In this blog, I wanted to share a story about my father who, when young, escaped a forced labour camp during the war. He responded to a series of catastrophic life events in a way I have found inspirational and has made me consider the concept of change in new ways.
My father’s life was turned upside down by catastrophic events in 1930s Germany.
He was apprentice to a carpenter in the Kiel shipyards in the 1930s, when his choirmaster organised a scholarship for him to study for his abitur (school certificate) at the Karl-Marx-Schule in Berlin. At that time, the shipyards in Kiel were a hotbed of resistance to the Nazis. When he returned to study at the Christian-Albrecht-Haus of Kiel University, he became involved with the Social Democratic Party’s opposition to Hitler.
After violent arguments with the leader of the students’ fascist party, their leader Klaus Huckner said to him “Herr Hillmann, you need re-educating”. A few weeks later, he was arrested and sent to a camp on the island of Sylt off the northern coast of Schleswig-Holstein. Here forced labour, planting marram grass during the day, was followed by the study of Mein Kampf in the evenings.
We are all as much a product of the environment in which we live as of our own abilities and aspirations.
Escape to Scotland
He escaped and bicycled north to Esbjerg, now a Danish port. There, the British were sending fishing boats to evacuate dissidents and my father found a friendly fishboat captain to stow him in the hold. He arrived in Scotland as a refugee. By this time, Adolf Lowe, his Jewish professor at Kiel, had managed to get to New York. With his help, my father applied to the international students’ organisation in Geneva and was awarded a place at St. Andrews University.
His uncertainty at the consequences of his predicament are graphically related in a letter from my father to his parents, brother and grandparents written on September 17, 1938. In this letter, he anticipates war between Germany and Britain, he anticipates his brother being called up, and he tells them he is staying in Britain. To reassure his parents, I believe, he plays down whether or not he will be interned.But helplessness in relation to events and total uncertainty of the outcome come through strongly.
The impact of change
When War did break out, after a brief internment, he was recruited by Chatham House to provide intelligence on German industry to help defeat the German army, to whom his own brother Otto, a hairdresser by trade, had been conscripted. Otto was killed on the western front in the last week of the War.
My father’s and many other peoples’ lives were turned upside down by a series of cataclysmic events. Some historians, with hindsight, may explain events, but at the time nobody foresaw the subsequent devastation and reorder in all aspects of life. Since the end of the War, and after the real threat of the Cold War was neutralised by the disintegration of the USSR, we, here in Britain, have been the lucky generation living a peaceful life, secure and safe from any major political dangers, with a unified European Union deterring conflict on a continent with a turbulent history. But the pace of change in all aspects of life and business have changed fast in the 21st century creating uncertainties, risks, threats and opportunities.
When I left education, I worked abroad in agricultural development and then in the UK with Unilever – both immensely valuable and rewarding experiences – but I saw enticing opportunities in establishing my own business.
Since 1984, I have succeeded in building a UK market-leading business in spill control, but its path to its current form was strewn with unexpected, but devastating, events as well as opportunities. The mad cow epidemic scuppered my first business, but environmental legislation and consciousness have created great opportunity and is the basis for my company’s growth. The disruption caused by digital technology is both a threat and another opportunity. New energy doors have opened – although the reaction to climate change might affect their course. The ban on genetic engineering impeded early development, but we still created a niche. International trade patterns are additionally a movable feast.
We are all as much a product of the environment in which we live as of our own abilities and aspirations. As my father writes in 1938 in much more devastating circumstances: “As an individual he (his brother) is, like many others in Germany and also in this country, only a player in the games of the statesmen.”
What about SMEs?
Many stories are written about managers of corporations, entrepreneurs, or gifted innovators about their outstanding successes or perhaps a dramatic failure usually attributed to their skill or shortcomings. However, the numbers of SMEs in our economy far outweighs these individuals and less is heard about how they face the uncertainties, risks, threats and opportunities inherent in an unpredictable world.
My blogs identify the issues myself and other SME leaders have experienced and provide insight as to how they have dealt with them and learnings for other SMEs. They will be based on first-hand views of those with skin in the game – my own experience and interviews with other SME leaders in the UK and overseas. My father’s life experience – determined by unpredictable events and the current dynamism and dangers in the business environment – provides the inspiration for me.