Running family business with precision

By Sibangani Dube
November 2012
Women in Business
As a fourth generation member of a family business that was started in 1906, M+Z Group managing director, Verena Grüttemeyer, has the daunting task of keeping afloat one of Namibia’s oldest (106 years), most popular and well-managed family businesses.

M+Z Group is a company holding franchised motor dealerships, specialising in the supply and servicing of some of the world’s top motor brands like Mercedes Benz, , Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, Mitsubishi, Freightliner, Fuso, Audi, Volkswagen (VW) and MAN . It thus caters for both passenger and commercial vehicle owners.

Ever since she took over in 2004, Gruttemeyer and her young team have rejuvenated the company and gained a significant market share that boasts of an asset-base of over N$100m.

Growing up in a family engulfed by M+Z engravings, it seemed only natural that she would end up being part of the business but alas, she had other plans.

“I grew up in a family where I was free to make my own decisions. When I was younger, I decided M+Z was not for me,” she recalls.

She went to school in Windhoek DHPS and later went to South Africa to complete her studies at a girl only high school. After that she enrolled for a B Com degree at Stellenbosch University but her studies came to an abrupt end, because she was no longer interested in the course. She then took up work after which she went overseas with her then boyfriend, now husband.

While overseas, she enrolled for a three-year Travel Management diploma, which she completed in two years as her B Com weighed in her favour.

Upon her return to Namibia, Gruttemeyer & husband built up their own lodge in the North. This she sustained for six years, of which one was spent on building it while the remaining five were spent on managing it. Little did she know this would be a dress rehearsal for the big stage she now occupies.

“In the five years of running our lodge, I had the best preparation for what I would walk into here, because it was also a service industry,” she says.

Soon, she needed a new challenge in her life. So she moved to Windhoek with her family. Not wanting to completely server her ties with the tourism industry, she started a home-ran travel agency, which she kept going for one and a half years.

Before long, her father asked her onboard the family business but she turned him down on the first attempt. Eventually, she warmed up to the idea and has never looked back since.

The appalling state of the company at that time urged her to align her energy towards reclaiming the position the company once held.

One of the immediate steps was to bring back the family into the running of the business. This change did not sit well with other employees who eventually left. Gruttemeyer says she relied on her strength during this period. These included her willingness to ask questions, which opened doors for people to help her; not being too corporate; wanting to be part of the team and respecting people for what they did.
In 2005, Gruttemeyer and her cousin were made executives. However, this arrangement only lasted for three years after which her cousin moved on to pursue other interests.

“I have been running M+Z on my own since 2008. I have a wonderful team and a wonderful husband who supports me. We have quadrupled the business growth and have made lots of investments in properties since then. With that, we have regained our strength as M+Z,” she declares.

In her early days, she had a few mentors she called upon regularly including her father. However, after some time, he left her to try her wings. She says she has great respect for him for not dictating to her what to do.

Asked what the secret behind M+Z is, Gruttemeyer points out; “Our loyalty to our customers, giving them what they deserve and staying ahead with the never ending change - all of which was stagnant at the time I took over. Now there is freshness.”

She adds, “I owe my success to the strong people I surround myself with and by whom I never feel threatened. I can only be as strong as my team.”

She also encourages a strong inclination towards empowering her managers to take their own decisions, as she believes they can only grow in what they do through making their own decisions. In addition, they have a good product, which gives them a strong market dominance.

“We now have a vast product range, which makes us strong,” she beams.

The icing on the cake is the personal relationships they have with their clients. “The Namibian market is a very conservative one in that clients buy from whomever they have a relationship with,” she says.

M+Z does not have a huge movement in staff members. For that, Gruttemeyer is pleased, because “we look after them. They are our biggest asset, they look after our customers. It’s a turning wheel; we have to look after each other. Your staff and your shareholders should be kept happy,” she quips.

As far as challenges go, Gruttemeyer says they do not have any, per se, because they perceive them as opportunities.

She strongly feels that apprenticeships should be strongly encouraged as is the case in European countries such as Germany, France and Spain among others, where young people work while attending formal education. Currently, M+Z has more than 90 apprentices but there is no formal education to match theory and practice, she laments.

Gruttemeyer is of the opinion that women bring a new set of dynamics in business; “What makes women strong is their approach to sorting out problems. They often have a certain perspective that has not previously been recognised. From a very tender age, we learn to diversify and adapt very quickly, because there are our children and work to constantly pay attention to,” she stresses.

Verena believes, that the best way to handle competition is to take it in and make it part of your set up.

Competition is very healthy, she says; it keeps you on your toes. You always have to come up with ideas that are better than others’; “Not only should you always have a better offering than your competitors but you must always be one step ahead of them.”

But Gruttemeyer is not all work and no play; “We often go to my father’s farm, because we like to spend a lot of time surrounded by nature. We have such a beautiful country, there is so much to see.”

And with that, she concludes with her power principle: “Your strongest point is your attitude; how you approach things in life.” PF