Antje von Dewitz – combining a burning belief in sustainability and social transformation with a CEO position for an established outdoor company (Part 1)

Her original plan was to push for sustainability from within a non-governmental organization. Instead she ended up doing it from a business leader position. Since Antje von Dewitz overtook the family company VAUDE® a decade ago, it has become one of the leading sustainability influencers in the outdoor sector. Meet Antje von Dewitz, the woman who has transformed the company in a decade and put the family-owned brand at focus in the outdoor industry.

It is early morning the day I have booked an interview with Antje von Dewitz, the CEO of VAUDE®. One of her colleagues call me up to ask if the interview can be moved forward. Antje has worked all week with international guests despite a bad cold, now needing some rest. But when the colleague realizes that I have come all the way from Sweden for the interview I get an earlier appointment instead. When I thereafter meet Antje in the head-quarter, which is hidden among the apple farms and meadows in southernmost Germany, she apologizes for being sick. Considering the energy and enthusiasm she then presents during our interview, I wonder how much power she has got when not having a cold.

Antje overtook the business from her father in 2009. At that time she was pregnant with her fourth child. The first thing she did as a CEO was to build a kindergarten next to the headquarter. It was necessary for her in her new position, but still regarded as something very strange among her catholic and traditionally living neighbours. The kindergarten is very popular and intensively used by the employees today, enabling a large portion of flexibility for parents who work at VAUDE® .

The kindergarten at the VAUDE headquarter
Photo: Dambach, VAUDE

To take over the lead for VAUDE® was nothing Antje had planned. “When I was studying, I thought all these business students were career focused nerds with black suitcases, so I chose to study very broad instead. My original plan was to work in a non-governmental organisation (NGO)” Antje tells me.

“The way we live today is so harmful for nature and mankind. Growing up with a mother who is an environmental activist plus having four children makes me really concerned that we are rushing into the wrong direction. It feels to me that our economic system is a false. If VAUDE® stays in this system, and if I would take part in a system where profit is the main goal, then I would not be able to look my children in the eyes any longer” Antje states.

Antje did internships at environmental NGOs, the social European women’s network, media and so on. Her last training was at VAUDE® and then she found out that it was her home. “I guess growing up as a daughter to a father who is an entrepreneur taught me that not only write about it or fight for it, but actually do it yourself, is what satisfy me the most. And I find that being outdoor is the best thing in the world. That is what came very clear to me when I was studying.”

Photo: Attenberger, VAUDE

“Since I overtook VAUDE® , our vision has been to turn VAUDE ® into a very sustainable company. We make business and products that show the love for mountains, life and nature, and to protect, defend and support instead of making products that destroy nature. Everything we do follow this vision” Antje tells me.

An expression being used by Antje and other employees during my visit is that people working at VAUDE® have ‘green blood’. I ask what that means. “Understanding our vision and filling it with life. Our love for nature is the foundation for the green blood we have” she replies.

But Antje herself has less time for outdoor activities now, not only because of her job, but also because she and her husband overtook a farm two years ago, now turning it into an organic apple cider farm. “But I try to bike to work every day, and every year we go for at least one week on a trekking trip, where everyone in the family carry their gear and sleep in a tent. It is a great tradition. And all our weekend trips we spend outdoors, skiing, canoeing or biking and so on. I love it and I think that is what life is for” she says.

The region where Antje grew up has also had a great impact on her. “Growing up here was always a lecture in being different. I was always looked upon with scepticism. We are protestants from the north, and entrepreneurs in a conservative region where most people are catholic, speak a different accent and so on. I was always different in every aspect, which made me feel as an outsider even though I had good friends.“

“But growing up here also had good sides” Antje continues. “If you are not rooted so deeply then it is easier to stand up for your rights, and I learnt to be courageous. Another thing it taught me was that transparency can be an effective tool. For me it became the answer to all scepticism. I invited my surrounding to look behind the scenes of my family and showed that we were different but not bad people.”

Transparency is one of Antje’s main tools
Photo: VAUDE

When Antje became CEO for VAUDE® she used transparency as a tool once again. “We said that we wanted to become Europe’s most sustainable outdoor equipper, and we knew immediately that everybody would be very sceptical – of course. So, we made everything totally transparent from the beginning, not hiding any weaknesses nor hiding the challenges we are still working on. It was a successful strategy for becoming accepted”.

Antje mentions several things that have influenced her strongly, but when I ask if she has got some inspiration or role model herself she shakes her head. “I have no role model or company I look up to. It is really our own way. What is special is the team that we have here at VAUDE®, so great people from the beginning who supported the transformation very strongly from start.”

I ask for Antjes experiences of being a woman and business leader. “It is not common that women are leaders, especially not in the outdoor sector” she replies. “Sports is a male industry by tradition. I cannot really tell you why that is so. A reflection of society I guess. I often find myself in situations where people don’t know who I am and therefore start talking to my male colleagues instead” she laughs. “I just enjoy the situation because I think it illustrates that we think so much in categories. People need to open their minds and stop judging others by the cover.”

Suddenly an hour has passed, something Antje is quick to notice. As focused and enthusiastic as she has been during the interview, as rapidly she suddenly turns her focus on her next work duties. Perhaps she feels the effects of her cold as well. Anyway, we finish up, and Antje rushes away.

It triggers my curiosity to meet such an engaged and energetic person and company leader, with such a non-conventional attitude to business development. An environmental activist that brings her visions into the business world. Does it work in reality?

Soon after the interview, VAUDE® receives a new award. Out of 14 outdoor brands being evaluated by the international community Rank a Brand, VAUDE® is the only brand receiving the highest rank. Well above the considerably more famous and powerful outdoor brands analysed. Indeed, an inspiring and important example that transformation of business is plausible. My reflection is that Antje’s strong focus on making a change, and her unusually big portion of dedication and energy have been important factors for the company’s achievement.

In the coming blog, containing Part 2 of this interview, Antje reflects on the sustainability movement in the outdoor sector, describes the challenges VAUDE® faces and how the company handles them. Don’t miss that!

Photo: Gantzhorn, VAUDE
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