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From Reckoning to Purpose: How Difficult Pasts Can Drive Social Impact

Updated: Apr 15

When the Reimann family, owners of consumer goods conglomerate JAB Holding Company and one of Germany’s wealthiest families, resolved to transform their family foundation in 2019, they turned to Andreas Eberhardt for help.


The transformation was a response to a series of startling revelations: that the family business had exploited and abused forced laborers during the Second World War; and that Albert Reimann, Jr., who ran the company in the 1930s and 1940s, was a fervent supporter of Nazism who nonetheless fathered three children during an affair with Emilie Landecker—an employee whose Jewish father, Alfred, was murdered by the Nazis.


The Reimanns decided to rename their foundation for Alfred Landecker and re-focus it on combating anti-Semitism and strengthening democracy. In choosing Eberhardt to spearhead this new endeavor, they selected an experienced foundation administrator who had argued for the social purpose of business long before this was commonplace.


Saybrook recently spoke with Eberhardt about his experience leading the Alfred Landecker Foundation, the internal dynamics shaping how family enterprises reckon with difficult pasts, the differences between German and U.S. approaches to this challenge, and how firms and families benefit from using the lessons of the past to drive social impact.


Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


Saybrook: How did you become connected to the Reimann family and come to lead the Alfred Landecker Foundation?


Eberhardt: I’ve always been very interested not just in the people who make history, but in the people who suffer history. As a young researcher in the social sciences, I interviewed survivors of the Holocaust and of the communist dictatorship in East Germany.


Because of this project, I was asked to help with the campaign for compensation of Nazi-era slave and forced labor. It was very interesting to see how large companies reacted differently than small and mid-sized companies, many of which were family-owned. Often there were ruptures within families over how to grapple with this.


From there, I was asked to help develop Germany’s federal foundation, Remembrance, Responsibility, and the Future [EVZ], which was established to organize the payments to victims and their families, as well as to develop programs for understanding democracy and dealing with past trauma.


Eventually a headhunter approached me asking if I was willing to help build up the Landecker Foundation.


Saybrook: How did the Reimann family’s approach with the Landecker Foundation differ, if at all, from the other German companies you had interacted with earlier in your career?


Eberhardt: I already had some experience of how family-run companies normally react to this critical part of their own history. It’s not normally a proactive process. There’s the temptation not to talk about forced laborers at all, or to say they had a good time and they would've liked to stay there after the war. Or a company might donate something, commission some research, and hope that there's no further public attention so they can get back to business as usual. There’s a lack of intrinsic motivation to deal with it beyond that.


But that’s what the Reimann family eventually did with the Landecker Foundation. Not only did they donate a substantial amount to the victims and their organizations, which is the least they could do, but they changed the nature of the family foundation and gave it tremendous resources to pursue its new mission.


Saybrook: What do you think it was that enabled or led them to do this?


Eberhardt: Part of it was very specific to their family story. The story of Albert [Reimann] and Emilie [Landecker] is like a Hollywood drama, the Nazi and the Jew, a hidden secret. It was a shock for the third and fourth generation to learn the whole story. Even for the second generation it was not easy: your father was a Nazi; your mother was the child of a deported and murdered father. These stories had never really been told. So, there was a unique motivation to go about things differently than other companies and other families.


In addition, there was another driving force [JAB chairman Peter Harf], who was not a family member. Sometimes it’s easier for someone who's not part of the family. The Reimanns had a very smart, neutral person [in Harf] who realized—even if other business leaders in Germany were doing things differently—that the only way forward was to deal with this head-on.


Saybrook: Why do you think it’s unusual for companies to recognize this?


Eberhardt: CEOs and business leaders are paid to create profit and success for the company. Many German companies have a very, very contaminated past. It's not like Henry Ford, who was an anti-Semite. Of course, that was not good for the image of the Ford Motor Company, but it's not a direct connection to the Nazis and their crimes. German companies are sometimes concerned that their past will diminish their market opportunities or affect their operations. But you can't escape it.


So, the German case is difficult, probably a bit more difficult than for companies in the U.S. But there are similar issues for American companies dealing with slavery [in their past], for example.


Saybrook: Obviously the revelations about the Reimann family’s past are what drove the initial transformation of the foundation. During your time leading the foundation, what role did insights from the past continue to play in driving its evolution and desired impact?


Eberhardt: This may sound a bit strange, but continuing to talk about the past [in the context of the foundation’s work] has been very empowering for everyone involved. In Germany, if you donate money to a foundation, it’s not your money any more, and normally there’s only one representative of the founding family on the board. But we made sure we kept them all informed about the foundation’s work because it was so personal to them and so connected to their past.


The main lesson from the past that shaped our strategy was the need to defend democracy—and to update democracy for a digital world. Democracy is based on compromise and debates and it's very, very slow. A big focus for us was: how to make democracy fit this new, fast-paced online environment?


Another insight was from more recent history: that social change and social development have been driven by the private sector in the last 10 or 20 years. Today, data—access to data—is at the root of so many issues. And it’s tech companies, pharma companies, that have this data. I'm convinced that you have to cooperate with the private sector to defend our democracy.


Still another lesson from history was that capitalism is only possible in open and democratic societies. So every company must aim to secure these things, or we won't have functional and profitable companies in the coming decades.


Saybrook: You're saying there's a self-interested case for companies and entrepreneurs to care about democracy and fostering an open society: because that's how capitalism can continue to function. Do you think there’s a similarly self-interested case for these companies to grapple with their own history—including difficult history—beyond public relations?


Eberhardt: Doing this will be crucial for companies in the future. Younger generations are looking for competitive salaries, but they're also looking to work for a company whose philosophy they believe in. Look at the success of Patagonia and similar companies. They're telling a story about a larger purpose with their products. If you as a company start to be transparent with difficult histories and say, “We are interested in this and we want to learn from this”—and you can already show lessons learned—this will make your company more attractive than those who are not talking about it.


Second, companies are drivers of social change, now more than ever. That means being transparent about your own history. This is not just about morality, but also the fact that the basis of capitalism is an open and democratic society.


That, too, is a lesson learned from history. German companies, especially the big ones, were skeptical of Adolf Hitler during the early 1930s—only to change their tune when they discovered they could make a lot of money with Hitler in power. At first, they did increasingly profit from this cruel system. Then, in 1945, everything broke down and most of those companies were nearly bankrupt. One lesson from this, which business leaders will hopefully take to heart, is that you have to take a stand, even when it’s hard.


Should CEOs of companies speak out against the people or forces that are endangering our democracy? Clearly, the answer is yes. And this fits very well into a company philosophy where you also deal transparently with the mistakes you have made as a company and the learnings that came from them.


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