Written by Jennifer Fitzgerald | Photos by Anthony Harden
Carl Christian Radinger carries on the family tradition with the multinational Putsch & Co.
Imagine flying to destinations that include Germany, Italy, Russia, Spain, Norway, and Asheville, North Carolina, on a regular basis—all for your business. This travel is routine for Carl Christian Radinger, owner of Putsch & Co., Inc., a leader in the international sugars/sweeteners, root vegetable processing (sugar beets in particular), glass technology, filtration and separation, and panel processing industries.
“I basically commute,” says Radinger. “I come back and forth all the time. I go to the customers still. It’s very important to me because that’s how you see how your products perform. You get ideas for new developments. So, I fly about 400,000 miles a year. Home is where the family is, and family live here (Asheville)—so this is home for me.”
Radinger is the third generation of his family to run Putsch & Co., Inc. The company was founded in 1871 in Germany by Hermann Putsch—hence the company name. Putsch gradually grew his high-quality cutlery craft into the industrial knives business. Meanwhile, Radinger’s grandfather was working in the ballistic industry but wanted to do something by himself, so he wound up purchasing the company and expanding even further into manufacturing sugar processing equipment. (Worldwide, the sugar industry is huge, the global market in 2012 being estimated at over $65 billion annually.) Radinger’s father later joined the business and, in 1975, opened the facility near Asheville, which serves as Putsch’s North American technical, manufacturing, and service center.
Carl Christian took over the company in 1992—just after receiving his college degree. “For me, it was a passionate thing,” he says. “We were in a difficult situation when I took over the company, and I realized it was either now or never and I decided to take it and develop it. I had to make some hard decisions right off the bat and was not prepared for it. But you figure it out. I had good tools. Like a lot of things in life, you just have to figure it out.”
Born in Germany, he visited Asheville during the summers. “When my father built the company here he also bought a house—a summer home. So for me, it was a second home. I had lots of friends. Loved the area. Loved the people even more.”
Deciding to attend university in the United States, he studied mechanical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. Visiting a girlfriend in Philadelphia one summer, he discovered a business school there, the University of Pennsylvania – Wharton School of Business, and took some summer classes. He had no clue what he was getting into—at the end of the summer, his marketing professor said he was good at this and should come to school there full-time.
“I loved it, but for me, the harder challenge was engineering, so I said, ‘Why don’t I do both?’ I would do Monday/Wednesday/Friday engineering in Troy, and Tuesday/Thursday business in Philadelphia. I didn’t quite get the business degree. I needed another summer semester, but almost.”
Located near Asheville, on Cane Creek Road in Fletcher, Putsch is a technology company working in various fields. Unique in terms of not having just one product, Putsch has received worldwide recognition and offers multiple technologies for certain industries. They currently have 650 employees worldwide, with 50 in Fletcher.
“We are completely vertically integrated,” says Radinger. “We do basic consulting and then go the whole nine yards from the engineering to testing, to delivering hardware, delivering machinery. Doing the factory programming and automation, up to project management and getting the production facilities ready. Afterwards, we do a lot of optimization [of] spare parts, training, and so on. The customers, like with a construction set, can either pick parts of it, or have the whole thing. So, that developed over the last 25 years. We started out with two products for one industry. And now we have, alone for the sugar industry, over 60 different technologies with that whole gamut in there. That’s what we came from.”
Putsch also serves the panel processing industry. “Basically, it was a cutting technology we used from the sugar industry,” says Radinger. “We imported it over to other industries. We are one of the world leaders in cutting panels, mostly wood panels, [that] can be de-sandwiched aluminum composites for building facades. Any kind of plastics, composite materials. We cut big pieces to size and then give them an edge. The product headquarter is in our Italian company. We bring the basic technology here, customize it, service it, sell it, adapt it.”
Also a spin-off from the sugar industry is animal nutrition and energy. One of Putsch’s top selling points, as listed on its website (Putschusa.com), is the company’s expertise in the root vegetable processing industry, offering efficient, rugged machines for rock separating, washing, and slicing the roots of sugar beets, carrots, potatoes, etc. “Sugar beets have turned into energy beets, or feed beets as we call them now, too,” he explains. “It is a much more economical and healthier way to feed cows and farm animals. Problem is, when you plant those, you need a way to process them. You need to extract them out of the dirt. You need to get bulk dirt off and chop them up, so animals don’t choke on them. We make that equipment here.”
Putsch’s customers range from the woodworker next door up to multi-billion-dollar corporations who use their equipment for panel processing or to provide sugars. Locally, they work with companies like Lentz Cabinets. Nationally, they work with sugar companies like Domino Sugar.
Putsch’s headquarters are in Hagen, Germany. They also have a company in Northern Germany that specializes in cleaning technologies; one in the Rhineland that works on screens for sugar centrifugals; one in Spain; and one in Italy for panel processing. In 2011 they set up shop in Russia with an office in Moscow and a service center 300 miles south of there. In 2013 they bought a company in Norway, which has a production facility in the Czech Republic.
The Putsch corporate philosophy focuses on solutions for the select industries they understand thoroughly. They are not just a supplier of pieces, but focus on customer value. Radinger’s management style mirrors the corporate philosophy.
“I’m very hands-on. For me, I believe in management teams and working together. I’m trying to empower everybody to make as many decisions as possible by themselves. But how do you do that? You need a guideline and that’s where the corporate philosophy comes in. So we are trying to have as much self-responsibility as possible. Strategic or bigger things, I ask the local management teams or whoever it concerns to sit together and come to a conclusion. It’s very interesting in the way that when you do that, usually at first it doesn’t work—they fight, different opinions, and so on. I learned early on that a lot of it is because discussion is easy, but most of the time the data and legwork are missing. So before we discuss something, I say, ‘Let’s do the legwork, get this data, get this data, and get this data.’ And when they do that and come back together, a lot of times they say, ‘It’s clear—we don’t need to discuss anymore.’ [By putting] the effort into it, 90 percent of the time, people actually work unanimously. Once people understand it’s part of our company culture, it works very well. If you did all the legwork and everything else and you still don’t agree, or you still have questions or can’t decide, then give me a call. That’s my management philosophy.”
Radinger is very involved in the details of his company. He knows all his employees by name except for several new ones that were hired in Europe that he has yet to meet. This is not difficult for him, as he likes to interact with people—talk with them and see what’s going on. The information he receives from an employee in shipping or on a machine is just as important to him as a member of management or a customer. It is important to keep the information flowing.
“I know all the products. I know a lot of the customers. In the U.S., I would say I know every customer, every factory that we deal with, so I can call them. I get input if something is not right. I feel like I am a good discussion partner for them—not from a strategic management up in the clouds, but I know the products, I know the details—let’s work together.”
He believes in customer communication and visits. When asked where he spends the company’s marketing dollars, he jokes, “Delta Airlines,” because business is done person to person. Every sugar factory worldwide is visited by a Putsch employee at least once a year to look at the customer’s facilities and see what’s going well and what’s not. Video conferencing does not replace the personal visit.
Love What You Do
Twenty years ago when hiring a new employee, Radinger would study a CV or resume, but he now realizes that much more important is the feeling you get from the person. Important for him is, are you willing? Are you interested? He states that if people put in the effort, they can learn lots of things.
“I’m only interested in the new generation—the trainees. Unfortunately, I have a lot of responsibilities and don’t get to spend much time with them. But I make some time and I like to talk with them. One of my favorite questions is—people think it is a trick question—why are you here? They look at me with big eyes. Some people say to make money. I say that’s a very honest answer, but it is wrong. I’ll tell you why. You need to be here because you love it. Because you love it, you are going to give it your best. If you give it your best, you are going to be good at it. And once you are good at it, you are going to make a lot of money. That’s what I’m looking for—people who love what they are doing. That’s why I am doing what I am doing.”
The American Customer
While traveling and doing business around the world, Radinger notes that the American customer is a very smart customer. Overseas, price is a huge factor, and in the United States, of course, it is too, but not price per se, but value. He sees the American customer willing to pay a little more and get more value out of it.
“I don’t go to a cheap outfit from China if I can’t have it serviced locally. It’s all about what do I get out of it. It’s a different way of thinking. Plus, customer and supplier work together much better. It’s more of a trust issue.”
Twenty-five years ago, when Radinger started working in Germany, people came up to him and said, “Germany is so expensive, you must go to the Czech Republic,” where it was cheap to have things made and imported. He said, “No thank you.” to this idea because quality was a huge issue for his company. He notes that it can take a long time for some people to understand the quality concept and that cost advantages are temporary.
“If you let someone in China do a product, then they have nothing else to do with it—they don’t particularly care about the quality of the product. What we do here is, we build the equipment, it gets shipped, some of the people who work on that equipment commission it at the customer, they service it over the lifetime, so it is their baby. That is a much better fit in terms of commitment to the market, to the industry, and to the customers.”
At a point in time when so many manufacturers were leaving North Carolina, Radinger’s point of view was to keep building it here because it felt right. He saw no benefit to outsourcing but a lot of benefit in keeping it local with the jobs and profits in Western North Carolina.
“Right now, we see a renaissance in manufacturing. We see big increases in the last three to four years. In general, that’s great. In particular, it causes challenges—not so many people are studying to be engineers or welders or fabricators and so on. And now there is a huge problem in the U.S. for skilled labor. There is a shortage. That’s one of the challenges for manufacturing here. We are fortunate here to have a very good support from Henderson County Economic Development, and also work a lot with community colleges. That helps tremendously.”
“In Germany we say the first generation builds it up; the second enjoys it; and the third drives it into the ground. I knew I had to be very careful about that. I wanted to beat the odds,” Radinger shares, with a laugh.
Beating those odds is exactly what Radinger has done as he guides the company that is still privately owned by him and his mother.
“Probably every two weeks I get a letter that someone wants to invest. We are very happy where we are. We are in the fortunate position that our operations can fund any of the projects that we need to do. We re-invest probably a far greater portion of any of the profits we make than 99 percent of the other companies out there. We are very, very solid. We don’t need it from a financial point of view, and from a strategic point of view, we are actually one of the bigger fishes in our industry. So, at the moment, there is no need to do that.”
Radinger is the father of three sons, the oldest having already completed an eight-month internship at Putsch. The two younger sons are finishing high school. A look to the future brings the question of, will a fourth generation of the Radinger family lead Putsch & Co., Inc?
“I thought about that quite a bit. Obviously, I would love nothing more than that, but it needs to work. It needs to be a good fit for the company and any, all, or none of my sons to come in. We’ll see. The possibilities are there. If not, we’ll do what’s right for everybody.”
The ribbon-cutting for a new Putsch facility in Fletcher was held in 2013. It still includes the original building that his father, who passed away in 2001, opened in 1975. Radinger believes his father would be proud of the company today—an international group of companies recognized globally for excellence in technology and quality.
“I think he would be proud. He really liked where we took the company. We are really an international name now. We are very proud of the companies and communities that we work out of. We are basically a household name in all the industries that we serve worldwide. It’s an exciting time right now. We have been able to grow really through all channels—organic growth; we developed it ourselves—and we had quite a few merger and acquisition opportunities.”
When asked what advice he would give to a younger version of himself, he thoughtfully offered the following:
“If something really adverse hits you, stay calm, step back, look at it, and then deal with it appropriately. Don’t let things shock you or give you a heart attack. Many, many things are possible in life—just step back and consider it. Take the speed out of it, look at it, and then attack it.
“Here, we are all very passionate about what we do—everything else falls into place. Be passionate about the products, and be very good to all your customers and employees. Then everything else works out—those are the big things.”
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