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PIEL on driving innovation and having the courage to try something new

Why change is important. An interview with Mario Ernst, Managing Partner at PIEL.

Why is change important. An interview with Mario Ernst, Managing Partner at PIEL.

Adapting to change is the only way for companies to survive and meet customer requirements even when times get tough. One of the companies that do this well is PIEL, a technical wholesaler with five locations across Germany. Founded in 1918, PIEL started off by selling soap, washing powder and (wagon) grease. Its current range includes over 3 million items including fasteners and accessories such as screws and work gloves. PIEL was one of the first businesses to launch an online marketplace for industrial companies as far back as 2000. Today, the company sees itself not only as a retailer but also as a digitisation partner that cares about high-level service for its customers and suppliers.

Why is change important and how does the company deal with ongoing challenges? Unite spoke with Mario Ernst, Managing Partner at PIEL, to find out.

Change has been a common pattern throughout PIEL’s 100+ year history. What would you say is a challenge in today’s world?

We’re all experiencing times of change and uncertainty, such as climate change, the energy crisis and the recession. These are important issues that worry but also motivate us. We’re fortunate to have had strong partnerships with our customers and suppliers for many years. Together we come up with solutions to prepare ourselves for times of crisis. As a traditional company, we’ve also made the conscious decision to focus on climate protection. We all need to work together on this, there’s no doubt about it. Climate protection is crucial for future generations to continue to live on this planet. That’s why we asked ourselves what impact we have on the climate and how we can reduce our CO2 footprint. Since 2019, we’ve been supporting international climate offset projects. But we felt we needed to do more. We’ve always cared about the interest of the common good, which is why we founded a non-profit initiative.

In 2021, you launched a reforestation initiative called WaldLokal. How did this come about?

When Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future movement started in 2019, my nine-year-old daughter asked me: “Why are you destroying the world we want to live in?”. And that got me thinking. Together with Andrea Tigges, Head of Marketing and Human Resources here at PIEL, I came up with the idea of contributing to local reforestation with the help of donations. The forests here in the Sauerland and other regions are in very poor condition after three consecutive years of drought and bark beetle infestation. In some cases, large woodlands needed to be cleared completely, making the landscape almost unrecognisable. With our non-profit WaldLokal, we mobilise companies, associations, schools and individuals throughout Germany to replant trees. Everyone can get involved, either by donating or even planting trees themselves. So far, we have over 30 WaldLokal locations.

With WaldLokal, companies, associations, schools and individuals throughout Germany can contribute to reforestation.
With WaldLokal, companies, associations, schools and individuals throughout Germany can contribute to reforestation.

What kind of impact does WaldLokal have?

Planting new trees to protect the climate makes sense if it also protects existing forests. You can usually plant around 4,000 trees per hectare (= 10,000 m2). Our WaldLokal areas host climate-stable mixed woodland. Local forestry offices select the trees based on soil conditions and seedling availabilities. New trees are usually planted in spring and autumn because that’s when soil conditions are ideal for a successful, long tree life. But reforestation is by no means a free pass for us to keep consuming and emitting greenhouse gases.

Reforestation is an essential component in our fight against climate change. But is it enough?

Reforestation is a mammoth task that we can only accomplish by working together. But we also need to cut greenhouse gases. That’s why renewable energies and reducing energy consumption must be top priorities. At our PIEL locations, we use certified green electricity and track and improve our energy efficiency.

We optimise our logistics routes, group shipments together and use DPD Driving Change as a logistics service provider for CO2-neutral shipping.

Mario Ernst, Managing Partner at PIEL

We also try to make our company fleet as green as possible by switching to e-vehicles. I drive an e-vehicle myself. All these measures are part of our environmental policy. This policy also keeps tabs on sustainable resource management and waste reduction. As you can see, we take a holistic and structured approach to sustainability here at PIEL.

We also try to make our company fleet as green as possible by switching to e-vehicles. I drive an e-vehicle myself. All these measures are part of our environmental policy. This policy also keeps tabs on sustainable resource management and waste reduction. As you can see, we take a holistic and structured approach to sustainability here at PIEL.

How do you keep your team motivated during times of crisis or when skilled labour is hard to come by? And how do your customers benefit from that?

With our WaldLokal and other sustainability initiatives, we motivate both externals and internals, or ‘PIELers’, to join in. Doing so makes them feel good and more involved. We also provide our PIELers with continuous training. We give them a monthly share of the contribution margin and create new business models together. For example, we’ve established a PIEL content studio where we produce our PIEL podcast , and there’s also an app in the making. By being involved like this, our PIELers continue to drive growth and create better solutions for our customers. We want them to be excited about being part of our company mission.

Changing customer behaviour demands new solutions from companies now and in the future. How do you do this and how can Unite support you?

We’re a different company today than we were 20 years ago. The biggest challenge will always be changing how customers and employees think. We’ve learned that if you manage to communicate and sell the benefits of what you do, people will go along with it. That’s how we strengthen what we already have. As drivers of innovation, we have the courage to try something new. The same principle applies to the German sustainability initiative Sustainable Choice for Unite BusinessShops. Together with Unite, we’re making our range more sustainable. We asked our suppliers for products that meet the ambitious criteria tested by NGO experts. The result is a special Sustainable Choice BusinessShop that guarantees a sustainable range, CO2-neutral shipping and plastic-reduced packaging. We do all this for our customers for whom these criteria are becoming increasingly important. Sustainability plays a crucial role in business. Together with our customers, we’re solving tomorrow’s problems right here and now. This is how we plan to set ourselves up for the long term and emerge from challenges stronger than before.

About Piel

About PIEL

PIEL is a technical wholesaler that offers solutions for the next generations. As a traditional medium-sized company with over 100 years of experience, PIEL has made the conscious decision to prioritise climate protection. As a supporter of the German Alliance for Development and Climate, PIEL has been climate-neutral since 2019. With its WaldLokal initiative, the company contributes to replanting trees in local woodlands.