Mike Vilarino, Business Integration Manager with Baronet Coffee, sat down with Wim Abbing, President and CEO of Probat and current NCA Board Member. Probat is an industry-leading coffee plant and machinery equipment manufacturer headquartered in Emmerich, Germany. Because of the length of the conversation with Mike, this will be a two-part interview. Part one will largely focus on Wim’s early years and his initial time at Probat. Part two will focus on his experience in the coffee industry and his advice to the next generation.
Vilarino: To jump right into it, let’s rewind to before you began your career. Tell me a little bit about your education, — did you attend university? If so, what did you major in?
Abbing: For the full story, I went to high school with the youngest daughter of Hans Von Gimborn (then CEO of Probat). We met briefly in kindergarten and were from the same town, Emmerich, Germany. We ended up getting married and having children together!
To answer your question, though, I was drafted into the German military following my high school graduation. I spent about 18 months serving as a soldier prior to enrolling in university.
I attended a university in the northern part of Germany. Unlike the US, German students begin with classes in their major instead of initially focusing on general liberal arts studies. My major was in economics, which had me studying financial markets and learning concepts in monetary policy. Naturally, I set my sights on a career in banking and eventually landed at a German commercial bank, where I worked for the first six years of my career. Near the end of my time at the bank, I found myself unhappy with what I was doing. I felt that I was unfulfilled, and I remember thinking to myself ‘I really don’t want to die in this job.’
Coincidentally, around the same time, I was talking to my father-in-law, Mr. Von Gimborn. He knew that I was unhappy at the bank and said to me ‘Well, Wim, we don’t have any family members at the company’ (Probat). It was now 1999 and Mr. Von Gimborn had retired from his position as CEO of Probat but remained chairman of the board. I remember him going on to say, ‘it would be nice to have a family member at the company again.’
I decided to take my father-in-law up on the not-so-subtle offer and joined Probat in the treasury department in 1999. Because of my background majoring in economics and working at a bank, it was natural for me to start out in an area that focused on the finances of the company. I quickly moved up the ranks in the finance department at Probat, moving from analyst to controller and ultimately rising to CFO within two years.
So, what was your day-to-day like at this point?
Abbing: To be honest, Mike, it was a nice, quiet office job. The year was 2000 and my fourth child was just born. At work, my day-to-day was consistent with any other CFO of a midsized German company. We had just acquired a Brazilian business, which took me on the road quite a bit, but not nearly as much as I would be in the future. What was clear, however, was that I did not want to have any face-to-face time with our customers. I was happy being in the background and enjoying a more back-office role. I had my spreadsheets and numbers and was content giving those numbers and my opinions to someone else to make decisions.
I was now 35 years old and two or so years had gone by. Out of the blue, my then-boss, the CEO of Probat, left the company.
I remember my father-in-law, still chairman of the board, saying to me, ‘This is your chance. Do you want to step up and run the company together with Stephan Lange (then CSO)?’ Before he and the board looked for a replacement as CEO, they decided to offer a Co-CEO position to both me and Stephan, a position which we both accepted.
I started as CEO in 2002 and was 35 years old, which at that time seemed very young. I remember various partners, customers, and vendors commenting about my age – and to be frank, I was very young for a CEO. But, as I said earlier, the business was structured differently than it is today, so leadership was split between myself as CEO in Germany, and Stephan, who ran the United States operations. It was clear from the beginning that I was the introvert, happy to be in the background. And Stephan was the opposite, a man who enjoyed attending shows, visiting customers, and traveling around the world. That type of outward-facing role was a role that I had not even begun to think about as a position that would make me happy.
Stepping into the CEO position, I would have assumed that you would be forced to be much more customer-facing. Is that not a fair assumption?
I still tried to hide a bit in the background. I was happy to concede the client-facing responsibilities to my colleague in the US.
While he continued to drive the sales side, I had quite a bit to do internally back in Germany. Unfortunately, at this time there were some HR issues primarily driven by the generational change taking place within our company. One of the challenges that ultimately arise from family businesses is that people tend to stay forever. Especially where I was from, most people who entered the business never left. And because of that, Probat was unable to offer the next generation the ability to grow, sometimes waiting until lifelong employees either retired or died! When I joined the company, my task was fixing this and figuring out a path forward. We changed a lot of these types of situations, and as a result, many people left.
Several years went by until the financial crisis in 2008-2009 hit. Stephan ended up leaving Probat and the board ultimately gave me full responsibility to not only take over his role but to run the entire global business as the sole CEO, a change from how we had structured the company over the past 7 years. My first thing to do now? Go out and see customers.
So that was a big change for you?
Abbing: Oh yes! The bright lights were now on me. And to tell you the truth, Mike, it was amazingly interesting! Probat’s customers are extremely diverse. Our equipment can be found anywhere from shops with small shop roasters all the way up to big corporations like Nestle. What really makes it fun, however, is the mid-sized companies. I was now traveling the world to see customers big and small and to tell you the truth, it was an eye-opening experience. My travels took me from Japan and South Korea all the way to the US and Africa. Maybe even surprising myself, I was having fun meeting customers, talking to people, and ultimately learning what it took to be CEO and run a company.
So, you started running the company in 2009, and I assume you learned a lot at that point. It was basically a new role for you. What did you learn about yourself? To bring the conversation towards coffee, what did you learn about the coffee industry as the now sole CEO?
Abbing: What I learned about myself was that it is important to try new things. I learned not to be afraid of making mistakes; I’ve made mistakes just like everybody does. As far as I saw it, customers accept mistakes. And adding onto that, the industry itself is one big family. I learned how important it is to talk to people across the industry, from customers to competitors. While talking to competitors, I never talk about prices, customers, etc., I talk to learn, and I talk to understand!
Another thing I learned was that Germans tend to have an issue with their language skills. You always hear a German! Our accents are strong, and Germans sometimes shy away from speaking English or other languages. Traveling across the world and speaking with customers, I learned to not be afraid of that. There’s no need to hide your heritage, language, or nationality. You should be proud and embrace everything that comes along with those parts of you. To summarize, I learned that our market is so amazingly international, diverse, and understanding.
There are many markets that Probat is involved in that are so much narrower than coffee as well. As an example of how expansive the coffee market is, about a month ago we held a symposium in Emmerich, where one of our customers spoke about his coffee business in Mongolia! It was eye-opening! Coffee only began being sold in Mongolia in 1992. Securing green coffee in a landlocked country was just one of many challenges our customers faced. These and other obstacles are overcome daily by members across our industry. It makes our industry so unique.
Thank you again to Wim on behalf of the NCA Next Gen Communications Committee. Please stay tuned for part two with the CEO of Probat, Wim Abbing, to learn more about his experience in the coffee industry and advice to the next generation!