For Walter Gunz, Co-Founder of MediaMarkt, culture is conveying a belief and for entrepreneurs and managers, one of the most important deeds. Because as soon as we do something from the heart and manage to pass this passion on to people in the team, it is like an initial spark to achieve goals.
In Munich I have an appointment with an entrepreneur who is familiar with both cultural perspectives – that of the start-up and that of the grown company. Walter Gunz, born in 1946, founded the first Media Markt together with three business partners in 1979. When he left the executive board 20 years later, Media Markt was one of the world’s largest consumer electronics retail chains. Today’s Media Markt Saturn Retail Group employs around 62,000 people and generates more than € 21 billion annually. Our chief of staff, Sonja Weber, accompanies me on a hot summer day to the crowded gardens of an Italian restaurant to meet Walter Gunz.
The thermometer refuses to stop at 35° C today. We’re all the more pleased when we and our interviewee find an empty spot under a tall chestnut tree, probably the coolest spot you can find anywhere in Munich today. At first glance we had noticed only sunny spots outdoors and already braced ourselves for a literally heated discussion. Now we enjoy the gorgeous weather under the chestnut tree and start by ordering Aperol Spritz – the perfect drink for the season. We clink glasses; then I ask Walter Gunz to start by telling me a bit about himself first.
“It’s not easy to talk about myself,” admits the dyed-in-the-wool entrepreneur with a degree in philosophy, who started his business career at Karstadt in the 1970s. But Walter Gunz wants to tell us one thing from his childhood and youth here in Munich, where he grew up with his mother: “I didn’t do well in school. At secondary school I usually stood out for doing stupid things. And my teachers always made me feel like an idiot. Later in life that motivated me to seek freedom. These negative experiences in school were a kind of inspiration for me. Freedom became the central theme of my life. And that’s how I really found freedom at work. It was never just about my individual freedom. Because I was free, I could trust other people. Trust and recognition were the most important elements for me at the company. Since I had always been made to look like an idiot at school, I knew what it felt like. I didn’t want people who worked with me to ever feel not appreciated enough. They should be recognized and appreciated. But that was because of my freedom; it came from my heart.”
That brings us straight to the topic of culture. Today everyone knows the logo of Media Markt. I want to know what vision Walter Gunz had at the beginning. How he managed culturally to build something people want to be part of and want to turn into something great together. “The most important thing is never to rise above the others,” Walter Gunz says without thinking twice. “It’s crucial to always talk to people on an equal footing. That’s the precondition. Then it’s love.” Love? What does an entrepreneur mean by that? “You have to love what you’re doing. Your company, the people you work with, your customers and suppliers. When I put my heart into something, then I do it right. If I’m motivated by money, success or prestige, things will go wrong. That’s how it was with me from the start. I have this story: I quit Karstadt, where I was already in charge of consumer electronics, because there were too many rules, too many inspectors, too much restriction for my liking. After six months I met with my old team in a pub. They said to me, ‘If you do anything again, we want to be part of it.’
I remember driving home in the light grey BMW I had back then, thinking: What company would let me bring twelve people along? I’ll have to start my own business! Then I can hire all twelve. Actually that was my motivation for founding my own company: to work again with the people I knew, people who trusted me.” So for Walter Gunz, a culture of trust in people was the basis for everything that would follow? “Yes, confidence, appreciation and love. Everybody wants to be loved and appreciated. Recognized, first of all. Recognition is a gift, something that doesn’t originate from your ego but that falls to us from ‘supra space’, so to speak.” The philosopher in Walter Gunz keeps showing. He truly is a thinker and a doer all rolled into one. Did the twelve members of his former team really follow him? “They did. Even though we had no money. Some of them had children but only one income, and even they, too, joined the first Media Markt. Of course, Karstadt tried everything to prevent that because they didn’t want to lose the whole team. But the trust I had in them and they had in me was stronger than everything else.”
“The trick is to find people who will pass on the baton and value trust so much that they also pass it on to others.”
Okay, thirteen people who have total confidence in each other. What a powerful tale! But how do you manage to preserve that culture? Media Markt grew grown rapidly in the following years. “The trick is to find people who will pass on the baton,” Walter Gunz says. “People who value trust so much that they also pass it on to others. Plus there’s something I described in my last book; I called it the ‘loving gaze’. Everybody has a certain potential, absolutely everyone does. To look at people with love means to see their potential and then give them the opportunity to realize it. By having the confidence that somebody is able to do something, by entrusting something to them, that trust will make something come true. I appreciate and honour a person, telling him or her, ‘Just do that now!’ And then that person knows that someone believes in them. This belief in people is an initial spark that unleashes potential and will ultimately effect something great.”
René Esteban (Author of “Do Epic Stuff!“) and Walter Gunz (Co-Founder of MediaMarkt) in a restaurant in munich
This is totally up my alley. That’s what I believe in, too! And I can’t wait to bring it across to people in companies. I can sense that Walter Gunz embodies what he says, that he lives and breathes it with every fiber of his body. And for him, culture also means to pass on the baton. “Or that torch,” he adds. “I hand ten people a torch and ask them to carry the flame to whatever they’re responsible for. Trust is something that lasts; that’s why that flame can be passed on so well. Even today, CEOs I knew back then still call me on a regular basis. Trust is something that’s durable, just like love. Unlike money and success, which are very, very transient. For me, today it’s not crucial to have established a company of international standing that’s represented by a red or blue box on every corner. Instead it gives me a sense of fulfillment when someone tells me, for instance: ‘When you hired me as managing director for Bamberg, I thought it was great – but not as great as it really turned out to be.’ I’ve heard people tell me things like that many times. And then I always say to myself: Walter, what more do you want?”
For Walter Gunz, culture is the passing on of a conviction and a certain kind of energy. That “loving look” at people – what does that mean to him? “It means to always be happy for your workers,” he explains. “It always made me happy when someone made good money in my company. When Kaufhof unfortunately had bought the majority of our shares, one of the board members came to me, all upset about the salary of our branch manager in Rosenheim. The man was about to have a heart attack, saying, ‘I’m the CEO of Kaufhof AG, and that guy in that lousy dump in Rosenheim makes just as much as me!’ He couldn’t believe it. I’ve always thought differently. Sharing is something I enjoy very much. Those who share with love can multiply their gains. That’s my motto.” Wonderful! By the way, we at FocusFirst think the same way. We’re never concerned about money. It’s not worth it. The money will roll in automatically because we are who we are. Because we work together as if we were all good friends. “Exactly!” Walter Gunz agrees, adding, “I mean, everybody wants to be loved!” The co-founder of Media Markt managed to create an environment that people loved because they were appreciated and the management trusted them.
“In the end, culture is just what you do, what you put into action. Everything else is nothing but fancy words.“
So what’s the most important thing for an entrepreneur if you want to create that kind of positive culture? “To act,” Walter Gunz says. “‘Culture,’ my professor used to say, comes from ‘cult’, and ‘cult’ comes from ‘action’. Many people confuse culture with a feeling. But actually it’s an act. Love and trust are acts as well. I give trust and I get trust. That may be accompanied by feelings, but the action is what’s crucial. It’s the same with love. Love can express itself in emotions, but the emotion isn’t love yet. It depends on the act. Yet to make sure that a certain spirit is passed on, that a flame is lit, that’s also an act. Even one of the most important acts an entrepreneur can do.”
At the end of our conversation I address the subject of gratitude. It’s enormously important to me to be grateful. For Walter Gunz, gratitude is a key element in a company’s culture, too. Gratitude to employees, customers, suppliers, simply to everyone. And what is the entrepreneur personally grateful for? “To be able to do things in freedom,” Walter Gunz replies thoughtfully. “Because that’s not something you can take for granted. There are countries in this world where you go to jail or even get your head chopped off if you stand up for freedom. So I’m grateful for the freedom I have.”
About the book
This interview is an excerpt from the book „DO EPIC STUFF! – Leadership after Change Management”, published by Campus Verlag. Transformation expert René Esteban explains together with senior leaders of today’s business world how to achieve challenging goals together. Learn more about the book and order it directly.
About the author
René Esteban is the founder and CEO of the consulting company FocusFirst GmbH. With his team he supports executives in the global corporate environment to achieve their most challenging goals with focus and inspiration – and at the same time to develop the corporate culture towards more empathy and humanity.