental, not-for-profit organisation, and learn about things like social marketing. I joined at the time of the Brent Spar controversy and learned a lot there. At the management level it was very professionally run and there were a lot of clever people there.'

Brünger-Weilandt admits she has a habit of staying in jobs for four years and then moving on. She said: 'After four years it was enough, the people had changed and the board had changed. I had some contact with a big advertising company, BBDO, and I changed jobs. I was involved in planning communications strategies. The focus of my work was developing strategies around binding customers. I worked for clients like Porsche and learned a lot about retaining customers.

'After four years there I read the second newspaper job advertisement of my life and saw that FIZ Karlsruhe was looking for a CEO. I remembered the first 10 years of my career when it was the pioneer time. I now had more experience in marketing and management and I thought it would be interesting to take that experience back into the information world.' She has been in the job for two years but thinks that this time she will settle down and stay for longer than her traditional four years.

She said that she had not expected to get the job because FIZ Karlsruhe was firmly based in a scientific and civil service heritage, having been founded by the German government about 30 years ago. These days it has to earn its keep through commercial business, with only about 25 per cent of its funding coming from the government. Once she arrived she realised that the current government heritage presented challenges for the organisation's commercial approach.

Partnerships are crucial

She said: 'The culture had been formed by 25 years as part of the civil service and many people working there had been there since the beginning. Ideas around sales and marketing strategies, and business development, were a bit strange. Everybody knew that things had to change but knowing and doing are two different things. FIZ Karlsruhe needed a strategy to meet the challenges that it faces and last year I re-organised the company to make it fit for the future. Now we have a clear mission around solutions in information as well as knowledge transfer. Partnerships are crucial to us and the most important of these is the STN International partnership with the Chemical Abstracts Service.'

Recently another partnership has been forged with the Max Planck Society. This is part of a government eScience Initiative that is looking at options for open access. FIZ Karlsruhe is developing the technical infrastructure not just for open access to information but also for collaboration between international teams of scientists.

Brünger-Weilandt accepts that there is still controversy around open access but she believes that someone has to take the initiative and start addressing the challenges, rather than just arguing about whether it will work or not.

She said: 'We will not stop the eScience programme and open access so we decided to get involved actively in it. The publishers are working on new business models around open access. I don't have an answer to the question of who pays for it. At the moment the Max Planck Society is relying on government funding since they believe that scientific information is for the common good. I am still a little sceptical about it at the moment, but I think we will know a lot more in five years' time. The German government is investing in this and wants to get the publishers involved. Maybe in the future we will have two models working side by side. We are a service provider building platforms so it is not for us to impose our own opinions on customers.'

Debating access

She believes that FIZ Karlsruhe is in an excellent position to lead the open-access debate because, historically, it has not just focused on making money.

She said: 'of course we have to make money because our staff have to be paid, but we are not just focused on the commercial side like other publishers. We try to produce an excellent service. Customers like that because we have integrity; we would not do anything just for money.'

Brünger-Weilandt spends much of her time travelling around the world visiting customers and finding out what they want from information services. She is using her background in 'customer retention' to develop a strategy that is focused on customers' needs rather than what is convenient to the organisation. She said: 'Customers have to justify their costs to their own management, who are asking them why they cannot get information free from Google or something. They need to be understood by the information providers and given information by those providers to help them justify the cost of the service. I try to understand customers as people rather than just a source of money. It's more like collaboration than simply being suppliers.'

Curriculum Vitae

1982 History, German language and literature, pedagogics and philosophy at the universities of Bonn and Tübingen. State examination in Bonn

1982-85 Head of EDP and documentation, Deutsche Bank head office (Frankfurt/Main)
1985-89 Head of sales of the Frankfurt/Main branch office of the Handelsblatt publishing house; responsible for the GENIOS databases
1989-93 Authorised officer/ member of the managing board of ASSDATA Assekuranz Datenbank GmbH (Karlsruhe)
1993-95 Senior consultant, Mummert + Partner Unternehmensberatung (Hamburg)
1995-99 Head of the communications and service department, Greenpeace Germany, member of the managing board (Hamburg)
1999-2000 Independent management and communication consultant (Hamburg)
2000-01 Head of strategic consulting, MSBK Proximity/ BBDO Group (Hamburg)
2001-03 BrüngerWeilandtConsult (Hamburg)
2003 President & CEO, to date Fachinformationszentrum (FIZ) Karlsruhe

John Murphy