A fantastic development
A cornerstone for the company spirit, family values and togetherness, a high level of customer loyalty and three decades of growth – a success story that began as a home office. Interview with namesake, owner and managing director Andreas Fahl.
SCHON GEHÖRT?: Mr Fahl, 30 years of Fahl as a company. A long time and a superb development. If you reflect over the years, what springs to your mind first?
Fahl: It's all been so long ago. Time simply flies. It has now been 30 years after all. Incredible. Sometimes it seems like yesterday that I decided to take the plunge into self-employment. You can't really imagine what it was like. My living room was both an office and store room at the same time. Products were all over the place, orderly of course, but it was far from being a cosy home. In 1992, this was indeed still possible, but today, what with all the rules and regulations, this approach would not be realistic.
SCHON GEHÖRT?: Really? A start-up in your own living room? How did the FAHL story go from there?
Fahl: In the beginning it was a lot of work. I was my own sales force to start with. But what does sales force imply? Before I could provide care for patients I had to do a lot of groundwork. First I looked for products and suppliers. Then I created a catalogue and the instructions for use. Afterwards I met with the health insurers and agreed on reimbursement contracts. It's true, I rang the insurers and asked for an appointment, presented my case and concluded contracts. So simple! These days, I wouldn't get further than reception (laughs). Once reimbursability was assured, I was able to care for my first patient here in Cologne after two months, on 01 September 1992 to be precise. Then I started touring through Germany. From north to south and from east to west. Some days were really long, 18 to 20 hours per day were not uncommon. When I came home from my tours, the initial care kits for the next day had to be packed. In 1992 I finally moved into my first offices in Cologne Rath. The first employees then provided me with some relief. This allowed us to grow at several levels. In 1996 we again relocated to larger premises. From house number 592 to 702 Rösrather Straße here in Cologne. The nice thing is that many employees are still working at FAHL today and have therefore been with the company right from the very beginning. That really thrills me, what a great team.
SCHON GEHÖRT?: A meteoric development of the FAHL company, especially in the first few years. Of which successes are you particularly proud of?
Fahl: Another milestone, which also marked a turning point in the company's history, was the inauguration and relocation to the company's own building in 2002. It symbolised the transition from a small business to a medium-sized business. I am not a superstitious person, but when we laid the foundation stone of the building, we placed a time capsule in one of the foundation stones. And what was in it? Certainly things that bear a relation to this company, such as tracheostomy tubes or a self-painted portrait of my son. This capsule or the foundation stone should be home to a good spirit. And as you can see - we continue to operate very successfully these days. Then it must be the good spirit (laughs). The new building has made many things much easier. The number of employees increased considerably, new departments were founded and consolidated into the organisation. Of course, we also had to create technical solutions to overcome the problem of rising data traffic. In the early days everything was done on paper. These days we try to operate as digitised as possible. Such changes are simply a part of progress.
SCHON GEHÖRT?: Change is a very good keyword. Unfortunately, the road to success always includes setbacks. How did you handle these in the past?
Fahl: Even as a little boy I learned that when one door closes, another door opens. You know, I'm the sixth of seven children, and doors were slamming open and shut all the time. In 30 years, circumstances do indeed arise which can be defined as setbacks. It is simply a matter of attitude. Looking back, I can say that everything has turned out well. Above all, our customers, the people affected, are the best role models for me and my source of motivation. Those who continue to make their lives worth living despite serious illness, for example after a laryngectomy, have truly mastered a great task. Compared to this, I perceive my entrepreneurial challenges as being anything but unsolvable.
SCHON GEHÖRT?: An attitude to life which is very positive. Growth also means taking on responsibility, for example for one's own employees. How do you handle this topic?
Fahl: Especially in the beginning, this was a topic that was completely new to me. Every decision I took had an impact on my own employees. But unfortunately the story doesn't stop there. Every employee also has a family, for whom I bear additional responsibility in the broadest sense. And indeed, this has already caused me occasional sleepless nights. Fortunately, everything has always worked out fine so far. However, the last few months with corona have added a completely new dimension. In particular, the uncertainty of what might happen and what the medical guidelines would be was difficult to plan for. However, we also managed to cope admirably with this situation. Whereas many companies announced short-time work, we found other solutions. Fortunately, it looks like the corona situation is easing.
SCHON GEHÖRT?: Patients often proudly mention that they have even been cared for by you in person or know you personally. How does that make you feel?
Fahl: Interaction with patients is the reason why I founded this company in the first place. Even during my training, I looked for contact with affected people. I always found this exchange of communication very inspiring. This is also the reason why I value the cooperation with patients and laryngeal associations so much and enjoy inviting them to visit my company. Recently I attended a 40th anniversary celebration of one of the associations. I had already been invited to the founding ceremony of this association. I often take the time for this personal exchange with those affected and the associations. These people give me the necessary motivation to keep going day after day. Unfortunately, I no longer have the time to make home visits, for example to provide instructions for the initial care kit, but perhaps it may be a good time to intensify contact.
SCHON GEHÖRT?: Many employees have been with us from the beginning. Yes, even the first trainee is still a member of the FAHL team. How do you think this has come about?
Fahl: It was always enormously important to me to maintain the corporate culture of the early days, or to be more precise, the family atmosphere. Slightly exaggerated: we are one family! The employees all know each other and also help each other across team boundaries. We have also refrained from having large structures or hierarchies. I am available to all my employees. Everyone knows where my office is. And if we do have a problem, I take the time and we find a solution together. Of course, you can't do a side-by-side comparison of today's organisation with the early days. There is obviously a difference between discussing issues among five employees and being the contact person for more than 260 employees. And that is without taking the international context into consideration. Time is a resource that becomes more limited as the company keeps growing. This can quickly give the impression of appearing distant. That is not my intention and I will work on it.
SCHON GEHÖRT?: Family business was also a keyword. How does this compare with our competitors?
Fahl: Good question, we have always been a family business, and of that I am proud. All I can say today on the subject is that we are still one of the few family-owned companies in Germany operating in the tracheostomy care sector with our own production facilities. This offers clear advantages. As owner of the company and when required, I can take decisions quickly and also implement them. Patients and customers are our priority and at the centre of everything we do. This is also the reason why the product portfolio is so comprehensive. We wish to satisfy the needs of our customers. Both with our service as well as our products. If there is an unmet demand, then I am personally committed to closing this product gap. This loop is important to me personally. So now we come back to my source of motivation, as mentioned before: the patients themselves. Profit is not the main driver here. Of course, we also have to act economically sound, but as I said, we do not have to consider any interests other than those of our customers. And, of course, we comply with the directives and regulations that apply to today's medical technology.
SCHON GEHÖRT?: Therefore, at the end, let's have a quick look into the future. There are major developments in medical technology in particular, the keyword being MDR. How do you predict the industry will evolve? And what role will the Fahl company play?
Fahl: I hope a major role (laughs). Over the past 30 years, we have proven that we have built a name for ourselves in tracheostoma care in Germany, and also across borders. I made the start. But I wouldn't be where I am today if I could not have relied on my team. And for that I extremely grateful. With this team, we will also make it through the next 30 years. The MDR and its implementation in specific is a big task in which we invest considerable energy. The cost-benefit factor of our products in particular is put to the test. But we will also continue to develop in other areas. The pandemic has shown us the way. To meet the challenges of the future, we must also upgrade our efforts in the digital field over the next few years. We have already taken the first step with the new website. A step in the right direction. In short: I look forward to the coming years. We are well positioned, have qualified employees, a solution-oriented service and loyal customers. Keep up the good work !
Owner, founder and namesake of Andreas Fahl Medizintechnik-Vertrieb GmbH. As "one of the lads" in Cologne, Andreas completed his training as a wholesale & foreign trade merchant at Hassheider Medizintechnik GmbH in 1982. It was there that the foundation for his ideas and commitment was laid. The Hassheider company was one of the first to manufacture medical devices for laryngectomised patients. As a result of working with laryngectomised patients and his desire to help them, Andreas followed this impulse in 1992 to become a self-employed entrepreneur for the benefit of those affected. Even today, he still deeply believes in personal exchange. This is why the cooperation with patients, associations and physicians is so important to him.
As the company owner, Andreas lives by the motto: selfmade and steadfast. Even on holiday he finds it difficult to relax. But with his deep passion for model railways, he gets the relaxation he needs. Meanwhile, the small gift once given to the seven-year-old under the Christmas tree has evolved into a 44 m2 miniature world. This is only put on a back burner during the fifth season of the year - the Cologne Carnival. In other words, he's one of the lads from Cologne!