CEO Gordon Riske will say farewell to KION at the end of 2021

Globalization, automation, digitalization, and electrification – for Gordon Riske, these megatrends of the present were and are firmly anchored in his own life story. After 14 years under his leadership, it is no accident that the KION Group has positioned itself precisely where it is.

When Gordon Riske was appointed CEO of the KION Group in 2007, the Group was still focused on the traditional forklift business. Automation and digitalization were terms that were only being brought to life slowly within intralogistics, and although the subsidiary Linde Material Handling already had manufacturing operations in Xiamen, China, the intralogistics world seemed significantly smaller in retrospect: A Chinese producer at a trade fair would still have been perceived as exotic by the specialist media at that time, and the lucrative markets for forklift manufacturers were located in Europe and North America. All this was set to change significantly in the years to come. And how KION is positioning itself in this changed world today clearly bears Riske’s signature: A global Group that defines and anticipates the future trends of its industry.

“At home anywhere in the world”

Gordon Riske has been a consistent driving force behind KION’s international orientation. When the Group bought Dematic in 2016, this was primarily interpreted as a significant step towards automating warehouse logistics, and rightly so. However, it was also a very deliberate decision to position the full-service provider of intralogistics solutions globally, because there were definitely alternatives to this. According to Riske, one such alternative involved positioning the company in the USA. But that wasn’t quite enough for KION. Dematic, on the other hand, had a strong North American business as well as footholds in Europe and Asia, and this became a highlight of KION’s global orientation. As did the acquisition of Chinese brand Baoli, which in turn opened up markets for the Group throughout the world. Thinking globally was already part of Riske’s mindset. He grew up in the USA as the son of refugees; his parents came from Germany and what is now Ukraine. German was spoken at home, and his English, which was mediocre at first, quickly flourished too. Riske reflected that “growing up in an environment like that means that you feel at home anywhere,” and he applied this attitude to his role as CEO. His close co-workers recalled he was insistent about traveling to remote locations to be right there on the ground and listen to the people, claiming he “always felt at home in the factories and branches”.

The fact that he identified other future trends at an early stage is also no coincidence. Riske started his career working as a student at a US company that manufactured machine tools. While working there, Riske noticed that a great deal of time was wasted manually looking for errors, and therefore developed a test stand where he could satisfy his love of troubleshooting. From the beginning, his interest in technology extended beyond the professional realm. Sabine Ohlenmacher, who supported Riske as assistant to the management almost from the very beginning described him as a pioneer who often had the latest devices before they appeared in Germany, reminiscing that “packages with cables and plugs” regularly “appeared” in the office. She continued to explain that he always wanted to find the best technical assistance for himself, and that’s exactly what he transferred to KION. Riske was a role model for the transformation towards digitalization and automation within the workforce and translated this into the context of intralogistics. He was convinced that this was going to be of major significance to KION and was determined to seize the opportunity.

Radiating calm when surrounded by chaos

“It was clear to me, at the latest after flotation on the stock market in 2013, that the forklift industry was heading in the direction of electronics,” said Riske, looking back. He quickly realized that autonomous forklifts and networked systems would conquer the warehouses. KION consequently sold off its Hydraulics division to Weichai, thus freeing itself from a very capital-intensive business. At the same time, it was on the lookout for companies that complemented its portfolio, such as Egemin or Retrotech—companies with a focus on digital or automated intralogistics solutions. With Dematic, Riske achieved a decisive coup. From today’s perspective, it seems completely logical to complement the forklift business with automation technologies in the area of warehousing and distribution centers. Customers are asking less and less for products, but increasingly for (complete) intralogistics solutions that, depending on the problem, may involve a narrow aisle truck or sorting machine. At the time, however, acquiring Dematic was considered highly risky—an expensive investment! The stock markets initially reacted somewhere between hesitantly and skeptically. Riske, on the other hand, was always certain about Dematic. He saw its potential and also knew that there were “few negative synergies”, as he put it. Dematic and KION complemented each other well, compensating for each other’s weaknesses.

However, not everything can be predicted. Shortly after he started at KION, the world slid into an economic crisis in 2008 that also affected intralogistics, and “threatened the Group’s very existence” remarked Riske, in retrospect. Thankfully, the Executive Board managed to organize the necessary loans to get through the crisis. Another unforeseen crisis that has occupied the Group since 2020 is the COVID-19 pandemic. At this point, however, the KION Group was well-positioned, with excellent credit ratings, as the CEO was proud to point out, “we didn’t know what was going to happen, nobody did, but we returned to the market positively.” With crisis management as part of his job, Riske exudes the necessary calm. However, when asked about this, he played it down, saying “it wasn’t always like that,” and that he was lucky to have good mentors, citing as an example the “calm in chaos” philosophy he learned from Hans-Jürgen Wischnewski, the German Minister of State who was responsible for handling the “Landshut” plane hijacking, “if you get agitated, it transfers to your environment and you don’t achieve anything—that’s what he taught me.” This encounter with Wischnewski clearly made a lasting impression on the CEO who, at least outwardly, has a sense of composure about him. At the same time, he has a down-to-earth attitude and staff members frequently remarked that the Chairman of the Board, who initially seemed somewhat distant to them, took a lot of time in personal conversations. “He was not a man of many words,” explained Ohlenmacher, “but he was always very interested in people.”

“Change will never stop”

Gordon Riske has left his mark on the KION Group over the past 14 years, and has at the same time demonstrated how important it is to anticipate change at an early stage. “Change will never stop,” he said in parting. What sounds a bit like a truism also embodies Riske’s unconditional conviction to continue investing in future technology. “I can’t imagine that in ten years we will still have many forklifts with diesel engines—if these do still exist then they will be a niche product,” he continued, adding that “a large proportion of sustainable industrial trucks will probably be autonomous.”

Despite stepping down as CEO, Riske retains an interest in economic and global issues. In recent years, he has already started to become more socially involved, especially through the Hertie Foundation, which tackles socio-political issues as well as neuroscience and education. Putting his feet up and collecting stamps isn’t really his thing. Instead, he would rather bring more entrepreneurship to supervisory boards. “He was modest and always wanted to move things forward, without being in the foreground himself,” said his assistant Ohlenmacher. Maybe that’s why Gordon Riske, who didn’t start off his career in intralogistics, was such a good fit for the industry: Moving things in the background to keep the world running—surely there is no better description for intralogistics!

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