A Businessman who knew what's what

"The whole is always more than the sum of its parts" – it would be difficult to find someone to whom this maxim is more applicable than to businessman Rudolf Wanzl (1924–2011).

Hard-working, dogged, curious, brimming with ideas and at the same time down-to-earth, modest and always available to "his people", Rudolf Wanzl was an outstanding man who built an international concern with 3,500 employees from nothing. And his dedication to business was accompanied at all times by an exemplary commitment to social, cultural and socio-political issues.

He lived through some turbulent and difficult times: when he returned from the war and internment as a 23-year-old with no school-leaving qualification, his refugee parents were living in a reception camp. The sister sewed dresses from parachute silk for the wives of the US military troops in Germany after WW II. The mother baked foam roller pastries to sell at the motorway service station. Father and son founded a "Workshop for Scale Manufacture and Repairs" in Leipheim in Swabia. They collected, cleaned and transported bricks from demolished military barracks in wheelbarrows and made their tools themselves from using the most basic of means.

But they did not limit themselves to the calibration and repair of weighing scales in food stores and butchers' shops. Rudolf Wanzl's attention was drawn to the first self-service stores and his ingenuity yielded his first patent: a stackable shopping basket with a foldable handle, which has barely changed since its original incarnation. The self-service concept spread rapidly with the advent of the German economic miracle. A visit to the USA led to the construction of a shopping trolley, which Wanzl, with his skill and intuitive feel for customers' needs and desires, soon transformed into an indispensible prop of the grocery trade.

With unflagging commitment, he improved the design, worked on the quality, and served the needs of his workshop and customers with equal dedication. "He crawled under the trolleys, focused on every detail, every strut, every welding spot," recalls his daughter, who sometimes accompanied him on business trips. Rudolf Wanzl knew that he could rely on his wife Katharina for invaluable support: "Without her I would never have made it." As a young mother, she not only went back to study at the business college in Ulm so that she could take over the administration of the business, she also had an invaluable sixth sense when it came to figuring out which business partners could be trusted.

Rudolf Wanzl availed of every opportunity to expand his business. He was highly creative and he had experience and entrepreneurial zeal. New products were added to the range, new jobs were created and, eventually, new production plants were established. Today, four plants in Germany and additional ones in France, the Czech Republic and China produce much more than shopping trolleys, just about anything that has wheels and is used for transporting and storing goods: waste disposal trolleys, roll containers, shelving systems, cupboards, trolley shelters, deposit systems and machines, guidance and security systems – an impressive range of products that would help to secure the future of the company. Its motto says it all: "Wanzl stands for dynamism, reliability and progress."

Throughout his life, Rudolf Wanzl remained open to inspiration, hungry for knowledge and receptive to all things new. As a boy, he was always out and about in nature, he caught butterflies, observed caterpillars during pupation and started a butterfly collection under his father's guidance. He would have liked to have studied biology but, due to the war, he was unable to complete his school-leaving certificate and was drafted at the age of 18. The curiosity and questions remained, however. Rudofl Wanzl was fascinated by science and all the new things it brings to the world.

His wife's serious illness was the trigger for his first financial contribution to the basic research carried out at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry. The research team there was aiming to prove that the tailoring of treatment to the individual patient is possible and effective. Through the systematic analysis of the entire genome of sick and healthy subjects, they succeeded in demonstrating that the transportation of different anti-depressive drugs to the brain is genetically programmed. Therefore the profiling of a patient's ABCB-1 gene makes it possible to predict whether he or she will respond to a particular drug. Through his encounter with Max Planck scientists, Rudolf Wanzl gained access to a world that embodied his ideals of inventiveness, ambition and genius. As a result, he decided that his private resources would be put to good use here.

Rudolf Wanzl died in 2011 at the age of 86. In coming into their considerable legacy, his three children also assumed a major responsibility. They honour their father's entrepreneurial life's work and are committed to his company through the supervisory board and as shareholders.

Mk/tk