Appreciation, sense, respect – this is the recipe for success that Bodo Janssen uses to drive his Upstalsboom hotels to ever greater heights. Until he got this far, Janssen, now 42, had to go through the school of hard knocks: kidnapping, insolvency at the family company, father's death in an accident, and being the most hated person in the entire hotel.
TEXT: SILKE BECKER // PHOTOGRAPHY: JANINA RAHN
Why?" This is the simple and almost naive question that determines Bodo Janssen's life. As a child, he simply doesn't understand why he should solve the problems in the way that the teacher wants him to. "I was a bad scholar," Janssen grins. Time and again he got into arguments with teachers and only just scraped his school leaving certificate (Abitur) at the age of 20. None of this was quite to the delight of his parents, a typical entrepreneurial family where everything revolved around the current project of the developer, who specialised in hotels. "I was the black sheep of the family." Afterwards, he studied business administration and Chinese studies in Hamburg. Less out of interest than because his school leaving grades were not good enough for anything else. Bodo Janssen did not particularly stand out as a high flyer as a student either. "I couldn't see any sense in all these theories." Instead, the good-looking, sporty sunny boy preferred to party. "I just lived for the moment." However, the millionaire's son covered his own living expenses, he was in demand as a model, and also worked as a barkeeper in popular trendy bars.
Instead of continuing to cram dry theories, Bodo Janssen now wanted to gain practical experience, and so he took over an ailing tennis complex from his parents' portfolio. He got them back into the black again, and a short while later he was managing a second tennis complex as well. Then in 2001, quickly and unexpectedly, his parents' company collapsed: Their main business, project development and hotel construction, was insolvent and went into liquidation. All that the family was left with was Upstalsboom GmbH & Co. KG, a company specialising solely in the management of the hotels. It was originally only a sideline to make the constructions projects more appealing to investors.<br/> <br/> Nevertheless, it wasn't until three years later Bodo Janssen took a serious interest in his parents' business for the first time in his life. Before he finally started to work at Upstalsboom in 2005, he spent almost a year taking a very close look at the processes. He did not like what he saw. Dissatisfied investors who continuously demanded more money, hotels where savings had to be made in all areas to at least partially finance the excessively high dividend payments. "The whole situation made absolutely no sense to me at all." For this reason, he suggested to his parents that they should free the hotels from the "shareholders' yoke" and take them over themselves.
In 2007, Upstalsboom purchased the first hotel, the Upstalsboom Seehotel on Borkum Island. But only a few months later, the next shock set in. At the age of only 65, Janssen's father dies in a plane crash. "Our lighthouse, the pillar of strength, was suddenly gone." This was a bitter blow, not just for the family, but also for the company. What were they to do? Bodo Janssen had no degree, no money, no clue. His capital: his mother's trust in him, his experience with the tennis complex and somewhere deep-down in his gut, the feeling that in the end, everything always turns out ok somehow. "Both the kidnapping as well as my experience with the tennis complex had shown me that life always goes on." The question is just: How?<br/> <br/> The solution came along in the shape of the sector expert Franz-Josef König. At an event, König presented a new management system for youth hostels, and Bodo Janssen was very excited. From that moment onwards, numbers, numbers and more numbers ruled his life. "Task forces" from head office are drafted out the individual hotels to "sort things out" there. Turnover, booking numbers and rates rose, and Upstalsboom was back on a growth track again. "I thought I was great."
However, the employees took a very different view of this. Sickness rates of more than 8 percent, employees handing in their notice in droves, a remarkably bad reputation, very few job applications. "I thought that was because of the lack of skilled workers." He hired a new personnel manager, Bernd Gaukler from the Atlantic Kempinski Hamburg hotel, to get the employees "up and running" again. Instead, he presented to his boss the results of an employee survey, which have now become legendary. They were a slap in the face for the entrepreneur, then 36 years old, who was spoilt by success: All employees complained about stress and pressure, worried about when the next bankruptcy would occur, felt as if they were only underlings and that their opinions did not count. In short: The employees wanted a different boss.
Having been cornered in such a manner, Janssen is completely at a loss and his first reaction is to go to a monastery. During seminars held by Father Anselm Grün, Janssen reflects on what is really important to him in his life. His kidnapping plays a significant role in this. "Back then, I discovered that everything can be taken from me, even my life. But if you make a person happy, no one can destroy that any more."
When he got back to the company again, Janssen took the bull by the horns. He presented the less than flattering survey results without sparing his own feelings and changed his management style radically. From then on, humanity was more important to him than targets, appreciation rather than commanding tones, individual responsibility rather than strict hierarchies. Janssen paid his 635 employees well; he also added on performance-related bonuses and above-average social security benefits. If they wished, employees could attend seminars on personality development or get involved in social responsibility projects. Bodo Janssen encouraged everyone to contribute their suggestions. He supported aid projects in Africa, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with his apprentices. The aim: to unleash potential and promote cohesion. "The company is not an end in itself, but is there to enable people to have a good life."
And suddenly, everything worked: According to the company, the fluctuation rates in many of the hotels are now practically zero, sick leave rates are well below 3 percent, while employee satisfaction is above 80 percent. The more than 400,000 guests who stayed at the 3- to 5-star hotels in the last year feel this too. Capacity utilisation at the ten Upstalsboom hotels and 60 holiday apartment complexes is around 70 percent, turnover has doubled to €44.6 million since 2009. Upstalsboom is on a growth track and has acquired additional hotels in recent years.
This performance has earned the hotel group prizes and awards, and Bodo Janssen does the rounds of all media and never tires of promoting "adding value through appreciation". He fully intends to continue in this vein in the future too. For 2018, he plans to open the €80 million wellness resort Südstrand, which will have 144 rooms and 23 exclusive holiday apartments in Wyk on Föhr Island. "We won the pitch because the investor was particularly enamoured with our corporate culture."
He has also become a different person in his private life too. Luxury and glamour re of no interest to him any more. The family lives in a totally normal house and drives mid-range cars. Bodo Janssen pays himself a salary that is in line with industry practice and prefers to invest his money in the company. His wife, Claudia (38), does not play the role of the rich business mogul's wife, but works as a doctor herself. "We won't have to economise if something happens to me or to the company."
Bodo Janssen abstains from alcohol, coffee, sweets and gluten. He loves fishing, good books, but above all else, his family. He starts his day every morning at 4:30 am with meditation, fitness training and green tea. Then he has breakfast with Claudia and their three children. At 8:00 am, he is at the office. On normal days he tries to be home for dinner and is in bed at 9:30 pm at the latest. And if there ever comes a time when he slips into his old ways, his family gets him back to reality again very quickly.