People and performance are what count, not age

Journalist: Simon Eppenberger | Photographer: Andreas Zimmermann, Tobias Stahel | Magazine: Work in progress – November 2020

A digital company from Zurich shows us what can be achieved when a father and daughter form an unlikely partnership: an award-winning employment agency with thousands of highly-qualified members.

What they are doing today was once unimaginable for Sarah Hiltebrand and her father Peter. She left home at the age of twenty, studied art and design, and he ran his own electrical business in Bachen­bülach, in the canton of Zurich – until all of a sudden, he felt extremely bored.

Peter Hiltebrand retired but realised that sitting twiddling his thumbs was not for him. Feeling frustrated, he spoke with his daughter and her partner Reto Dürrenberger, who run an advertising agency in the hip Wiedikon district of Zurich. Together, they looked for a solution and formed an unthinkable venture: the 65-year-old set up a digital company together with his daughter and her partner, who are some 30 years younger than him. The purpose: to act as an intermediary for pensioners who enjoy working.

In 2009, the trio launched “Rent a Rentner” online and could not have imagined what IT-Aufträge could one day grow into. “Smartphones had not been around for long and we had two target groups who were not very digitally minded: old tradesman and their clientele, who were usually of a similar age,” explains Sarah Hiltebrand.

“In order to enjoy a healthy and happy retirement, people need to be open-minded and creative in their regular working lives.”

Peter Hiltebrand managed to sign up the first few members at a regular get-toge­ther. “At first, they asked me what kind of nonsense it involved,” says the now 76-year-old with short grey hair, glasses and beard. He then told his retired friends about how he was able to still enjoy practising his trade – whenever and wherever he wanted to. 

Sarah Hiltebrand (44) founded “Rent a Rentner” together with her partner Reto Dürrenberger and her father Peter Hiltebrand (76), just as he was entering retirement in 2009. The Hiltebrands are from Bachenbülach in the canton of Zurich, where Peter ran his own electrical business before retiring. Sarah graduated from the School of Design in Biel/Bienne and went into advertising. Together with Reto Dürrenberger, she runs DIE ANTWORT agency in Zurich, which employs 11 members of staff. The pair have a daughter together. Peter Hiltebrand has three children.

People became less sceptical and with each new registration on “Rent a Rentner”, Peter inserted a pin on a map of Switzerland – until there was no more space left. In 2011, the idea was awarded the Marketing Prize, then in 2013 the trio converted their limited company into a stock company and their website crashed. 

The reason for this was a cheeky advertising campaign and an article in Swiss tabloid newspaper “Blick”. Rent a Rentner’s adverts encouraging people to “Rent an old sack or an old bag” featured on billboards across Switzerland. It soon made the tabloid’s headlines. “We had so many enquiries that day that our platform couldn’t cope anymore,” Sarah Hiltebrand tells us laughing.

Over the next few years, the father, daughter and Reto Dürrenberger won further awards and launched the “Date a Rentner” portal, as well as the world’s first “Rentner­Finder” app to help locate retired tradesman registered on their platform. After winning the “SilverEco” award, it can even be described as a leading platform among com- panies around the world that focus on the silver surfer segment. Rent a Rentner now has more than 3,000 registered members who offer more than 300 services. In the background, the trio have been working for Rent a Rentner AG together with the advertising agency run by Sarah Hiltebrand and Dürrenberger.

One of the benefits of the lively trio is that values like diversity have grown organically – rather than being defined as success factors and then introduced afterwards. For Sarah Hiltebrand, combining established skills with fresh talent is an obvious part of running a business. “Our team is made up of young people, middle-aged people and a recently retired copy­-writer/concept developer.” 

The digital firm Rent a Rentner AG from Zurich has been operating the platform of the same name for the past 11 years. It is dedicated to promoting the services of older workers. The registered pensioners are free to define which services they offer and at what price. Customers can choose from more than 300 services, from a courier service by bike to babysitting or legal advice. Basic registration on the site is free, but it also offers paid membership at a fixed price. The offering is not designed to compete against SMEs, but instead to act as a platform for odd jobs that nobody wants to do otherwise. Sarah Hiltebrand’s agency DIE ANTWORT is responsible for the overall image and communication. The company also owns the digital platforms “Date a Rentner”, “Adopt a Rentner” and “RentnerFinder”.

Employing a workforce that is predominantly “young, sexy and eager to work” does not fit with her ethos. “People, an open mind and performance are what count – not age or gender.” In a genera­tional context, the Hiltebrand daughter and father duo both see diversity as an extremely valuable asset. 

“It’s not just society that benefits when us oldies don’t give up, but instead carry on doing what we’re good at and what makes us happy,” explains Peter Hiltebrand. And for this to happen, he believes there are three important factors that make employees of all ages stand out: health, curiosity and life-long learning. “In order to enjoy a healthy and happy retirement, people need to be open-minded and creative in their regular working lives,” he says.

They both believe that employee motivation is not the sole responsibility of the management team. “Obviously this requires flat hierarchies and self-responsibility, and individual ideas and input need to be taken seriously,” says Sarah Hiltebrand. “But none of this can be achieved without self-motivation,” adds the father, as his daughter nods in agreement.

“It’s not just society that benefits when us oldies don’t give up, but instead carry on doing what we’re good at and what makes us happy.”

For the agency owner, continuous learning in particular during the digital revolution is a crucial factor. “Previously, somebody working in advertising could take a two-year sabbatical for example, but today this would be like falling off a cliff edge.” So, for her, digital upskilling just makes sense. 

This doesn’t mean having to chase every trend though, but understanding the direction in which things are developing and then getting on board. “It’s also about openness. I can’t chat with customers over TikTok if I haven’t opened a TikTok account.” She also realises how important digital applications are in everyday life: The management tool “Trello” makes it easier to manage projects, while team messenger platform “Slack” enables companies to communicate internally more efficiently.

The digitally savvy daughter and the openminded father working at a joint company – is this really an example of how two generations can work together in harmony or are there conflicts? Peter Hiltebrand leans back, folds his hands across his black jacket and says: “She can do everything, I’m just the figurehead. It works really well like this.” His daughter laughs. “He trusts me a lot and doesn’t really speak up much.” Only once did he vehemently veto a decision. They wanted to run an advertising campaign featuring pensioners as cemetery goths. In the end, they opted for the old sacks and packages. Since then, Peter Hiltebrand’s car has been covered entirely with a burlap sack.


Sarah und Peter Hiltebrand – In the spotlight

What were you doing 20 years ago?
Sarah: I’d just completed my art and design studies at the School of Design in Biel/Bienne.

Peter: I was running my own electrical business in Bachenbülach.

20 years ago, could you have imagined that you’d be running “Rent a Rentner” together today?
Sarah (looks at her father and laughs): Never! Back then, I was a goth and could never have imagined working with him. Peter looks back at her, laughs and nods.

When is a job satisfying for you?
Sarah: When there are no spanners in the works and I feel as though I’ve done something good, and when things continue to go well. I get more satisfaction from this than resting on my laurels.

Peter: My needs have changed. I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease five years ago. So I live every day as though it’s my last, I laugh a lot and I play music.

As a senior citizen, do you still offer your services on “Rent a Rentner”?
Yes, for electrical work and tree felling. I did extra training for this.

And how are things going with “Date a Rentner”?
I met my partner through another online platform. When I wanted to deregister from the platform, I realised I’d taken out a subscription. This is what led us to set up “Date a Rentner”. I’m not active on there, I’m still in the same domestic partnership.

As a business owner, how do you maintain a work-life balance?
Sarah: My work and private life merge into one. This means I’m online when I want to be. I might answer emails at 6.20am but then go to the gym before I start work. Tasks that don’t wear me out but instead spur me on are what helps me keep a balance. 

When did you learn a lesson for life?
Peter: When I realised how well my three children have turned out.

Sarah: When I experienced failure, I learned that I’m stronger than I thought and that I can get back up again and carry on. And since having a daughter of my own, I know that lots of things in life really aren’t that important. Starting with myself.