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Joerg Ulrich

Joerg Ulrich

CEO and CFO of Linde Hydraulics

Joerg Ulrich Opens Up about Change

The CEO and CFO of Linde Hydraulics explains his role in the transformation of a century-old German manufacturing company.

by Jen Swetzoff

Effective leaders like Joerg Ulrich, the ambitious and pragmatic CEO and CFO of Linde Hydraulics, know that implementing change is a difficult but critical part of doing business. Over the past few years, Ulrich has strategically modernized a 100-plus-year-old German manufacturer of hydraulics, power transmissions, and electronics into a global powerhouse. The company, now jointly owned by German and Chinese investors, is poised for growth, with more than US$230 million in revenue, 1,300 employees, five plants, and seven offices worldwide.

“When we agreed on a restructuring project that included laying off 25 percent of the workers,” Ulrich says, “it was extremely difficult. We knew the best thing for growth was to prioritize sales and R&D — exploring new markets, expanding the product portfolios, and prioritizing our customer base — but many of those ideas were new to our employees, who, on average, have worked with the company for about 15 years. It’s been a bit of a cultural revolution.”

Without any doubt, Ulrich was best qualified to lead the company through this significant change. He has a degree in business administration from the European Business School in Oestrich-Winkel, a degree in economics from the University of Hagen, and a Ph.D. in business administration from the European Business School. Between 1996 and 2004, he worked with Booz Allen Hamilton, advising international companies in financial services and the utilities industry. Linde AG then recruited him to join one of the company’s divisions, the Material Handling Group. In 2006, Ulrich was part of the carve-out team that separated Material Handling from the industrial gas business and became a stand-alone €4 billion (US$5.5 billion) forklift truck company under the new name of Kion Group. In 2010, he was promoted to lead Linde Hydraulics, which was by that time an in-house division of Linde Material Handling. In 2012, it was spun off into its own company, with Ulrich at the helm.

Today, Ulrich works in Aschaffenburg and lives with his wife and their five children in Wiesbaden, Germany. During a recent conversation, he discussed the value of working internationally, speaking up for yourself, and waiting in line.

What’s the best part of your job?

It’s quite amazing to see my vision for the company come to life. I value the freedom and the liberty to reshape and build a new corporate culture here, and I’m fortunate to have complete trust from our board and the shareholders. There’s great risk in being a leader, but there’s also so much opportunity.

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?

I’m most proud of the relationships I’ve built, and of my ability to effectively work with people in all areas and at all levels. I think that when I worked as a consultant, I tended to show arrogance in behavior and arguments. I’ve worked hard to become more straightforward, tolerant, and patient. When I went shopping on the weekends as a consultant, for example, I did everything I could to get up front in a line, because I thought I was busy and important. I had big projects. But really, I needed to learn to queue. It’s a simple idea, but a quite important one.

How does your consulting experience remain relevant to your work now?

I’m particularly grateful for the international level of my consulting projects — the work took me from Australia to Barbados and to many places in between — and the international network I was able to build. I also learned valuable tool sets and methodologies at Booz Allen Hamilton, which helped me structure my work, digest complex content, and bring forward a message clearly and comprehensively for senior management. That all remains tremendously helpful, from how to apply a top-down approach when you see a challenge to how to apply the 80/20 rule. In fact, I think I was able to jump into an entirely different sector at a management level, as the head of strategy and M&A for Kion Group, largely because of what I learned at Booz Allen. Equally important, Booz Allen was always more than just a working place for me, and I’m always delighted to meet with people in the Strategy& network. I established many professional relationships and made lifelong friends as a consultant with the firm.

How would the people closest to you describe you?

I hope they’d say I’m a reliable business partner — someone who takes responsibility, makes decisions, and moves forward. And with five children ages 5 to 17, whether I’m at home or whether I’m in the office, I’m always managing something. I’m also still a bit of a child myself, so people might say I like playing and making jokes.

How do you balance your work and time at home?

I’m very demanding for myself, my colleagues, and our corporate culture. But I also do believe in having a balance, so I try to be up-front about what’s important to me. From the beginning, I’ve been clear with people that my number one priority is family, then comes the job. I believe that sometimes you need to be a little resistant and speak up for yourself.

What do your children think of your work?

Well, they get excited when they see an excavator or a reloader or a tractor or a forklift. They know we don’t produce the whole machine, but we build the little components that make it more efficient.

When and where do you find yourself happiest?

I’m happiest with my family. In addition to spending time with my wife and children, I enjoy biking, swimming, skiing, and reading.

What career advice can you give others?

Don’t start deep diving too early. It’s better to develop a general management approach first. And in my opinion, of course, consulting is the most attractive initial career step. If you work with a prominent, well-connected consulting company like Strategy&, you have the ability to build up experience across all types of industries and departments. And if you want to become a top manager with a leadership role, you need this kind of overview. You need to work on strategic topics as well as operational topics. Consulting is also very challenging in terms of methods, instruments, analytical depth, and demanding people. If you have weaknesses, they’re going to be detected very well and very soon, and you’ll need to adapt accordingly.

What’s next for you?

My goal is to help Linde Hydraulics become more aligned with our core values and increasingly successful. I think we’re making progress already, because people who have worked for the company for 20 or even 40 years tell me they think we’re heading in the right direction. Positive feedback like that about the changes we’re making, from our employees and our customers, is the most valuable thing to me.

Jen Swetzoff is the founder and CEO of Closeup Content Studio, a strategic communications and marketing firm that focuses on sharing informative, inspiring, and influential stories. She formerly worked as the deputy managing editor at strategy+business magazine.

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