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From sneakers to tourism, Jochen Zeitz rewrites the rules – and purpose – of business

Jochen Zeitz’s success is an oft-told tale: thirty-year-young CEO rescues his company, helps spark the corporate responsibility movement and teams up with the likes of Richard Branson. But dust off the glamour and, as Jochen told at our Global Young Partners Reunion, his life’s work is to question the role of business in society.

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`You can’t rush greatness`. This saying could very well be the motto of Jochen Zeitz, who believes that long-term focus is imperative in business, especially when it comes to bringing about sustainable and significant change. At our Global Young Partners Reunion he spoke about the importance of values, proactivity and remaining positive while campaigning for change.  

It began with a focus on profit
His executive career began with traditional concerns: how, as CEO of sporting goods brand PUMA, could Jochen improve financial results and turn the then troubled company around. However, while the media was busy speculating whether the youngest CEO in German history to head a public company could withstand the pressure, Jochen had already begun concerning himself with what would become corporate social responsibility standards.

Business has to change from the short-term, financially-driven bottom line to something that truly creates solutions to the problems that the world has.

Jochen Zeitz

Having seen first-hand the negative impact of manufacturing processes on both the environment and production workers, Jochen quickly zeroed in on the need to create positive change and make it sustainable. “We really kick-started the whole initiative in our industry – to not just be more responsible but to look at the environment, look at the way we produce and manufacture as an opportunity to excite our consumers,” he explains. “This very much became an integral part of the DNA of the PUMA brand and is also one of the reasons why we became truly successful.”

Spinning gold from straw
This ability to turn a `problem` into an opportunity sums up Jochen’s style and increased PUMA’s share price around 4000 per cent in thirteen years. The sale of PUMA to luxury house Kering saw Jochen join its board. With brands like Gucci, Bottega Veneta, and Yves Saint Laurent in Kering’s stable, he was able to influence the sustainability approach of a huge and highly influential conglomerate. Within a few years Kering achieved a first-place ranking in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index and would go on to support the French government in establishing standards for the country’s iconic luxury market. “Ingraining sustainability in the DNA of a traditional company takes time,” Jochen explains. “At some point, however, they realise that it’s much more of an opportunity as opposed to a burden.”

His work with Harley-Davidson is a prime example. It’s been about a decade since Jochen joined the board and the brand has just released its first all-electric motorbike with the slogan “The future has arrived and it’s electric”. As Jochen explained: “Just like with PUMA, I felt that if you can change an iconic brand that is deeply rooted in its history and tradition to something progressive, that’s when you can actually impact a whole industry.”

The power of business
Jochen also sits on the board of financial services company Cranemere. He sees the business sector as his best bet of making a personal difference in society. “As business is what I know best, I try to work towards finding solutions through businesses,” he explains. It’s notable that the four NGOs he has founded, including The B Team with Sir Richard Branson, use philanthropy not as a means to an end but as a way to kick-start the role of business as a driver of positive transformation. 

Citing that the top 1000 companies produce 60 per cent of all environmental impact, Jochen says change will only happen if the business sector is onboard and transforms the role it plays in society. “It has to change from the short-term, financially-driven bottom line to something that truly creates solutions to the problems that the world has – social problems, environmental problems,” he explains. “That’s the only way we as a species can survive on this planet. And that’s the only role I see for business, in addition to creating healthy returns for their shareholders through a very long-term approach.”

Trusting your north star
This principled approach to business is mirrored in Jochen’s personal life. He quips that Arianna Huffington, who is part of one of his initiatives, challenges him to find a better work-life balance but that he doesn’t make such differentiations and instead choses to do things he loves all the time. Jochen’s property Segera in Kenya provides a prime example of this.

 

It’s about three times the size of Manhattan and successful team work has helped regenerate the land and wildlife. Segera is now a sustainable, luxury tourist destination that employs about 220 people. It’s also a founding member of Jochen’s Long Run Destinations initiative which recognises sustainable tourism locations adhering to the 4 C’s – conservation, community, culture and commerce.

Four principles also rule Jochen’s daily life: being fair, honest, positive and creative. He believes that operating from these principles creates a strong foundation. However, when it comes to success, Jochen takes a pragmatic approach: “I don’t think there is a recipe for success. There are only opportunities that you can or cannot grab and get behind… The recipe for success is something you have to develop on your own.”

Picture credits: www.segera.com