A favourite EPOS memory: Mission accomplished while sailing the high seas

By Jürgen Janovsky

Once upon a time, goods were transported on a rusty barge across the seas. Operations were rudimentary. It took years before large merchant ships could be sent on tour. Leaving the harbor was constantly delayed as captains suddenly signed on elsewhere and someone new had to be found. Severe storms continually threatened the ships ongoing journey. Voyages were very turbulent, but in the end, somehow goods always made it to their final destination.

Later on, a merchant navy of little blue ships sprang into action. A number of destinations could be reached at the same time. Little by little, ships travelled almost anywhere in the world; however, only in exceptional cases were voyages made in calm seas. Severe storms and even hurricanes remained constant companions. Occasionally, the captain and other sailors had to be replaced on the high seas. Despite this, in almost every case, the loaded goods were delivered; sometimes not in line with the original time schedule, but always according to the terms of the contract. In some cases, goods decayed in the harbour due to the customer changing his priorities, or logistics not working properly or because of missing competencies related to eventual distribution of goods. The crew wasn’t aware of this usually, as they were already on their next tour. However, hearing that the delivered goods were able to be of ongoing benefit was always a true highlight in a sailor’s life.

The ships were navigated by a brave team coming from a town in Germany. The crew grew over time and made important contributions, not only by acquiring new trade orders, but also in protecting ships on the high seas from sinking. Often, additional sailors had to travel to storm areas to prevent disasters. They normally succeeded, but with a certain amount of personal wear and tear. The crew was very enthralled with their work and dedicated, but wondering equally how long they could survive the pace.

For me, this story outlines quite well EPOS’ history. Instead of navigating ships, EPOS is leading projects. Instead of delivering goods, EPOS delivers consultancy services. And instead of captains, EPOS hires team leaders and project backstoppers.

How it all unfolded – from the very beginning

The first time I heard of “ÄBBOS” (this is how Mr. Erk used to pronounce it) was in 1992. In 1994 I began collaborating with the company, often sporadically but continuously. For quite some time Latvia was a common connection, where EPOS implemented the first major project in the company’s history. The acquisition process was rather bumpy. In Brussels, concerns were expressed regarding the as-yet-unknown company, and since two TL candidates proposed by Dr. Robert Gaertner had declined, he was advised not to pursue the matter anymore. As usual, when faced with difficult situations, Robert did not let go and was successful. Along with the desk officer in Brussels, I was greatly relieved as we had arranged the shortlisting of EPOS against all obstacles in the Commission. This project catapulted the company into a new era, but also brought challenges which EPOS had not faced before and which were inevitable in this business.

My involvement: Latvia and others

Five years later, EPOS sent me off to Latvia for another acquisition. The discussions went well. However, we were facing difficulties in filling the team leader position once again. This was resolved in a completely unexpected way for me. Fellow EPOS employee Anne Christine Hanser looked me straight in the eye and told me that according to her inner voice, I would be a suitable candidate. At first, this seemed absurd to me. Contrary to what I had planned for my future, and despite fierce opposition from my university, I left the country about 6 months later to start a 15-month project in Latvia. Anne Christine and Robert set me on course for Latvia and were instrumental in terms of the outcome this ultimately had for me.

Surprises in the beginning went from “Latvenglish” to welcome me to discussions on the sense of projects paying international consultants while indebting the country further. International consultants had, at that time, the image of being put into one of the following three different categories: (i) they earn a lot of money, (ii) they marry (which could be the contrary of the first scenario) or (ii) they die.

I needed to learn that my task to redefine the investment system in the health care system also affected many different and powerful interests in the country. For the first time in my life I became aware of what it was like to be followed. It was my driver who flagged it, and I was not keen to believe him. However, I soon realised that he was right. Almost anywhere and at any time, there was a shady-looking man following me. I started to play a game with him. One time I ultimately got “my companion” into trouble by going for a jog along the gulf of Riga. It was possible to run in one direction along the beach for about 10 km. I knew he could not follow me this far. I stopped jogging twice to communicate by waving my arms around, but each time he only turned back until I could not see him anymore. He never appeared again, and I never knew what happened to him. I also never got an answer to what kind of organization he worked for. While this may seem like an adventure, for me it turned out to be annoying in the end.

Continuing to be cautious probably kept any further adventure from coming my way. The project remained challenging during implementation and political hurdles had an impact on sustainable outcomes. Due to the client’s insistence, no fewer than 12 consultants had to be replaced in less than one year. In most cases, I could understand the client’s request: it is obvious that medical doctors do not become consultants over night. I imagine that EPOS would certainly be able to publish an entire book just on these difficult personnel issues. Nevertheless, all turned out fine for me. I was honoured by the Ministry; hopefully not only because my follower’s sponsoring organisation did not suffer any harm from my work - although I will never be able to know this for sure. After completion of the project, a wave of government changes took place, and unfortunately affected measures achieved substantially: the reforms introduced by the project were overruled.

While I am still alive writing this story, I am opening a fourth category of international consultants: without any big business, unmarried and in good health - an exception to the general image.

Collaboration between EPOS and myself continued beyond the closure of the project. Robert frequently requested assistance for other projects, especially the complicated ones where no other expert could be found. The process was always the same: overcoming challenges in acquisition and implementation, when goals were met, but plans did not always unfold as expected.

This last sentence could also address the company history of EPOS in a nutshell: EPOS has been very successful, but in great part due to its fully committed employees who unfalteringly pursue objectives even when faced with significant unexpected circumstances. Management has succeeded in building a culture that enables the team to meet, and even exceed, expectations. It is rather natural that this dynamic has sometimes led to “collateral damage”. In looking back, it may have been better to step back occasionally. But, if this had been done, EPOS may not have become as successful as it is today.

Reflecting back with an eye on the future

Only cynics could consider that it would have been better to simply step back. Even though challenges have always existed, no one can deny that EPOS has gone through a brilliant development in the last two decades.

A new era has begun with the recent management change. This, for sure, will bring new challenges. There will likely be some changes going forward and with new measures being undertaken. In principle, two questions arise: a) What can remain the same?; b) What should be changed? With regards to question ‘b’, I lack sufficient insight to provide an answer. Regarding the first question, I rely on my experience with the company to offer an answer:

The development of the past would not have been possible without complete employee commitment. What makes human beings continually achieve high performance? And what can I contribute to answer this question based on my current work? Several research studies address this, with somewhat contradictory results. However, four factors can be identified relative to Germany, the US and Japan with regards to employee motivation: a) acceptance; b) respect; c) interesting work in terms of content; d) a large degree of self-determination. Material incentives are considered to be of minor importance, with any motivational affect related to salary increases lasting little more than 24 hours, regardless of the amount. Hopefully this fact will not prevent salary increases for current EPOS employees!

I am convinced that the four factors mentioned above have been defining principles of EPOS’ culture and have contributed considerably to company’s success. Although at times employees may have felt it differently. Of course it has not always been possible to balance the operative requirements with management measures appropriate to this culture. The following facts come into play from time to time:

  • Negative feedback stays in mind longer than 100 reasons for which appreciation has been expressed.
  • An intensive resistance has longer and stronger effects than the daily mutual respect when dealing with the same person.
  • Frustration during the preparation of PQs and proposals, the disappointment of unsuccessful tenders or the naggings of unqualified employees negatively overshadow an otherwise extremely interesting and positive working context.
  • A conflict-prone business environment, that accompanies consultancy work, requires management to make overriding decisions at times. This is inevitable and may leave some employees feeling they were not autonomous at work in the first place.

Working under pressure with tenders and global consultancy work at EPOS, there were certainly occasions and situations in which employees may have felt frustrated. Accordingly, after all these years, everyone’s ego likely has been (repeatedly) tested in the working environment. I cannot measure the long-term impact of this, but in the course of my collaborations with EPOS, I always felt that the company maintained a climate in which the majority of employees felt appreciated, identified with the company and were devoted to the work they performed. This should certainly continue going forward, supported by many "long-standing" employees.

Another important point: all types of people are interacting in organizations, performing specific roles in line with their unique characteristics, often serving as a stabilising force – without most people even being aware. This is the case too at EPOS. Below are some examples:

  • Nicole Krug seems to stay calm even in very hectic situations and handles an endless myriad of problems with constructive solutions.
  • Jacqueline Kühn, whose even-balanced nature serves as an antidote to stress in emotionally challenging situations.
  • Ernst Rausch proves that accountants can be considerate and caring. He weathers the ‘daily madness’ of international consultancy with a deep resolve built years of experience.

I wish EPOS, and its wonderful staff with whom I worked over the last two decades, another 30 years of even greater success. And, I hope that everyone is able to achieve a healthy work-life balance too.

Jürgen Janovsky