Interview with Rolf Buch

"Digitalisation is one of the most important megatrends of the last few years"

Rolf Buch is the CEO of Vonovia, Germany’s leading housing company. He tells us about his time at the Organisationsforum Wirtschaftskongress (OfW) and explains what digital leadership looks like at Vonovia and how the company uses digital methods to optimise work processes and create innovative solutions for climate protection.
As a board member, Buch was responsible for organising the 2nd Business Congress in 1989. From 2009 onwards, Buch served on the Board of Trustees of the OfW and has spoken at the Congress on several occasions himself.

Mr Buch, as a former board member and former trustee of the Organising Forum: What did you take away from your time in the OfW team?
A lot – I learned entrepreneurship for the first time back then and was able to apply it to the organisation. I have not been able to learn more in advance in such a short time.
And that is still the goal today: bringing theory together with concrete issues of business. Students have inspiration, new ideas and important impulses for the different industries. The university lecture hall, however, is more the place to solidify theoretical knowledge and backgrounds; the business congress makes practice tangible. Approaches and solution strategies are discussed under a concrete question. Representatives from the companies share their experience. This is also very enriching for your own professional network.

Even when you were already one of Germany’s top managers, you stayed in touch with OfW. What was the motivation for this?
It is the next generation of potential managers. That is why this contact is important – for both sides. In my view, the OfW is characterised by diverse perspectives and a great willingness to engage in dialogue. The fact that students are able to organise such a professional conference every year impresses me every time. The “World” in “World Business Dialogue” stands for a remarkable openness and internationality – students and business representatives from all over the world come together in Cologne. This enables a direct exchange that rarely exists in this form.

What was your personal career like?
After studying mechanical engineering and business administration at RWTH Aachen University, I started at Bertelsmann. In 2013, I became CEO of Deutsche Annington, which was renamed Vonovia after the takeover of Gagfah in 2015.
Throughout my career, I have always looked at economic issues from an engineer’s perspective: If some wheel doesn’t turn, then we tinker until it does. That is always a creative task. That’s where ideas come from. That’s where entrepreneurial opportunities lie.

What is Vonovia’s unique selling proposition? Where does the special responsibility lie?
Vonovia owns more than 568,000 flats in Germany, Austria and Sweden. But size is not everything. Housing companies in Europe are facing comparable challenges: The climate and energy turnaround must succeed; it will not tolerate any delay. We need more suitable housing for older people. Housing in urban centres must remain affordable, for which we urgently need more new construction. The consequences of the war in Ukraine are not even included in the current demand calculations. And last but not least, the digital transformation in the sector must succeed. As a leading housing company, we have a special responsibility to meet these social megatrends. This is where we come in. By joining forces, we can increase our contribution. We make our flats energy fit. We are placing the neighbourhood in the focus of climate protection and moving away from fossil fuels. We are building new flats where they are needed, and we are converting flats for self-determined everyday living.
And we are investing in research and innovation. We are digitalising our processes to improve the service for our tenants. So, we are an owner, a developer and also a bit of a start-up. I think this comprehensive approach is our real USP.

Why does digital leadership play an important role for Vonovia?
For us as a real estate company, digitalisation is one of the most important megatrends of recent years. We have developed a unique digital management platform. All activities in the company are connected. We can scale effortlessly. Our costs per flat are decreasing year by year. Only by working as efficiently as possible can we keep rents moderate and minimise vacancies. We extend the value chain. Long-term investors benefit from this.
We also rely on digital technologies when planning when and where to realise new construction projects. In times of rising construction costs, this is more important than ever. We are digitalising all work processes: Urgencies are determined, travel routes are optimised and work processes are standardised. We also digitally control the deployment of our craftsmen and gardeners. Digitalisation is also an accelerator in the area of research and innovation. We collect data in a structured way and derive optimisations. Especially in the area of self-sufficient energy supply for a neighbourhood, data management is essential. Digitalisation has permanently changed all areas of our working life – especially leadership and management – and brings many advantages, especially for an internationally active company like ours. The Covid19 pandemic has shown how efficiently our digital tools mesh. We get more done in less time. This is how digital technologies help us to master the challenges in the housing market – from climate protection to new construction.

How is digitalisation affecting tenants?
Since 2020, a large part of our customer communication has been taking place via our “My Vonovia” app. Prospective tenants can use it to conclude rental agreements digitally and paperlessly, for example. Our customers receive all the information about their flat on the app and are thus quickly informed if, for example, work needs to be done on the building. They can access their digital mailbox, view their contracts, but also make requests for services and appointments themselves. Of course, we continue to offer all services related to the flat independently of the app; tenants do not have to use it. But it makes many things easier and less bureaucratic. We receive positive feedback on the app, and customer satisfaction increases year by year.

Where is the digitalisation journey heading?
Digitisation poses comparable challenges for the housing industry. At Vonovia, we will not stop investing in research. After all, in order to supply neighbourhoods with the energy and heat that is produced on site in a stable and comprehensive manner, we still need a lot of digital data in order to determine how sectors can be optimally coupled with each other. Only then it will be possible to derive a “production-ready” concept. However, we are also working intensively on the uniform digitisation of building applications. In order to boost the urgently needed new construction in Germany and relieve the building offices, a digital system across the various building codes of the individual federal states would be a real breakthrough. This is not an easy task, but it is important to deal with it because it also solves a social problem.
Since the beginning of the year, we have had an exceptionally competent Chief Transformation Officer (CTO) in Helene von Roeder for the newly created Executive Board area of digitalisation and innovation. I am sure that she will continue to drive the area of digitalisation and innovation forward in the coming years and create new innovations also in the area of digital leadership. The current challenge we are already working on is the integration of Deutsche Wohnen – this of course particularly affects the IT systems and the work and management processes. At the same time, the merger will also create new synergies from which we will benefit as a company.

What advice would you like to give to our readers?
Work on the important challenges for your future! Many opportunities are waiting for you, and you have the chance to actively shape our future! Especially when it comes to “digital leadership”, there is an enormous amount of creative leeway that you can use for your professional or private future – or your research projects.

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