Sonett: Growing for the Common Good
by Gudrun Ambros (comments: 0)
Eco-pioneer Sonett is one of the German market leaders in organic detergents and cleaning products. But the manufacturer also sets standards in its dealings with employees and its attitude towards company property and capital.
We are standing on the top floor of the new three-storey Sonett building in Deggenhausertal, 20 kilometres from Lake Constance. Walls and floors are still bare, electrical cables are peeking out in some places. But the hosts, Andreas Roth and Rebecca Kramer, vividly describe what they already see in their mind’s eye.
The two represent the next generation of the company. 44-year-old Andreas Roth is in charge of purchasing and human resources and has been part of the management team since mid-2018. Rebecca Kramer, 42, manages the field service and customer advisory departments and looks after major customers. Through floor-to-ceiling windows, the view leads outside onto the company grounds, which cover around 18,000 square metres.
You can see a series of buildings of different ages, with wooden facades and high old windows. At the very back is the former brickworks with chimney, which Sonett moved into 24 years ago. The new building is the fourth extension of the eco-pioneer "and will not be the last", says the managing director.
Double-digit growth thanks to Greta effect and pandemic
Because the company is growing and growing. Its business is based on detergents and cleaning products made from easily and completely degradable raw materials. With a market share of around 30 per cent, Sonett is one of two market leaders in the German organic sector. When Andreas Roth joined the company in 2007, it employed 20 people. To date, the number has more than quintupled to 104. The turnover of the eco-manufacturer, which has recently also started producing cosmetics, has been growing in double figures for years. Before the Corona pandemic, it was a remarkable 20 percent, "thanks to the Greta effect", says Andreas Roth.
Corona has additionally fuelled this positive development. In 2019, Sonett achieved 20 million euros in turnover - Roth expects 30 million for 2020. How can such growth be managed? "During the first wave of Corona, our people worked in three shifts instead of two, even on weekends, to work off the flood of orders," Rebecca Kramer reports. The sales department also had its hands full, "the colleagues had to prioritise the orders because the goods were extremely scarce," says the 42-year-old. Half-litre bottles ran out, spray heads could not be delivered. Disinfectants ran through the lines in the bottling plant ten times as much as usual, and fortunately an external bottling company could be acquired additionally.
Positive working atmosphere thanks to special corporate culture
"It was a huge effort that we only managed because everyone pitched in," says Andreas Roth. This time has had a positive influence on the working atmosphere, and we have grown together even more," adds his colleague. Sonett has always cultivated a special corporate culture. "We hire people, not the function," explains the managing director. Specialisation is not the only thing that is in demand. Rather, it is about getting in where you are needed and getting to know each other well in order to develop and promote potential. At Sonett, corporate culture also means constructive error management. "We talk openly with each other; it is important that something concrete is learned from every mistake," explains Andreas Roth.
"We talk openly with each other; it is important that something concrete is learned from every mistake." Andreas Roth
At Sonett, looking after the well-being of employees has always been one of the entrepreneurial virtues. This is also expressed in the salary policy. For example, the pay gap from the entry-level wage for unskilled employees to the managing director is a ratio of 1:5. By comparison, Dax board members earn up to 141 times as much as their employees. In April 2020, Sonett distributed the Corona Bonus in full to the workforce as a thank you for the exceptional work effort.
Company as a foundation
From the beginning, Beate Oberdorfer and Gerhard Heid, who took over the company founded in 1977 28 years ago, felt less like owners and more like fiduciary responsibility owners. As a consequence, the two transferred all capital shares to a private foundation in 2014. Sonett thus belongs to itself, so to speak. The company profits do not end up in the pockets of the bosses, shareholders or investors. The largest part remains in the company for investments, another part is used for foundation purposes and a third part, amounting to about one month's salary, is distributed to the employees every year.
The Sonett Foundation pursues charitable purposes. It supports research on water, seeds and soil fertility, for example. Because a foundation cannot be sold or inherited, the weal and woe of the company does not depend on family affiliation or the financial power of investors. This is important to Gerhard Heid and Beate Oberdorfer. With Andreas Roth and Oliver Groß, both of whom have been with the company for more than six years, the management has found the right people for the job in 2019.
Successful company history
Soon Rebecca Kramer and Kerstin Schramm, both also long-time Sonett executives, are about to strengthen the management team. That will be the time when Beate Oberdorfer and Gerhard Heid plan to retire from the management in order to concentrate on their tasks in the foundation board. Both look back on a successful company history.
When the business partners took over the company, Sonett was already well-known in the organic sector: company founder Werner Geibel had launched an easily degradable detergent in an innovative modular system. With Beate Oberdorfer and Gerhard Heid as managing directors, the company developed rapidly. In addition to the original powder, the two introduced liquid detergents with soap made from organic oils and expanded the range step by step: detergents, hand soaps, dishwashing liquids, and even organic soap bubbles were soon part of the eco-range. The two pioneered the development of eco-standards and the BNN product range guidelines for detergents and cleaning agents.
Sonett's own quality standards go beyond these standards. The guiding principle: everything that is processed must be neither harmful to the environment or health nor allergenic. Further, the raw materials should come from controlled organic cultivation wherever possible. In addition, the company stands for so-called dynamic quality, which is based on anthroposophical spiritual science. It is unique in the world for detergents and cleaning products, says Andreas Roth. To achieve this, Sonett sends all its production water - around 5,000 to 7,000 litres a day - through a glass turbulence system to revitalise it.
In addition, a preparation of mineral and plant substances made according to anthroposophical rules is added to all detergents and cleaning agents to enhance them. There is no scientific evidence, but imaging methods such as spagyric crystallisation show clear differences between conventional and Sonett detergents. Regardless of subtle characteristics, the products of the southern German eco-pioneer regularly perform well in tests.
Bulk containers and reusable containers
The company's commitment to environmental sustainability is also reflected in its packaging. Sonett has long had large containers for refilling used (customer) bottles in the shop in its repertoire. With the emergence of the unpacked shops, this idea got an enormous boost. The 10- and 20-litre canisters that the company takes back, cleans and refills as part of a pilot project are also used several times. However, 10 to 20 per cent of the plastic canisters from organic and non-packaging shops are returned damaged and thus not reusable.
The managing directors are not discouraged by this. The material is to serve as the basic raw material for new Sonett bottles. Recycling plastic from the yellow bag is rejected "because of incalculable ingredients and allergens", says Rebecca Kramer. Roth estimates the annual savings potential of PE plastic at 80 tonnes. Recently, Sonett has also started bottling in glass bottles. These are used for natural cosmetics, the latest addition to the range. The focus is on mistletoe, a tried and tested medicinal plant. Its active ingredients, extracted in a special process, enrich care and massage oils, which will in future be produced and bottled on the first floor of the new building. The ground floor will house additional modern bottling facilities. If everything goes according to plan, production and bottling should start in the first quarter of 2021.
Numbers - Data - Facts
Location: Deggenhausen, Germany
Product range: Detergents and rinsing agents, household cleaners, hand soaps, disinfectants, natural cosmetics
Number of products: 60
Employees: 104 (54 men, 50 women) plus 36 helpers from the Camphill workshops Lehenhof
Production and storage area: 10,000 m²
Exports: 31 European, 12 non-European countries
Customers: Specialist natural food retailers, unpacked food shops, some regional food retailers, schools, surgeries, cleaning companies and homes.
Turnover: 2020 approx. 30 million euros
Managing directors: Oliver Groß, Gerhard Heid, Beate Oberdorfer, Andreas Roth