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Forbes: Great Courage for Greater Security

August 05, 2019

The story of the entrepreneur couple Marietta Ulrich-Horn and Werner Horn

Marietta Ulrich-Horn and Werner Horn got to know each other while attending WU Vienna's Global Executive MBA. They became a couple and, against all odds, founded Securikett. Today, the company is one of the leading players in the global product and brand protection business. But to get where they are now, the two entrepreneurs had to overcome many challenges. And: What leadership skills will they be required to demonstrate in the future?

Pic of the entrepreneur couple
Marietta Ulrich-Horn and Werner Horn, founder of Securikett. Photo © David Višnjić

Friends, acquaintances, experts - they all advised them against it, saying that entering such a niche was too risky an endeavor and that there were not enough opportunities for growth. But Marietta Ulrich-Horn and Werner Horn stuck to their plan: In November 2001, they founded Securikett Ulrich & Horn GmbH, a company based in Wiener Neudorf south of Vienna that specializes in product and brand protection.

In 2002, plans were made for setting up the production department as well as research and development (R&D). March 2003 eventually saw the company's market entry. The people around the two entrepreneurs have long ceased to be skeptic: Today, Securikett is one of the global leaders in physical and digital product protection. The company employs 80 people and sells its products to over 40 countries, with more than 50% of its exports going to Asia.

Picture of the business location of Securikett
Securikett is one of the global leaders in product protection.

Diligence, innovative strength and the ability to learn are the main ingredients of this success story. But an education and training program as well as coincidence also played a crucial role in it: Said education and training program is the Global Executive MBA (GEMBA) of the WU Executive Academy of the Vienna University of Economics and Business. The two entrepreneurs were students of the first class of this management and executive education program, which they graduated from in 2001. They got to know each other while studying for their MBA degrees, became a couple, married and, four months after completing the GEMBA, founded their company.

Portrait Marietta Ulrich-Horn

Marietta Ulrich-Horn

  • Co-founder of Securikett and Global Executive MBA alumna

I enrolled in this program for practical reasons: It is delivered on a part-time basis (over a period of 16 months, author's note) and takes place mostly in Vienna. Hence, I was able to reconcile it with my roles as a mother and managing director. Moreover, I was very impressed by the curriculum and the lecturers. For me, the opportunity to learn something from them was the most compelling argument for attending the GEMBA.

The program has proved a valuable addition to the expertise of Marietta Ulrich-Horn, who holds a doctoral degree in social and cultural anthropology from the University of Vienna. In 1992, she became managing director of Ulrich Etiketten, a family-owned company she ran together with Karl Ulrich Jr. Ulrich Etiketten is still active in the label business. Marietta Ulrich-Horn's original motivation for enrolling in the GEMBA was that she wanted to make business operations more professional and more international in nature. Werner Horn, who hails from Stuttgart, studied economics in Boulder (Colorado) and Madison (Wisconsin) but was unable to complete his doctorate because his parents died prematurely and he took over as managing director of their textile company. Werner Horn did not like the textile business too much, though, and eventually enrolled in the GEMBA in 2001: “I was eager to reposition myself and update my knowledge and skills, but I had no specific plans what to do after graduating from the program,” he says.

Executive Education and Training

So, they both had gained a wealth of leadership experience in corporate settings prior to attending the GEMBA. This is no prerequisite for enrolling, but the program is designed for (aspiring) managers and executives: It aims to give them a global perspective of management and leadership in fast-growing markets by equipping them with expert knowledge and a thorough understanding of best-practice examples from the real world. On average, program participants have 14 years of professional experience, including six years in executive positions. At the turn of the millennium, the GEMBA was still offered at WU Vienna's Institute for International Marketing Management.

In 2005, though, the WU Executive Academy was founded in an effort to create a one-stop shop for professional education and training at WU Vienna. Ever since its inception, it has been the GEMBA's home. “The Austrian MBA market was still in its infancy when we established the program. But WU Vienna wanted exactly such a training offering and thus decided to found the Executive Academy,” says Astrid Kleinhanns-Rollé, who, together with Bodo B. Schlegelmilch, was responsible for setting up the business school. She has been its managing director ever since; Bodo B. Schlegelmilch served as its dean until October 2015, when he handed over to his successor, Barbara Stöttinger.

Picture of Astrid Kleinhanns-Rollé and Bodo B. Schlegelmilch
Astrid Kleinhanns-Rollé and Bodo B. Schlegelmilch were responsible for setting up the business school in 2005.

The history of the WU Executive Academy has been one of rapid growth: In the beginning, there were four people, two MBA programs, two certificate programs and some corporate programs and seminars; today, the business school has a 70-strong team and boasts an extensive portfolio of education and training offerings, including MBA and Master of Laws programs, the Diplom BetriebswirtIn (BBA) program, certificate programs, custom programs and short programs. The WU Executive Academy has developed into a leading provider of executive education in Central and Eastern Europe. In the 2018 Financial Times Executive MBA Ranking, it ranks 45th (4th in Germany, Austria and Switzerland). The GEMBA boasts a triple crown, i.e. it has earned an AACSB (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business), an AMBA (Association of MBAs) and an EQUIS (European Quality Improvement System) accreditation. Internationality has always ranked high on the WU Executive Academy's agenda. The GEMBA is offered jointly by the University of Minnesota and WU Vienna. It comprises 15 modules, eleven of which students complete in Vienna; the remaining four are delivered abroad - in Argentina and Brazil, in China and India, and in the USA. There, students join forces in international groups in the context of what is known as Global Team Projects. “In the USA, we got to know the ‘big corporate world’, and we visited the headquarters of the big corporate players. We looked behind the scenes of Daimler Chrysler (whose name was changed to Daimler AG in 2007 following the sale of most of its stake in Chrysler, author's note), Medtronic and 3M. It was very interesting to get an inside view of these big companies,” says Marietta Ulrich-Horn. The international character of the WU Executive Academy is also reflected by its faculty of lecturers and senior managers. “I was really impressed by the fact that the lecturers invariably shared with us the latest findings in their respective fields,” she continues. On average, 71% of program participants come from abroad. In terms of professional background, finance and insurance, the manufacturing industry, and IT and telecommunications account for most of the student body. Another benefit of the GEMBA is that graduates are awarded two MBA degrees: one in Austria and one in the USA.

Tomorrow's Executives

The aim of the WU Executive Academy and the GEMBA is clear: Providing top executives with education and training so that they are ready to respond to the challenges facing them today in demanding industries and corporate roles. Moreover, it targets individuals seeking to advance their careers and to assume greater responsibility when it comes to the overall strategic development of their companies. In this context, the following question arises: What makes a top executive?

Portrait Kleinhanns-Rollé

Astrid Kleinhanns-Rollé

  • Managing Director of the WU Executive Academy

Research shows that you are particularly likely to have a successful career if you focus on three things: Firstly, you should know what you are talking about and be knowledgeable about many fields. Secondly, networking opportunities and a community to build on are crucially important. And thirdly, you need to define for yourself what exactly you want to achieve and what you are passionate about. This makes it easier for you to fulfil your true potential. GEMBA graduates often say attending the program has made them more self-confident and more courageous.

“I could not agree more,” states Marietta Ulrich- Horn.

A Courageous Step

The two entrepreneurs were often required to demonstrate their leadership skills and their courage, for getting Securikett off the ground was anything but easy. “We were knowledgeable about labels in general but not about security-related aspects. This was terra incognita to both of us. Within a relatively short period of time, we then acquired the necessary expertise in this field. Nowadays, we are, arguably, among the leading subject-matter experts in our industry on a global scale,” says Werner Horn. At the onset of their entrepreneurial journey, the two founders took out a loan to get the R&D department as well as production up and running. Because of the considerable investments that were required, the company operated at a loss for the first two years – in the third year, however, it was already in the black. The CEOs had a nose for market opportunities in the field of product protection, which, as Marietta Ulrich-Horn explains, existed at the time only to some extent in the form of label protection, e.g. when it came to tollway stickers or drugs. Securikett develops and markets security labels and seals that help prevent manipulation of product packaging and offer protection against product counterfeiting. The latter is achieved through the unique authentication of original products. This can be done by marking either the product itself or the packaging, for example with a security label.

Pic of the entrepreneur couple
The two entrepreneurs took a courageous step by going into the security business, but trusted on their skills and knowledge.

Physical and Digital

What makes all of these solutions special is the fact that they can be combined with NFC (an international transmission standard based on RFID technology for the contactless exchange of data by means of electromagnetic induction, author's note) or RFID (a technology for sender-receiver systems for the automatic and contactless identification and localization of objects, author's note) and CODIKETT® cloud services. “That is a digital platform comprising three areas: Product traceability, that is distribution chain verification; security, in other words product protection and the easier identification of counterfeit products, and user engagement, i.e. the communication with clients,” explains Werner Horn. According to Marietta Ulrich-Horn, most of Securikett's clients come from the pharma, the spirits and the luxury goods sectors. In the automotive and the fashion industries, the company is going strong as well. And in China, there is increasing demand for its services in the food industry, says the CEO. But what leadership skills matter the most in her opinion? “I think in the top league there are some things you need to master. You definitely have to be a visionary and must not lose sight of the big picture - working at your desk in a committed and diligent manner is not enough. And what is also really important is being a good communicator,” says Marietta Ulrich-Horn. The two CEOs will themselves be required to continue demonstrating these leadership skills in the future, given that they intend to make their company less dependent on them - and to let others manage it in the long run. “We also give the question of growth a lot of thought: Last year, our company grew organically by 25%; this year, we expect it to grow by 30%, provided we succeed in winning a substantial order from the tobacco industry this month,” says Werner Horn. There are three likely growth scenarios: The company continues to grow organically; other businesses acquire stakes in Securikett with a view to making it grow even faster; Securikett itself takes over smaller competitors - “and we thereby increase our significance as a global player.” The alma mater of the CEOs, the WU Executive Academy, is making plans for the future as well: “There is an enormous demand for education and training programs. At a time when so much is changing, the challenge facing us is to adapt our offerings, by technological means, in a way that makes it possible for people to satisfy their very personal needs, for instance by learning things that are of interest to them not only in the context of their MBA studies,” says Astrid Kleinhanns-Rollé. Given the comprehensive portfolio and the far-reaching network that exist at the WU Executive Academy today, it is surely just a matter of time until the business school does exactly that.

You can read this article, recently published by Forbes, here (in German).

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