"A little suburban town about 30 miles northwest of Chicago," wrote the Santa Fé magazine in 1952 about Des Plaines. Today it has 58,000 inhabitants. And it is here that Gebrüder Weiss has set up its new American headquarters.
In July 2017, the company announced that it was establishing its own national subsidiary in North America; sites in Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Los Angeles and New York have since opened, with more in the pipeline. Gebrüder Weiss celebrated the inauguration of its corporate base in the fall of 2017, flying in all its American employees for the occasion. People still like to talk about it, about how hard Heinz Senger-Weiss worked to promote the project and how grateful employees were that he personally attended the opening ceremony – a rarity for a corporate culture in the United States.
GW is now offering half a millennium of cumulative experience in transport and logistics to the world’s third-largest country and its markets. Air and ocean freight, tailor-made logistics solutions, warehousing, distribution, e-commerce, web-shop systems and much more: "We’re a global network with extensive expertise in local markets: independent, with a powerful presence, and providing excellent logistics services," says national director Marc McCullough.
Of Scottish descent, McCullough grew up in a town of some 2,300 souls in Somewhere, U.S.A. Leaving home early, he travelled to Cape Town at 20 and then to Chicago at 23, where he embarked on a career in logistics. Marc is a character in the best sense of the word: his voice and laugh boom like John Wayne’s, his mischievous sense of humor recalls Jack Lemmon. Motivation incarnate, he’s a get-up-and-go kind of guy who has a good word and a follow-up question for everyone. His manner is funny, gruff, passionate and people-friendly. But achieving targets is a must as well – in the balancing act he performs between responsive leadership and the determination to pilot GW to success.
Success, friendship, partnership
After all, success is the point, and it is built on the hard work of each individual. The men and women here hail from almost 20 different nations, and although they only formed this team in the last week of July 2017, their various pieces are already starting to form a perfect puzzle. A shared spirit keeps them motivated. Laughter often rings out; these people enjoy their work.
Few companies in the United States think and plan as far ahead as GW: not years ahead, but decades. It’s not about the next balance sheet, it’s about creating substance. That requires trust. The staff appreciates that and is grateful for the job security the company offers. Long-term loyalty tends to be atypical of American employment relationships, hiring and firing are never far apart, and the period of notice is usually a mere two weeks. Many people work under a cloud of being replaceable. That differs starkly from the GW tradition.
Despite customers in the United States being prompter and more demanding than their European counterparts, Marc identifies big opportunities. His plan: "We build sustained partnerships with the clients and partners." The unique quality of GW’s services is new to this country whose gross domestic product of some 19,400 billion dollars is still the largest in the world.
No sooner have his lips started to twitch than she is laughing: they communicate without words. Marc’s right hand is Daniela Wurm-Hendricks, the two are the "Dream Couple of Gebrüder Weiss U.S." They have known one another since 1996, when she became the very first Gebrüder Weiss employee in the United States. Barring a brief break, they have been together for a long time and are now cooperating on their new endeavor. She is Marc’s "work wife," he says with a laugh, "home-grown by Gebrüder Weiss" in Vorarlberg. "Very few know the U.S. market like the "Mother of the Company." "We clearly see ourselves as a start-up," she says. "Right now we’re working exclusively with the company’s structures and processes, which for me feels like a rebirth." Gebrüder Weiss in the United States? A start-up with 20 years of market experience.
Now you’re entering...
The first immigrants began settling the area around Des Plaines in 1835. Many were Germans who established farms, rendering the land lush and flush with fruit and vegetables. Once a railway station was built in 1860, the hamlet grew into a crossroads; Des Plaines was founded in 1873. As so often in America, there is no historic center holding a church and a marketplace. This is the type of town we know from westerns and Doris Day movies: you can imagine how it snaked along the tracks which, along with the Des Plaines River, define the city’s coordinates; how the streets fanned out from the central track in an ever-widening lattice.
The train station is spanking clean, as are the Civic Center and high school; the streets and sidewalks are spacious and in immaculate condition. Des Plaines is prospering, profiting from its proximity to the boomtown. In the residential districts, stickers on windows and doors warn "No Soliciting!" The unknown pedestrian walking in the winter cold draws curious stares from passing SUVs and pickups. Signs proclaim the vigilance of the neighborhood watch; many homes are additionally patrolled by security services. Americans place great stock in safety first. And while their friendliness is always up front and often heartfelt, they avoid discussing religion, politics and personal issues. After all, this stranger could be anyone.
People’s yearning for a safe haven is nurtured by the many TV commercials touting security services, insurance policies, health products and medical treatments. Every few minutes promises of safety for you and your loved ones flicker across the screen: classic advertising images showcasing a happy nuclear family embedded in an aspirational middle class. Every commercial is multi-ethnic, the conceptual mean is no longer a pure white.
Des Plaines is an odyssey into the past. It’s not difficult to imagine other buildings and vehicles on these streets, people wearing different garb. Sixty, seventy years seem to pass by in a flash. James Dean and Muddy Waters were here just yesterday: at the Choo-Choo time has stood still – and its owners are proud of the fact. A sign on the door proclaims, "You are now entering the Choo-Choo Diner, where 1953 is the year and common etiquette and manners are expected." Guests are asked to behave themselves. The Choo-Choo is the neighborhood meeting place and famed city-wide for its children’s birthday parties. A train chugs and rattles along the extended counter, its cars delivering fresh homemade burgers and fries from the kitchen to waiting guests. Rose has worked at the Choo-Choo for six years now. She likes her job, especially the youngest patrons, but prefers to live in Chicago and commute. The train ride takes only 30 minutes.
Having Chicago on your doorstep explains the choice of Des Plaines as Gebrüder Weiss headquarters. The sprawl of O’Hare Airport starts just a few minutes away, and Chicago hosts the largest railroad hub in the country. Its Union Station is the nation’s largest rail terminal, the road network is highly evolved, and the legendary Route 66 begins here. Canals, rivers and lakes provide access to the Atlantic. In short, with an entire arsenal of transport options at one’s disposal – air, land and water – it offers the perfect toolkit for solving any logistics challenge.
In the 1770s, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable – whose father was a Quebec merchant and mother a black slave – set up a post at the spot where the indigenous Native Americans operated their own trading station in the region they called "Checagou." The post’s auspicious location on the waterways of Lake Michigan and the Chicago River hastened its growth. When Illinois gained statehood in 1818 and was slated for further settlement, an east-west railway line was built, turning Chicago into the continent's "gateway to the west" and the most important marketplace for raw materials and merchandise far and wide. Wood arrived by ship from the north, farmers brought their crops to the markets, tools and other materials came from the east. Everything was sold on site or routed onward by rail. This gave rise to a village, officially founded in August 1833, that became a city within the space of four years and then exploded from a population of 4,200 in 1833 to 500,000 in 1880. A mere decade later, it counted more than a million inhabitants.
Today some 10 million people live in the metropolitan region. Chicago is the largest city in Illinois (also known as the "Land of Lincoln" and for the slogan "Illinois – Are you up for amazing?"). The state is thriving, with an economic output equal to that of the Netherlands and a per-capita income of some 66,000 dollars. Chicago is the shoulder that the state leans on. The Windy City can claim even more superlatives: the world’s largest public library and the very first skyscraper, built here (and not in New York) in 1885. It is the nation’s third-biggest city and home to many national and international corporations. There is a reason why Chicago has 24 partner cities around the globe. Yet the records it holds are not all positive: it can also lay claim to the highest violent-crime rate and the most murders in the country. Al Capone and John Dillinger wrought havoc here in their heyday. Crime is a tradition and even that can be turned into profit. Tourists are invited to take tours that visit notorious landmarks in the city’s criminal history.
The world’s largest slaughterhouses were also located in Chicago. The inhuman working conditions that reigned there were spotlighted by Upton Sinclair in his 1906 novel "The Jungle" and provided the backdrop for Bertolt Brecht’s 1959 play "Saint Joan of the Stockyards." Fresh meat was distributed to the entire country from here. Today these slaughterhouses have disappeared, and with them many other businesses. Chicago is part of the Rust Belt, the oldest industrial zone in the United States. It extends along the Great Lakes northeast of Chicago via Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh to the fringes of Boston, Washington D.C. and New York. Countless jobs were lost in this huge swath of land which was once home to heavy manufacturing – iron, coal and steel processing. And while Chicago’s downtown with its financial district is flourishing, the southern part of the city is all the more destitute: neighborhoods that used to be vibrant with small industry and trades yawn empty as ghost towns. The winds gusting off Lake Michigan sweep through the streets and broken windows.
Yesterday for tomorrow
The end of January 2018. As has been customary in the United States since 1790, it is again time for the president to review developments both at home and abroad. The State of the Union address revolves around the accomplishments of the past and prospects for the year ahead. The focus lies on challenges and opportunities, potential and projects; betimes there is much rhetoric and little reality. About 60 minutes in length, the speech is broadcast live on all the major television channels – and punctuated only by acclamation from those Republican members of Congress who rise to applaud every few sentences.
The president talks of the battles of the frontier age, of the great trek westward, of the nation’s strength: "If there is a mountain, we climb it." He praises the power of a unified front, appealing to "one people and one American family," and his followers go wild. And he glorifies the ideal of shouldering responsibility. "If you work hard and believe in yourself […] you can be anything, and together, we can achieve absolutely anything," he proclaims. And closes, of course, with "God bless America." He makes history resonate.
Those who headed west back then were seeking a new home for themselves and their families, a home that held the promise of peace, freedom and gainful employment. Safety in numbers: that was the only way for the settlers to protect themselves from the forces of Nature and the Native Americans. So they formed convoys and wagon trains for the trek westward. That principle lives on, for example in popular sports. While each player fights his or her own battle, their strength is pooled as one team that is pitted against the other, the enemy.
Those years of the 19th century saw the birth of the American Dream that enticed immigrants from the world over. And although many Americans – particularly today’s newcomers – may see this differently, one thing is clear: the conviction that hard work will be rewarded and that people can advance socially in a safe environment is a powerful incentive.
In 2018 the president revisits these and other concepts, promises and experiences that are anchored in the collective consciousness of the nation. And strikes an emotional chord with those who feel lost in a globalized world that has stolen their livelihoods, a world that makes them feel like strangers in their own country, as if they were no longer welcome. During the last 40, 50 years, various minorities have secured political majorities for their concerns and radically changed the national culture. Once passed down through the generations, the concepts of marriage, family and religion have been shaken to the core.
One might well feel lost when, contrary to one’s own systems of values and morals, the gender roles start shifting; when, on the streets, men walk hand-in-hand with men, women with women; when "strength" is redefined and doubt cast on the nuclear family as the ultimate purpose of life. Those who believe in the olden golden rules of a good upbringing – "Be kind, be useful, be respectful" – can rarely identify with the new laissez-faire approach. The emotional response has morphed into a political stance irreconcilably at odds with a more liberal world view.
This president has postulated and pledged a future driven by the values of the past. And his disciples want exactly that. After all, they regard themselves as the "true Americans." Yet we Europeans are hardly in a position to point an admonishing finger at the United States: too obvious are the parallel scenarios unfolding in various "Old World" countries.
Since 1966, a representative of the opposition traditionally responds to the president’s State of the Union address. This speaker has only 60 minutes to prepare, then the stations go live and televise his or her rejoinder. Joseph P. Kennedy III, JFK’s great-nephew and Robert Kennedy’s grandson, spoke this year on behalf of the Democrats in response to the president’s (self-) presentation. A young man, born in 1980, and a member of the House of Representatives since 2012, he eschewed a formal jacket and the triumphant flourishes of a statesman to speak simply about a nation living in freedom and its self-imposed obligation to be open. He promised sanctuary for immigrants and dreamers. This Kennedy is the antithesis of the current president, and it will be interesting to see how these polarities play out, should the two face off in the next election.
Following the opposition’s response, you can stay seated in front of the TV and wait for the surveys that start feeding back a mere half-hour later: Who did a better job of selling himself? The younger man, basically an unknown quantity on the international stage, earns respectable grades and plaudits, but the president is doing a good job in the eyes of his disciples: his causes and arguments kindle overwhelming approval.
This land is divided, and fault lines are opening between a cosmopolitan weltanschauung and this yearning for the stability of historical tradition.
Let’s go, let’s do
On the way back to headquarters I pass mobile homes on Elmhurst Road: prefab houses concocted of wood, vinyl, steel and drywall, with add-on porches and balconies, hybrids halfway between a garden shed and camper trailer. Each is fronted by two or three parked cars, the American flag waves above many. Here too a private security company is on patrol, and dogs bark if you approach unbidden. Many years ago, flatbed trucks planted these trailers on their plots. Immortalized in Betty Blue, but thriving elsewhere as well, mobility – the desire to keep moving on – is the lifeblood of the American Dream.
At headquarters I meet up with Dalibor Kajmakowski, one of the rare birds who actually won the Green Card lottery and emigrated a year ago – with his wife, children and the whole kit and caboodle in tow. Previously at Gebrüder Weiss in Austria, as Business Development Manager he is now a mainstay at headquarters, where he turns first orders into follow-ups and wins over new customers. What makes the company so special in his view? "The ample resources, the unique know-how, the family feel of the company, its independence and, of course, its loyalty to its employees," is his spontaneous answer. "In the States," he adds, "that family feeling often makes the difference. It's a big point for Gebrüder Weiss, and while it doesn’t exactly make us unique, it does make us very special." When asked whether Washington politics impacts business performance, he says, "If companies come back to the United States and produce their goods here, that will affect exports and obviously our potential as a warehousing and service provider too." As in so many cases, there are more than two sides to this argument.
I finally meet Theodore Gensch, known to everyone as "Ted": his great grandfather arrived from southern Germany, his wife comes from Mexico, his grandmother was born in Chicago. Tomorrow he’s celebrating his sixth anniversary at Gebrüder Weiss. "Really a long time," he says with a grin. A specialist for automotive and technology, he is National Compliance and Risk Manager. The fact that Ted is an avid history buff also makes him a good fit for a company whose roots hark back to 16th century Europe. American customers never cease to be amazed by such a storied legacy and are always eager to learn more about it. Once the initial start-up phase has been completed, Ted hopes to go to law school. And then, of course, he plans to return to Gebrüder Weiss.
Rainer Groothuis, born in 1959 in Emden/East Friesland, is Managing Partner at the communications agency Groothuis.