Navigating digitally
through the crisis

Journalist: Editorial team of ceo | Photographer: Marc Wetli | Magazine: Work in progress – November 2020

During the global pandemic, logistics and transport have proven what a vital role they play within the world economy. Kuehne+Nagel is a Swiss company at the forefront. CEO Detlef Trefzger is steering the group through these challenging times with a steady hand. He relies on digital technology, the expertise of his teams and shared basic values – while consistently optimising the sustainability of the company’s operations.

During his seven years as CEO of Kuehne+Nagel, Detlef Trefzger has never experienced anything like this before. In the usually busy headquarters of the global logistics company Kuehne+Nagel
in Schindellegi, high up overlooking Lake Zurich, there was nothing but silence at the end of May. Nevertheless, the company didn’t stop for one second. And nowhere did the company’s international business grind to a halt. It was able to seamlessly deliver services, wherever possible from a legal and customer perspective, explains Trefzger, who manages the global organisation that employs around 80,000 people in more than 100 countries.

“Being a leader means setting clear objectives and motivating the team to achieve them.”

The majority of Kuehne+Nagel’s employees were working from home at the time. The company has coped well with the business environment that arose as a result of the economic lockdown during the first half of 2020 in many countries. The workforce has been connected together for a long time using standardised digital systems and a communi­cation platform with video conferencing.

Employees working remotely

Even though it wasn’t possible to predict what the consequences of the pandemic would be, Kuehne+Nagel was prepared, not least thanks to the early investments it made in its communications and IT structure, and in the expertise of its teams. Within just a short period of time, 45,000 employees around the world, representing more than half of the total workforce, began to work remotely – supported by the group-wide business continuity plans. It was a logistical masterpiece. Trefzger himself had a feeling early on that something might happen to the company and to the world. He first heard of the virus at the start of the year. The group employs 5,500 people in China alone, and also has a presence in Wuhan in the province of Hubei.

Dr. Detlef Trefzger (57) has been CEO of transport logistics provider Kuehne+Nagel Group since 2013. Previously, Trefzger worked at other logistics service providers including Schenker, as well as at the Siemens Group and Roland Berger & Partner.

For our interview on the working world of the future, Detlef Trefzger naturally suggested doing it via video conference. The digital transformation which was launched a while ago at Kuehne+Nagel was further accelerated by the COVID-19 crisis – as was the use of digital commu­nication technologies. Fast internet and secure data connections are common within our country but not in every corner of the world of course. The decline in production and reduced global demand also affected the business at Kuehne+Nagel, although the impacts of the crisis were felt less severely than elsewhere.

Digital platforms drive efficiency

The company began a targeted transformation process a number of years ago – centred around the interaction between customers, technology and employees. In this process, Detlef Trefzger can continue to build upon a culture of trust and selfresponsibility. Even before the outbreak of the crisis, the employees were using a lot of digital technology, the CEO tells us. The internal collaboration platform that is used throughout the group allows employees to keep up to date with what is happening at all times. Thanks to this platform, everyone has access to important internal infor­mation, but the CEO also communicates regularly with the global workforce by video through his “CEO Talks”. The general content on the platform is designed to reinforce the shared values as well as to improve and facilitate processes and work. What is relevant for the employees also receives the necessary attention. The head of the group emphasises that the internal platform drives efficiency throughout the entire company.

Internal continuous training is a top priority

According to Trefzger, it’s vital that employees have access to continuous training and that they remain open to new ideas and initiatives. Continuous training is a top priority within the group. And there are special programmes in place for the 1,000 or so apprentices to familiarise themselves with the systems. Managers of all grades must give their employees the opportunity to become qualified in line with the continually changing requirements of new tech­nologies. The in-house platform allows employees to define their own individual learning plan with a free choice of topics. This encou­rages independent learning outside of the office environment too.

Founded in 1890 by August Kühne and Friedrich Nagel in Bremen, Kuehne+Nagel is now one of the global leading companies in its sector, with more than 1,400 subsidiaries in over 100 countries and around 80,000 specialist em­ployees. The 130-year-old company is head­quartered in Schindellegi in the canton of Schwyz, and in 2019 it achieved revenues of CHF 25 billion.

Maintaining the family-like culture

By having shared basic values within the company, everyone is pulling in the same direction, even during challenging times. Credible leadership requires comprehensible principles and guidelines for behaviour as well as good governance. Trefzger sees it as his responsibility to live by these values, encourage others to do the same and motivate them. He stresses that leadership is all about people, about the individ­uals who are integrated into a large organisation. He attaches particular importance to encouraging solidarity and maintaining the family-like culture that is a huge part of the 130-year-old company’s culture. The human element should never be neglected, explains the top manager. His management approach is calm and unpretentious. For this reason, he preferred to ask others to describe his management style: attributes used to describe him include “authentic, curious and reliable”.

“Leadership is always about the people, the individuals.“

A matter of trust

The last few months have also shown us how important trust is, says Detlef Trefz­ger. Customers around the world entrust their products into the care of Kuehne+Nagel – including life-saving goods like pharmaceuticals. Since the start of the year, Kuehne+Nagel has transported 17,000 tonnes of protective equipment.

The employees make sure that the goods make their way from A to B in the best and quickest possible way, even during a pandemic. Planning is carried out using the company’s internal digital platforms and via video conference. This has led to colleagues getting to know other colleagues who they otherwise wouldn’t have met. Many new contacts have emerged this way. Working from home has proven to be effective, but at times employees have also found it to be stressful.

Detlef Trefzger is convinced that digital solutions will continue to replace many business trips even once the pandemic is over. This plays into the hands of the manager for another reason, as he is consistently optimising the sustainability of Kuehne+Nagel’s operations. Even during the pandemic, he has not lost sight of his goal of making the activities of Kuehne+Nagel carbon neutral this year. It’s an ambitious goal that can only be achieved through shared basic values, which is what Kuehne+Nagel is all about. After all: “Sustainability is a responsibility for society and for each and every individual.”


Dr. Detlef Trefzger – In the spotlight

What were you doing 20 years ago?
Even back then, I was a member of an executive board, working as head of finance for a large logistics firm in Southeast Europe. It was a fascinating time with the economy opening up to the east and the south, as well as the start of the new millennium.

20 years ago, could you have imagined that you’d be a CEO today?
It’s not something you can or should plan for – you have to know what you want to do and what you don’t want to do. But it’s helpful if you like taking on responsibility and leading, if you value others and feel part of a team.

What do you want to see in the future world of work?
I hope that human contact is not neglected, despite technology. I also hope that environmental aspects in the world of work will not be overlooked, even during a pandemic.

Your personal career tip for employees and young talent?
Always be natural and authentic. Being a leader means setting clear objectives and motivating the team to achieve them. But you can’t force someone to have a career. All people are different. This is why at our company, we’ve established two different career paths: an expert path and a path with management responsibility.