A Duderstadt

Billionaire, middle-class German en­tre­pre­neurs are not nor­mally un­con­ven­tion­al, ven­ture­some go-getters.
Except for one: Hans Georg Näder.

The “Capriccio” is an au­then­tic Italian res­tau­rant in the Grunewald, a posh bor­ough deep in the west­ern part of Berlin, miles away from the cap­i­tal’s trendy hot spots. The pa­tron wel­comes each guest with a hand­shake. Many reg­u­lars come here, among of them quite a few TV stars. For Hans Georg Näder, the Capriccio is one of his liv­ing rooms when he is in Berlin. Always on the move around the globe, he owns sev­er­al houses in places others can only dream of. Berlin, how­ev­er, is his one true love, this “un­fin­ished, rough and ready city”, as he calls it. At Potsdamer Platz, Näder’s com­pa­ny owns a styl­ish branch of­fice com­plete with a show­room dis­playing its prod­ucts: arm and leg prosth­e­ses, wheel­chairs, or­thot­ics — med­i­ca mir­a­cles in their own right. Otto Bock, his grand­fa­ther on his moth­er’s side, founded the com­pa­ny in 1919, his fa­ther Max Näder made it an in­ter­na­tion­al suc­cess, and Hans Georg Näder turned it into a glob­al high-tech cor­po­ra­tion: Otto Bock Health Care, the com­pa­ny’s slo­gan says, gives peo­ple their mo­bil­ity back — in 140 countries.

The ability to enjoy life — and share that joy with others

In Germany, money is usu­ally very dis­creet. Family busi­nesses rule their em­pires from be­hind high walls, or at least be­hind high hedges. Hans Georg Näder, how­ev­er, is any­thing but dis­creet.

Born in Duderstadt in the south­ern part of Lower Saxony, he a man of many facets, most of which hard­ly tally with the pop­u­lar image of a back­wa­ter bil­lion­aire. For one thing, the ar­dent yachts­man is as­so­ci­ated with a pleth­o­ra of char­i­ty events great and small. The Ottobock Global Foundation looks after Syrian ref­u­gees in Turkey, sup­plying vic­tims of the war with prosth­e­ses and wheel­chairs, as­sists those af­flict­ed by the earth­quake in Nepal and sup­ports children in Rio’s favelas. Näder has do­nated five mil­lion Euros for tech­ni­cal sup­port of the Para­lym­pics ath­letes, sal­vaged the National Anti-Doping Agency from bank­rupt­cy, pro­moted de­prived children in Prenzlauer Berg, pres­ented his home­town with a new bell for its Catholic church, averted the de­mo­li­tion of its lead­ing hotel, and put two mil­lion Euros into build­ing a Tabaluga holiday resort for dis­abled or so­cial­ly de­prived children.

The “fun of giving”, as he calls it, is some­thing he learned from his par­ents. “They were Prot­es­tants, very cos­mo­pol­i­tan, with a strong in­cli­na­tion to­wards hu­man­ism and laissez-faire.” In the 1980s, his fa­ther do­nated mil­lions for a new organ to the small Prot­es­tant church in Duderstadt. His moth­er sup­ported SOS children’s villages.

For a moment, Näder looks at his red wine glass. Hes­i­tates. Then he says, “If you have the priv­i­lege to be born into such a fam­i­ly and such a world, then you should be prepared to share.” Näder’s good deeds are never planned. They some­how hap­pen. Just as his par­ents’ ben­e­fac­tions, his are sim­ply based on “fun and gut feel­ing”.

The German economic miracle made Duderstadt rich

Hans Georg Näder was born into the new pros­per­i­ty of the early six­ties. To date, he has con­verted his par­ents’ mag­nif­i­cent villa and park-like gar­den, and added a new build­ing. The “Max Näder Haus” now serves as head­quar­ters of the Näder Family Office in­clud­ing the com­pa­ny ar­chives, and a venue for events. “A knowl­edge base and a meeting place, but not a mu­se­um”, says Näder.

For Näder, his com­pa­ny’s his­to­ry is, as he puts it, “a driving force for the fu­ture”. And it also re­lates his own his­to­ry. It was prob­a­bly for his own good that his grades in math and phys­ics were so “abysmal” that they more or less barred him from fol­low­ing in his fa­ther’s foot­steps as an en­gi­neer. He en­rolled in busi­ness eco­nom­ics in­stead, broke off when Max Näder’s health started to de­cline. At only 28, he took over the com­pa­ny on his fa­ther’s 75th birthday.

“I de­vel­oped an ap­proach which went be­yond the vi­sions of my grand­fa­ther as an or­tho­pe­dic tech­ni­cian, and my fa­ther as an en­gi­neer. It’s about mar­ket­ing, not about tiny screws. I think in shorter cy­cles, not in de­cades, and I have sim­ply moved ahead chal­lenge by chal­lenge.”

In­ven­tions fueled the com­pa­ny’s way to billion-Euro sales. Ac­cord­ing to Näder, many of the prod­ucts it has de­vel­oped would never have gone through in a large en­ter­prise. “We have always re­mained a start-up of sorts.” He has founded or bought some 40 com­pa­nies, then sold or closed down more than a few of them. He has taken great risks and pro­duced flops, by and by de­vel­op­ing the “gut in­stinct” many medium-sized com­pa­nies rely on for suc­cess. “I’m like an an­gler sit­ting by the Alster, well away from the other an­glers, with ev­ery­one else won­der­ing why I’m sit­ting there, of all places. It’s be­cause I have a feel­ing that this is where the fish are.”

He talks with­out the slightest whiff of man­age­ment speak. And he avoids An­gli­cisms. Excel tables are an abom­i­na­tion to him, and he has never used a lap­top. His qual­i­ties, he tells us, lie else­where: “I am rath­er good at deal­ing with peo­ple.”

For a creative company, a lot of movement is a good thing

Seven years ago, he bought the prem­ises of a for­mer brew­ery in Prenzlauer Berg. Not be­cause he was look­ing for an in­vest­ment, but be­cause the bar­tend­er at the Soho House in­sisted on taking orders in English only. Näder left the bar. Stroll­ing through the chilly full moon night in search of a gin tonic, he dis­cov­ered a stretch of in­dus­tri­al waste­land and on it a con­struc­tion site sign, part­ly over­grown with ivy. Once again, it was some­thing that just hap­pened, he says.

Näder bought the site, which covers a bit more than 24,000 square meters. He could have built a lot of apart­ments on it. Or at least a shopping mall. But he waived his build­ing rights. Mean­ing he did what in­vestorss in their right minds would sim­ply never do.

So far, large chunks of the Bötzow brew­ery have been re­stored ac­cord­ing to blue­prints drawn by English star ar­chi­tect Sir David Chipperfield. By the end of this year, the Ottobock Group is going to move in with R&D, Mar­ket­ing, and an IT team — all in all, some 200 peo­ple are going to work for Ottobock at Bötzow. Plus there will be res­tau­rants and bars, a mu­se­um show­ing works from Näder’s no­ta­ble art col­lec­tion, a re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion clinic for pa­tients getting fit­ted with Ottobock tech­nol­o­gy after sur­gery, as well as spaces for start-up com­pa­nies and a “Future Lab”.

Näder is about to pave the way for the fourth gen­er­a­tion taking over — his daugh­ters Julia and Georgia. “We will soon be so big that we will no longer be con­sid­ered a fam­i­ly en­ter­prise,” he says. Once Näder him­self steps down, top man­ag­ers are going to take over the day-to-day busi­ness, and they are likely to prefer Berlin to tiny Duderstadt. His daugh­ters are going to take on seats on the group’s su­per­vi­sory board.

With the com­pa­ny’s 100th anniversary just around the cor­ner, Hans Georg Näder sees no rea­son to wax mel­an­chol­ic, for he in­tends to “shape the fu­ture”. And to do that, he sac­ri­fices long-cherished tra­di­tions here and now. The fa­mous gut in­stinct will soon be put out to grass.

Excerpts from the por­trait of Alfred Weinzierl in “Spiegel Classic” (issue 01/2017).

Photo © Christoph Neumann