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A call to desertion

By Hermann Simon

From the dawn of science, researchers and thinkers have nurtured their dislike of the market and the economy. Is not science about "pure thought" for its own sake, while the market and business are all about "filthy lucre"? An appeal to abandon the old trenches, appreciate and perhaps even risk the fascination of entrepreneurship.

A call to desertion© micjan - Photocase.comProfessors can also be very successful outside academia - for example as entrepreneurs
Reputation, great freedom, social security are hallmarks of the university teaching profession that other professions can only dream of. The profession of entrepreneur on the other hand is multifaceted: significant risk, economic constraints, varying respect depending on the industry, extreme stress - but if it goes well also a high income, all the way to economic wealth. Both professions stand out from the mainstream of society, the "normal" employees. Unlike for example the USA, particularly in Germany there is a shortage of entrepreneurs, or to be more precise, "sophisticated entrepreneurs", who bring ambitious, highly technical products and services to market that are difficult to imitate. My hypothesis, which I present for debate with this article, is that many professors could be successful entrepreneurs. I would like to encourage these colleagues to take full advantage of their possibilities and seriously consider a career in business. To say it in an intentionally provocative way: this is a "call to desertion". I know whereof I speak, because I am just such a deserter. But more of that later.

Many professors already operate as successful entrepreneurs today. August-Wilhelm Scheer (Saarland University) first took his software company, IDS Scheer AG, public and then sold it to Software AG in 2009. Franz Pischinger founded FEV Motorentechnik GmbH in 1978 as a professor at RWTH Aachen; in just a few years the company became one of the world's leading engine development businesses, now employs 2000 members of staff and has subsidiaries in all important countries. Today the company is managed by his son Stefan Pischinger, who has also taken over his father's professorship. Peter Horvath, professor in Stuttgart, founded the management consultancy Horvath & Partners, which is today one of the largest consultancies of German provenance. In a similar fashion, professors Bernd Rolfes (University of Duisburg) and Henner Schierenbeck (University of Basel) founded ZEB Rolfes Schierenbeck Associates GmbH, today one of the leading consultancies in the financial sector. I could continue this list of successful companies founded by professors endlessly and expand it to numerous other fields. Even just these few examples provide impressive proof for my claim that there is great entrepreneurial potential among university teachers.

Main or side job?

But these examples - and many, many similar ones - have one thing in common: the professors did not run their companies full-time, but as a "side job". For example, the annual report of FEV Motorenentwicklung GmbH reads: "Professor Pischinger carried out his role as managing director alongside his teaching work at RWTH Aachen. The remaining managing directors carried out their roles full-time." At this point I would like to expressly point out that I am not at all interested in warming up the old discussion about whether academic teachers are neglecting their university work in favour of their side jobs. No, I'm interested in precisely the opposite question: would it not be better if university teachers who have such rare and outstanding entrepreneurial abilities dedicated themselves fully to their business and gave up their university work? Now I do have to admit that there are people who have the capacity to meet both challenges, an ability that I do not perceive in myself. Normally the work of a business founder and manager is so demanding that it requires his or her full concentration and time. Or to express it in a forward-looking manner: the successful companies founded by professors would presumably be even more successful if these people had dedicated or would dedicate themselves fully to their companies. And perhaps that might in some cases also be better for the university, its employees and students.

"Shackled" by a pension

Moreover I am certain that there could be far more company foundings if university teachers had the courage to free themselves of their "golden shackles" and become entrepreneurs. The strongest of these shackles appears to be the pension scheme. Even among people in their 30s one finds that the professorial pension scheme has become a life-determining parameter. Personally I find this astounding. Those who have the potential and the ambition to become entrepreneurs should not be afraid of spending their old age in poverty. But why do even those professors with entrepreneurial abilities cling to ultimately modest pensions? Why this barely comprehensible fixation with financial security in old age? The reader may interpret these statements as an indiscriminate verbal swipe. I would therefore like to follow these words with some information on my own actions. After 15 years as a C4 professor, due to placements abroad and offers from industry I had exhausted all available room for negotiation, including pension commitments. Nonetheless I quit my job at the age of 47 and relinquished my entitlement to a generous pension. According to the latest statement from the German statutory pension insurance scheme, my supplementary insurance payment now ensures me a monthly pension of 807.65 euros. Nonetheless I have never regretted taking this step. I can only recommend to all my colleagues who believe they are capable of becoming entrepreneurs and for whom university teaching is perhaps not quite a "vocation" to seriously consider making the leap into business.

Betraying the professional ethos?

Why is that such a great leap even though the required abilities abound? It might be because the worlds of the university teacher and the entrepreneur are very far apart. Between the two lies a deep social trench. In his recently published book "Mind vs. Money, The War between Intellectuals and Capitalism", American historian Alan S. Kahan throws light on this tense relationship between intellectuals, as which many university teachers consider themselves, and entrepreneurs. Professor Kahan says: "Intellectuals look down on money-making and especially on entrepreneurship", and elsewhere, "the more thoroughly one is an intellectual, the more likely one is to be thoroughly opposed to capitalism." Entrepreneurship however is the embodiment of capitalism. For many university teachers, rejecting the profession of university teacher in order to become an entrepreneur and follow the money amounts to a betrayal of their professional ethos. My own decision met with a complete lack of understanding from many of my colleagues: "How could anyone quit a job as a professor?" was a question I often heard. I by no means want to paint a one-sided and euphoric picture of entrepreneurship. I enjoyed being a professor, but I enjoyed being an entrepreneur more. What matters is to know what one really wants, what one's "vocation" is. That is difficult to find out, and sometimes it takes years to realise it. At the end of the 80s I wasn't even remotely considering giving up my professorship. Doing so was beyond my imagination. But in 1994 I was ready to choose the path of entrepreneurship. An important motivation for this choice was that to me, working scientifically was not enough; I wanted to directly influence practice and create a business.

Of course financial motivation plays a role for any entrepreneur. It would be naive to claim otherwise. But I could have worked as a consultant alongside my teaching job, as many other colleagues do, and would not have found myself impoverished. One should be clear about what a decision like this means. One relinquishes a large part of one's academic freedom, because a business, especially when it is growing and becoming more complex, limits degrees of freedom. For example I sometimes regretted that in contrast to my university days, I was rarely able to sit quietly at my desk and read and write any more. Nonetheless I always made an effort to remain scientifically reasonably on the ball, and in 2008, 13 years after leaving my university career, I wrote a textbook - however with the collaboration of a younger colleague as a co-author. The many other books and articles that I have written in the years of my practical career have no scientific aspirations, but are intended for practitioners.

Unimagined gain in freedom

But shaking off those "golden shackles" also opens up new, unimagined freedoms. The most motivating and most challenging element of my entrepreneurial work was internationalisation, which we began after I started working in business full-time in 1995. Nobody told me what to do, we made no applications and consulted no boards or ministries. We were the masters of our destiny. In 1996 we opened our first international office in the USA. Today, Simon - Kucher & Partners, headquartered in Bonn, has 23 offices in 17 countries and employs 500 people. In our specialism of pricing consulting we are world market leaders. And what we do has its direct origins in the research and teaching work of my university days. I am certain that there are hundreds of university teachers who could achieve similar things and more if they chose to become entrepreneurs and risked jumping into the deep end of the market and competition. The most important thing is to know what you really want. The "golden shackles" of civil service employment or pensions should no more be the decisive factor for university teachers with entrepreneurial potential than the money that entices to entrepreneurship. Everyone must find his or her own way. And to close with Winston Churchill: "Success is never final."

From Forschung und Lehre :: January 2011