The cookie heiress who cried a lot

Two years ago, Verena Bahlsen started with a plan to save the eponymous biscuit manufacturer for the future. Now the twenty-nine-year-old player unexpectedly resigned. What does their failure have to do with the small-mindedness of the boomer generation.

“I was often embarrassed when you saw me in moments when I was overwhelmed. Verena Bahlsen in her farewell statement to the employees of the biscuit manufacturer of the same name – published on Linkedin.

Mike Wolff / Imago

A panic attack is an unpredictable, intense feeling of fear. Symptoms include sudden heart palpitations, chest pain, feelings of suffocation and dizziness.

Verena Bahlsen, heir to the eponymous cookie dynasty, had such an attack while standing in the middle of her company’s most important raw material: a wheat field somewhere in Germany. Next to her is Phil Rumbol, a numbers man, an Englishman, the first non-family CEO in the company’s 130-year history.

It is not known what they were talking about. Maybe it was rising wheat prices, increasingly expensive furnace gas, dramatically shrinking margins – who knows, maybe a visit to a wheat field was just a photo opportunity.

One thing is certain: If something like this had happened to Verena Bahlsen’s father twenty years ago, he would have been taken to the emergency room with a suspected heart attack. They would examine him if all was clear and send him home with a warning to please calm down. Because that’s how panic attacks used to be interpreted: maybe something with the heart. Or fainting. But definitely something physical.

But since millennials like Verena Bahlsen have experience with therapy like no other generation, it must have been clear to the 29-year-old that this was a panic attack. A cry for help from a psychic.

Looking for a baby boomer

How do we know about this intimate moment in the cornfield? From Verena Bahlsen herself, which she shared with the world on Linkedin a few days ago. Under the notice of “some sad news today,” she announced that she was leaving her family’s company.

She wrote to the 2,500 employees: “I was often embarrassed when you saw me in moments of fear, overwhelm and uncertainty.” She cried a lot in meetings, was hostile or impatient. She interrupted people when she should have listened, reacted coldly and harshly when she should have been soft.

Many users were able to identify with Bahlsen on a platform that is all about showing off one’s performance. The comments showered her with praise and admiration for her public apology. But there were even more critics.

They came mainly from the baby boomers: a generation of supposedly tough and hard-working, retired mid-sized firms whose confidence thrived on the soft cushion of the boom. This “regrettable way,” wrote one who himself once ran the business, “he could never afford.” She didn’t even last long at university, another sneered. Bahlsen studied management and communication at universities such as King’s College London and New York University without obtaining a degree.

A better startup in Berlin than a “bourgeois” company in Hannover

Verena Bahlsen never thought she would one day join her family’s company. It was just very tailored, Bahlsen said on a podcast in 2021: “Nobody expected me to ever have anything to do with the company.” Least of all himself.

But it should have been noted that she was still interested in her family’s business. Types of flour, production technology, investment strategies and business: she passionately talked and argued with her father about it all. But outwardly she always played down her joy.

In 2015, she founded a startup in Berlin that develops innovations for the food industry. She would never admit that she was interested in “something so bourgeois” as running a traditional company in Hanover. Bahlsen preferred to think about the upcoming revolutions in the food industry: the consequences of resource scarcity, for example the sustainability of raw materials and climate-neutral production.

Your great-grandfather Hermann Bahlsen invented the word “biscuit”. In 1888, when he brought the idea of ​​a hard pastry from England and wanted to sell it under the name “Cakes”, the Germans couldn’t pronounce the word (they said “Kacke”). Bahlsen therefore called his product “biscuits”. In 1915 the word Duden was included.

Germany owes Bahlsen not only this neologism, but also a revolution in the food industry. He brought the first assembly line from America to Germany. And he invented packaging in which cookies could be stored without them going moldy or drying out—a first in a time when food was sold openly.

“I must lead Bahlsen into the future!”

All of this went through the great-granddaughter’s mind when she woke up one night four years ago and knew, “I must lead Bahlsen into the future!” She asked herself, what would great-grandfather Hermann do if he came back from the 19th century and saw that fewer and fewer people were buying his products and how the world market and production conditions had changed?

Verena Bahlsen was sure: she would revolutionize the food industry again. And that was exactly what she meant now.

In 2018, her father resigned as CEO, the company was run by management, and the leadership positions became orphans. Verena Bahlsen suggested to her father that she should work as mission director alongside an experienced CEO from outside the family. She would care about how Bahlsen could exist in the future and would focus on repositioning the brand. The CEO would be responsible for the day-to-day running of the business.

The realization of this idea and preparations for her new role took a whole year. A change in management was announced in March 2020. The lockdown began two days later – and with it a difficult period for the company.

At this point, Bahlsen must have guessed how difficult it would be for her as a career player. Before studying business administration, her father trained as a confectioner, then worked for decades in various positions for Bahlsen plants abroad. His daughter, on the other hand, had no idea about the cookie market.

At the head office in Hanover, no one understood what the young woman wanted. She spoke excitedly, but often very quickly, interspersing entire sentences in English. “I’m a young outsider and more ‘challenging’ the industry than part of it.” She talked about how now you have to turn over every stone in the whole store and ask yourself, “Are we still doing the right thing?” The choice of raw materials, the supply chain and the crucial question of whether you are still offering the right product: nothing is sacred.

The charismatic young woman was actually quite likable to the staff, who were dealing with pressing issues every day such as shrinking brands and sales, supply bottlenecks and price pressures from retail.

But what did she want?

A good capitalist

In an interview last year, Bahlsen said it was an advantage that she didn’t have the same insight into the cookie business as her father. After all, in day-to-day business, everything revolves around the status quo: sales must be right, savings targets must be met, and new sales channels must be found. But your task is to ensure that the company still exists in twenty years. “And not as a cookie company, but as a company that also makes cookies.”

Bahlsen is convinced that the food industry is currently experiencing its “electromobile moment”, a structural change that will no longer allow us to continue as we have been. “We’re in a situation where we’re consuming too much and we’re consuming the wrong things.” Because of her enthusiasm and eloquence, Bahlsen was particularly well received by young entrepreneurs in the start-up industry. In recent years, she has appeared many times at business conferences and in the media. She was considered a capitalist with moral standards. It made an impression on many.

Only at home in Hanover did one not get carried away. In addition, the new boss caused some embarrassment with her lively, direct demeanor. Like when she publicly raved about how nice it is to be rich. She probably wanted to emphasize that she is a capitalist despite her critical attitude. He owns a quarter of the shares. Her three siblings share the rest.

Verena Bahlsen and the forced labor issue

A little later, when asked by a journalist about the company’s past in the “Third Reich”, she responded with a demonstrably false claim that the foreign forced laborers employed by Bahlsen at the time were earning the same as German employees. Hundreds of women from Ukraine were taken in freight cars to Hanover, where they had to work in conditions similar to slavery.

Verena Bahlsen was able to implement a few things, albeit against resistance. For example, the visual redesign of the brand: Instead of the old-fashioned yellow, Guetsli was now in a white-blue package with her great-grandfather’s signature in large blue letters, striking and dominant. Verena Bahlsen also made sure that the “Africa” ​​cookies were renamed after the naming was called racist on social media. Dad Bahlsen could still roll his eyes.

With the outbreak of the Ukrainian war in the spring of 2022, a crisis began for biscuit manufacturers, when production costs rose by double-digit millions in a very short time. In Germany there was talk of an incipient industrial recession. In Hanover, biscuit manufacturers fought against a collapse in numbers. During this time, the revolutionary spirit of Verena Bahlsen had to suffer serious setbacks.

“I believe that traditional brands like ours are exactly the ones that will hang on to a broken system as long as possible and benefit from it as long as they can,” Bahlsen once said in an interview. However, she apparently failed to convince the older generation in Hanover of this urgency. Her management style, which always exposed all weaknesses, may have won her sympathy points, but it probably did one thing above all else: make the young boss vulnerable.

“Running a company is an emotional competitive sport,” Bahlsen once said: In addition to hard work and the will to learn, there is also a need for a period of relaxation. But also the ability to recognize when the resistance is too much and you have failed.

In this regard, Bahlsen has mastered her discipline.

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