One regularly puts his fortune at risk as part of his job. The other risks his neck in daring expeditions. We spoke with investor Benedict Rodenstock and climbing legend Stefan Glowacz about risk
By Katarina Baric and Stefan Tillmann (Messe München Magazine 01/2019)
No risk, no fun: Investor Benedict Rodenstock and climbing legend Stefan Glowacz know that from their own experience.
MM | Mr. Glowacz, the Oscar-premiered documentary film Free Solo attracted many visitors to the theaters. What do you feel when you see such images?
Glowacz | Incomprehension, actually. I also have climbed without a rope before. But in hindsight, I think that arrogance and presumptuousness were a privilege of youth. That’s what you do in your “Sturm and Drang” period. When you feel immortal, you no longer think about what the consequences might be. You are unrestricted. You are free. I also have to say that soloing is naturally the purest form of climbing. It brings you into a state that you can maybe only reach through meditation. It is a deep interplay between body and spirit.
MM | It sounds fascinating.
Glowacz | It is, too. When you are hanging on only two holds, you look between your feet and see a gaping emptiness. At that moment, you get the feeling that you have death under control. That you decide what is safe for you. Without knowing if the next hold could break away. This point of view ultimately became my undoing. During a training tour, I lost my grip at about eight or nine meters’ height and plummeted back to the ground. I seriously injured myself. It ended my career as a solo climber. That was an important shot across the bow. Were it not for that, I would have continued on and would eventually have had a really big fall and been unable to get up again.
MM | Everyone in the scene is aware of this danger, right?
Glowacz | Everyone actually knows this: The more often you do it, the higher the likelihood that it will be your last time.
Stefan Glowacz, 54, is the trailblazer of the German climbing scene. Today, he undertakes sustainable, CO2-free expeditions. He recently trekked across Greenland, where he traveled with electric vehicles and a sailboat.
Photo: Robert Brembeck
MM | Today, you primarily undertake expeditions, for example most recently to Greenland. You were looking for new limits: your own, but also civilization’s. How is that riskier than a climbing tour?
Glowacz | We’re not actually seeking risk in that sense. The fascination with such undertakings consists in recognizing the risk and eliminating it as far as possible, even in the planning phase. In this way, we head out completely differently from Shackleton and Amundsen, who at the time were really venturing into the unknown. The world today is more or less discovered. And with Google Earth, you can zoom into any region of this planet. What it is actually like at that location, however, is a different story.
MM | How is it for you, Mr. Rodenstock? Could you imagine such an expedition? You yourself go on ski, climbing, and mountaineering expeditions. Where are your personal limits?
Rodenstock | In the past, I also took part in some interesting tours. For example the Haute Route, which is the mother of all ski tours in the western Alps. You spend ten days on it between elevations of 2,000 and 4,000 meters and are on the move for eight to ten hours per day. If you fail to reach the next hut, you have to dig a snow cave, because there is no chance of finding shelter anywhere else. It is therefore important to be fit. Plus, you need to have self-confidence.
Benedict Rodenstock, 48, is the great grandson of Josef Rodenstock, who founded the Rodenstock eyewear company. In 2006 he founded the venture capital firm Astutia. Successful exits include, for example, Amorelie and Fashionette.
Photo: Robert Brembeck
MM | And were you always confident in every situation? Recently, some people actually had fatal accidents on the Haute Route.
Rodenstock | You cover long distances. You go a total of 200 kilometers, and there are long, relatively flat stretches over glaciers. It always gets complicated when you go from one valley into the next. You usually have to go over a pass, and there are generally rather steep passages. That takes you to the limits relatively quickly. There is a key point on the Haute Route where you have to abseil roughly 50 meters. I definitely used up my adrenalin for the day there.
MM | Did you consciously seek out the risk?
Rodenstock | I believe that it always comes with mountain sports; the thrill is part of it. And naturally, you also want to climb. Plus, there is always an inherent risk in alpine sports. These are the alpine risks: bad weather, fog you can get lost in, avalanches, or rockfalls. As an individual, you cannot influence these. That’s why I go on fewer ski tours these days. Among other things, it is a tribute to my family. Plus, I don’t have as much time anymore. And I have enough excitement in my profession now. For me, it’s okay if I just ski normally.
I consciously throw myself into situations in which I feel that I am just nature’s plaything.Stefan Glowacz
MM | Is it more of a contemplative experience for you, with the beauty of the mountains, or do you specifically seek adrenaline?
Glowacz | Of course, it also involves being in harmony with nature. That’s why you go mountain climbing. Otherwise, you could just do indoor sports. It has to do with experiencing the beauty of nature, its primitiveness, and also its power. I consciously throw myself into situations in which I feel that I am just nature’s plaything.
Rodenstock | That is how I see it, too. It’s all about the wildness of nature. And, on the other hand, your own humility. It’s because you recognize that you are just so small in this environment.
MM | Then do you believe that humans have a need for risk?
Rodenstock | I believe it is an inherent part of the world that there are also dangers. It has always been that way.
Glowacz | I think that it simply depends on the person. There are many people who only begin to feel alive when they are faced with certain dangers. Then they live more intensely, or at least they believe they do. That is certainly one of my motivations for always breaking out of society. Not that I cannot tolerate society. But I enjoy reducing things to the absolute necessities from time to time. First of all, it highlights to me the wealthy and secure environment we live in. Above all, I do not want to miss out on the awareness of how little a person needs to be happy. And when you’re on an expedition, that means a safe campsite, a hot meal in the evening, and a dry sleeping bag. Then, you are the happiest person on earth.
Investor Benedict Rodenstock and climbing pioneer Stefan Glowacz agree: without risk no success.
Photo: Robert Brembeck
MM | You once said that curiosity is a great motivation. Is it a kind of physical curiosity to want to sound out your own limits?
Glowacz | There is an enormous difference in consuming adventures that others have had and the sense of having experienced it on your own, having worked it out and suffered it for yourself. It’s the same for an entrepreneur, isn’t it?
Rodenstock | I also get nothing handed to me. It is also a long trek, uphill, so to speak.
MM | Isn’t it somewhat infantile to enter into risks? Or is it a grown-up desire? Children actually don’t consciously take risks.
Rodenstock | I believe children don’t yet understand the concept of risk in that sense. And, they maybe also don’t know how dangerous many things are. That’s what we parents are there for. By warning them not to touch a hot stove or not to fall from a chair, we seek to protect them. But, children also have to experience many things for themselves.
Glowacz | Absolutely. Sometimes, I see young parents hovering over their children like helicopters trying to keep them away from every risk. I think that is the wrong approach. Children must have their space.
MM | Seen from an economic point of view, risk is actually a must. Without it, there would be no innovation, no growth. Mr. Glowacz, you have developed a climbing brand called Red Chili. Is it easier to risk money than your life?
Glowacz | Both can be negligent. When we founded Red Chili, we already knew with relative certainty what we were doing. We knew the material by heart, and the market for climbing shoes was straightforward. We were successful—up to the point at which we could no longer finance it ourselves because we had become so successful so quickly. But I must honestly say: There is always just as much to be said against starting a business as there is for starting it. And, I think, when you have studied for an MBA, you find more reasons to argue against it. As founder, you need a certain naivety to have the courage to say: We’re doing it now!
MM | Do you see it that way too, Mr. Rodenstock?
Rodenstock | Yes. Although, it’s always easier said than done, too. Sometimes, you just have to make decisions and take certain steps. I believe that, as an entrepreneur, you have to be just a little bit crazy. Sometimes, it’s better if you don’t know ahead of time what’s coming at you. Otherwise, you probably would never have done a lot of things. Entrepreneurship is necessarily bound up with risk. These days, we have a developed national economy in which, in principle, only incremental growth takes place. For me, that’s no longer real entrepreneurship. With my firm, I work instead in a field where businesses are built up from nothing.
If you invest in ten companies, you have to reckon with the fact that two will fail, two will go through the roof, and the rest will end up somewhere in between.Benedict Rodenstock
MM | Mr. Glowacz, can you imagine investing in start-ups? Or how do you deal with your savings: the stock market or under your pillow?
Glowacz | Well, it’s so little that I don’t even have to think about it (laughs). However, I would not do anything that I didn’t understand, or with which I had no affinity. It also makes a huge difference whether I am risking my own money as an entrepreneur or if I’m using someone else’s money as a manager. But, I must honestly say that I cannot stand to lose money. When I invest somewhere, I have to know with 70 percent certainty that it will work. That would likely be real estate, which I develop.
MM | But real estate is more risky than traditional savings.
Glowacz | Yes, but I only buy in an area that I am familiar with. For example, I have a hotel in Garmisch, in Grainau, that I am developing and expanding by adding another building. Whether or not the investment is successful is totally within my own hands. And, I always have the option of selling it.
If I have doubts about a start-up, I can’t get out so easily. It’s more complicated than getting a divorce.Benedict Rodenstock
MM | Does that make sense to you, Mr. Rodenstock? How high does the level of certainty have to be for you?
Rodenstock | Yes, that makes sense to me. I have been an investor now for 13 years and have experienced some success stories that we wrapped up with a profit. But, naturally, there were also a few times when nothing came of it and the money disappeared completely. But that’s also part of the business. If you invest in ten companies, you have to reckon with the fact that two will fail, two will go through the roof, and the rest will end up somewhere in between. And the two that really go well must then make up for all the others. So, it makes no sense to invest in just one or two start-ups and then hope that something comes of it. The risk then is just too great.
MM | So you manage your risk similarly to a well-diversified stock portfolio?
Rodenstock | Exactly. Although a total loss in a stock investment is a rare occurrence. If I lose 20 percent in stocks, I can still sell them off. If I have doubts about a start-up, I can’t get out so easily. It’s more complicated than getting a divorce (laughs).
When it comes to business taking risks sometimes is necessary. But Benedict Rodenstock and Stefan Glowacz generally prefer being on the safe side
Photo: Robert Brembeck
MM | As the offspring of the Rodenstock Company, you undoubtedly grew up without financial worries. Have you ever had the need to enter into risk?
Rodenstock | I always wanted to do something on my own, perhaps also because of my family background. I was previously also never credible as an employee. Today, I have complete responsibility: I have to run the whole enterprise, pay my employees, and support my family.
Glowacz | Is it harder to get something of your own off the ground when you come from such a dynasty?
Rodenstock | The expectations are higher, yes. Everyone basically expects that you will also become a great entrepreneur. But that is a lot harder today, just because of the huge competition. It’s no longer as easy as it was after the war to build something up quickly.
MM | How do you specifically go about making your investments?
Rodenstock | We receive approximately 1,000 tenders per year. For each of them, we have to precisely examine the business model, perhaps also the contracts and shareholder structure. It’s a total package, in which as many factors as possible should add up. The most important one is the people—that they can carry out what they have set out to do as a team. And that we can get along with them well. That also includes letting them have their say. We normally also do not invest only in an idea or a business plan. There must at least be a prototype, a proof of concept, and initial sales.
MM | Is calculating risk then a matter of the head or the heart?
Rodenstock | A bit of both. I believe that with experience, it comes more from a gut feeling, but I think you must also go through the risks intellectually.
Glowacz | It always comes down to how you grow into it. I started mountain climbing because my parents simply took me along, even when I could barely walk. I learned so much during this period. And you develop instincts that you can no longer learn if you start at 20, 25 years old. For example, I look at the sky and know exactly when I need to shorten a tour because there will definitely be a storm in the afternoon. You feel that. It’s exactly the same with entrepreneurship. If someone had founded a student newspaper while they were still in grade school or founded a playground service, they would naturally have a different understanding of entrepreneurship than someone who, some time after graduation, imagines setting up a business.
MM | What you both have in common is independence—the one in entrepreneurship, the other in sports.
Glowacz | Yes, certainly. Of course, there’s something to that if you are responsible for every single decision. But passion comes before that: that you are fired up by your idea, that you are absolutely convinced about it. I believe that you can only survive today if you bring one hundred percent passion to every day. As an athlete or even as an entrepreneur, you no longer have a nine-to-five job. When we wanted to found Red Chili, I was busy with it from morning to night. I got up during the night and wrote my ideas down in a little booklet. Or I called my buddy, my business partner, immediately and told him about them.
My family knows that I would rather turn back than take an uncalculated risk.Stefan Glowacz
MM | How do you see your responsibility toward your family?
Glowacz | I weigh every risk very carefully, and my family knows that. I am now very cautious. There are many mountains in the Himalayas, for example, that I only marvel at from below. Many walls that have yet to be scaled—and there are good reasons for that. Because there are only two ways this can end: Either you manage it and you are the great hero, or you fail and are the greatest idiot because everyone knew from the start that it was too difficult. My family knows that I am very careful these days. And that I would rather turn back than take an uncalculated risk.
MM | How do you teach your child about handling risk, Mr. Rodenstock?
Rodenstock | Well, my son is now five years old (laughs). We will have plenty of time for that. That is not an issue right now. But at some point, we will introduce him to it, when the time comes.
MM | What would you think if your children wanted to take a similar path to you, Mr. Glowacz?
Glowacz | I have tried that already. My life now revolves almost 24 hours a day around climbing and mountaineering. And, it is relatively unlikely that my own children would feel a similar fascination with it. So, I have very carefully tried to introduce them to climbing. But it did not interest them at all. My boys are enthusiastic freestyle skiers—a breakneck kind of sport. I was once at a competition where my son had a big fall. That is unbearable for a father. Since then, I would rather stay at home and hope that I don’t get a call from the hospital.