INTERVIEW WITH ASTRID KORF-WOLMAN
Entrepreneur Willy Korf was the founder of KORF STAHL. His mini steel mills and new energy-saving technologies revolutionized the steel industry – not only in Germany but across the world in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, South America, and East Asia. He was the first European steel manufacturer to bring his industrial innovations to the US. In 1969, he built his first mini steel mill in Georgetown, South Carolina. He was a legend in the steel industry, and a man of great vision who was always willing to experiment, seek out new talent, and develop himself – no matter what difficulties he encountered. In 1990, his life ended tragically when his private plane crashed into the mountains while approaching Innsbruck in Austria. He was 61 years old. His legacy and impact on the steel industry endure today.
Willy Korf’s daughter, Astrid, founded the Willy Korf Foundation in 2000. The Foundation supports young, innovative academics in the steel industry across the world. Astrid and her family present the annual Willy Korf Award for Young Excellence, alongside the prestigious Willy Korf / Ken Iverson Award, at the internationally acclaimed Steel Success Strategies Conference, traditionally held in New York City. Among other priorities, the Foundation is planning to focus increasingly on sustainability.
You are dedicated to preserving your father's legacy. Why? What is it that drives you?
Having been brought up alongside my father, the world of steel is very much in my blood and also was part of my inspiration to study architecture and engineering. After the business was successfully sold, my passion has prevailed for the industry. Preserving his legacy for future generations is a cause very dear to me.
What do you miss most when you think about him?
His tireless positive energy and his zest for life.
What did you learn from him? Is there a guiding principle?
Never give up, no obstacle is too big, there is always a way out! Not to be impressed by people, in the sense of not feeling inferior to anyone. Everyone has the same right to speak for themselves, whether someone is in a leading position or a worker in the factory, or a beggar on the street. You always have to stand by yourself. My father never judged a person's origin. For him, people and their values were important. This shaped my upbringing a lot and gave me a lot of self-confidence.
What was he like as a father?
Although my father was away on business a lot, family life was his everything. However, he didn't really influence me until I was a teenager when we were able to exchange ideas on an equal footing. We had a very friendly and respectful relationship. I could discuss everything with him, and he with me. When he died, I not only lost my father, but also a good friend with whom I could steal horses.
What can future generations learn from your father? From a human point of view, but also as an entrepreneur?
It is important to maintain personal contact with your employees. My father took it to the extent that he even chose himself birthday presents for his colleagues. He also took time to speak to the workers on a regular basis. I recently visited Hamburger Stahlwerke. A worker who still knew my father told me that my father came to the plant at least twice a year and took the time to speak to everyone personally. This way every employee feels a special connection to the boss and loyalty develops on a personal level.
As an entrepreneur, it is important to take a strong stance and stand by it. You have to believe in your visions, act on them, and look ahead.
How would you describe your father?
My father was a great optimist, his glass was always half full. He always looked ahead, and no obstacle was too big for him. He was a people person, charming and full of humor. He was characterized by hard work, self-assertion, enthusiasm, clarity, and directness. His motivations were joie de vivre, energy and curiosity.
Would his success/ his actions still be conceivable in this form today?
He is a good example of a charismatic post-war first-generation German industrialist, to be compared with Agnelli or Olivetti in Italy. Today we occasionally see executives with similar traits such as Elon Musk.
To the steel industry:
Sustainability is the focus today in the world: How do the steel industry and three dimensions of sustainability - economy, ecology, and society fit together?
Steel is a key component of the world economy and the foundation of modern society. Steel can be found in everyday life, from cars to household products like washing machines to concrete walls.
The question is not how we can replace it, but rather the need to find new technologies that improve the efficiency and environmental friendliness of its production. Today new companies are emerging that put sustainability first, such as H2 Green Steel or Big River Steel in the USA. Of course, one must also bear in mind that the steel industry secures millions of jobs. It is not always easy for traditional companies to make the necessary decisions to produce green and inexpensively.
How does the steel industry have to position itself against this background?
The steel industry has to focus on new technologies. Innovation always came first for my father. This also includes the phasing out of traditional blast furnace production and the transition to electrical steel production, which enables the use of recycled steel and renewable energies.
Governments must continue to recognize the importance of the industry while working with entrepreneurs and creating incentives for sustainable production. That was already successful in the energy sector.