Dealing with risks, making decisions, taking on leadership roles, cooperating in a team, setting objectives, showing persistence and maybe sometimes the courage to turn back – these are all situations that occur both in business and when climbing an eight-thousand metre mountain.
Benedikt Böhm climbs some of the world's highest summits in record time and then descends them at maximum speed on skis. His goal is to spend as little time as possible in the death zone to reduce the risk. He goes without any means of return, artificial oxygen, added weight or extensive provisions. Nevertheless, Benedikt Böhm does not describe himself as a clichéd extreme sportsman who is tired of life. One of his expeditions calls for absolute precision and preparation down to the smallest detail. It involves a vast amount of training and discipline but also creativity, new techniques, and the courage to think and act in a new way.
We spoke to Benedikt Böhm about the parallels in dealing with risks in extreme sport and in business. After all, in his other life Benedikt Böhm is the CEO of Dynafit, the leading supplier of ski touring equipment. Starting from the innovative TLT binding system for touring skis, Dynafit now offers a full range for ski tours and trail running. As its snow leopard logo suggests, Dynafit is focused on speed.
So Bene, what does risk mean to you?
Benedikt Böhm: For me, risk means that not all components of a business can be one hundred percent controlled and determined. We assess risk according to the loss of control it entails.
You often say that, in modern business life, speed is a survival factor. How can speed reduce a company's risk?
Benedikt Böhm: Speed plays a key role in economic life when it comes to establishing competitive advantages. We are constantly in a death zone in terms of competitive pressure. Go go sleep for a year and you can fall. Particularly for us as a very innovative company, speed is the key to staying at the top. But speed doesn't imply running around uncontrollably and aimlessly – on the contrary in fact. Just like mountaineering, 80 percent of success is in the preparation. If I have to take a risk but still want to be fast, planning plays a crucial role.
According to independent studies, the average life expectancy of companies in the Northern hemisphere is well below 20 years. The reason for this is that people stay on board a lame nag and totally forget to dismount and change horses. Why do companies stay too long in the danger zone? What can they learn from a speed ski mountaineer and a successful CEO?
Benedikt Böhm: I don't know whether people can learn from me. But I think that as mountaineers and entrepreneurs we have to repeatedly overcome our fears. I see this as the crucial task in my life – it started back in my childhood when I was the scared kid out of six brothers and sisters. I'm not talking about having to face up to every single fear, but each of us has strengths and areas where we are good.
I see many people start to go stale as soon as they have reached a certain level in the areas where they are strong. Instead of the danger zone, you could say that companies spend far too long in their comfort zone. As entrepreneurs, we must have the ability to stimulate and reinvent ourselves – the ability to think of a blank white sheet of paper and constantly push ourselves out of our comfort zone to avoid going stale.
At the moment when we are moving out of our comfort zone, we have to overcome fears as we are confronted with the unknown (risks). However, this opens up new opportunities for us. I have only rarely met people who have looked back and regretted leaving their comfort zone – in sport or professionally.
How would you describe the risk and opportunity management at Dynafit or Salewa? To what extent does an analytical and structured method play a role alongside intuition?
Benedikt Böhm: Intuition is important and I have the huge advantage of working with people who not only love their brand and products, but also spend every spare second as passionate users of them. Here are people who are constantly thinking about how we can make sport even faster, easier and better. In the initial period, we did actually just cut loose. Investments were smaller and there was rarely a business plan back then. People came up with an idea from their sport and simply put it into action. At an early stage, I employed a friend who was in the national ski touring team with me for several years and he manipulated all the material very shrewdly, skilfully and meticulously. Today he is Product Director and oversees all our product areas. However, the days of lightning speed innovations are gone. When we began 13 years ago, ski touring was in its infancy and it was relatively easy for us to adapt revolutionary ideas from racing for commercial use. People were shocked but above all delighted. Today, for example, Dynafit makes the world's lightest ski boot at just 400 grams. It has become more complex to save weight, so things now have to be very precisely planned and analysed. But we are still fast when we believe in an idea.
Many companies view risk as a synonym for mistakes. This misses the fact that you can learn from mistakes. Can you give us any examples from your business and sporting life where you have not managed to get to the summit?
Benedikt Böhm: If you want to go in new directions and leave your comfort zone, you have to anticipate mistakes. Anything else would be naive. I've made lots of mistakes and I still make plenty. The key is whether you have the will and the ability to take a critical look at yourself and your mistakes so that you can draw the right conclusions from them. My first high-altitude experiences outside the Alps – in Peru – were an unmitigated disaster. We did everything wrong that you can do wrong and suffered terribly for it. I swore to myself that I'd never do that again. A year later I made it to the top of my first 7,000m peak in just nine hours in my first high-speed tour. The next year I completed my first 8,000m climb in 12.5 hours. I would never have been able to do that in the following years if I had not had the negative experiences in Peru and learned from them. In business, there are many situations where we have failed to get it right later or withdrawn from the area.
Why do you think companies forget the "second chance” that arises by learning from a crisis?
Benedikt Böhm: Is that the case? I think crises are part of any respectable company's history. Why is a crisis good? Because it forces us out of our comfort zone. Every crisis forces us to evaluate the status quo and to leave no stone unturned when it comes to getting out of the crisis. Of course, it's best if you can see the crisis coming and prepare yourself for it. We've had a crisis in the last three years – the first snow was not until after Christmas and the short winters have then only lasted five weeks. Ultimately, the unpredictable winters have forced us to change and rethink. We have tried to establish Dynafit as a 365 days a year operation, instead of making our business model dependent on snow and complaining if no snow falls. This has opened up brand new opportunities for us. The Dynafit Alpine Running range is now driving our growth.
What role do fear and survival instinct play in risk management?
Benedikt Böhm: Fear is important. As a mountaineer, without fear I'd be dead and as a businessman I would have soon been bankrupt. But I'm talking about the fears that we actually need to overcome to face up to the responsibility we have to ourselves. For example, I'm thinking about someone not risking a big career move, even though they could do the job better than someone else. It's all about overcoming the fears and utilising our full potential. When I tackle an 8,000m peak, one of the reasons I do it is because I know that I can do it, theoretically and practically, and I want to – or sometimes don't want to – put my potential (which I have worked hard for) to the test. Risk, fear, courage and trust are constantly interacting so that we ultimately overcome our fears, or we don't.
In your presentation at the RiskNET Summit, you talked about how the "art of omission”, reducing complexity and lightness are key success factors. What advice can you give us as an entrepreneur and sportsman?
Benedikt Böhm: Being fast means being light and efficient. This is the biggest challenge for any mountaineer and entrepreneur. Omission is much more difficult than taking on more. As an entrepreneur I have to decide every day what I'm doing to do – but even more important what I'm not going to do so that I'll be more focused (and faster) with the things I do. We start our 8,000m speed climbs with 12kg total weight. It's an incredibly low figure and every gram is optimised.
Dynafit has managed to continuously increase its turnover sharply over the years. With 15 subsidiaries worldwide, the brand has developed into the market leader for ski tour sport. When you arrived at Dynafit in 2003, the company was insolvent. What was your formula for success?
Benedikt Böhm: A great team and the trust of the South Tyrolean owner, Heiner Oberrauch, in us and acceptance of a positive error culture. Also the components that we've talked about through this interview. Looking back, we had the courage to totally reinterpret and lead the way in what was initially a very outdated and conservative field of ski tours. We made it sexy, young and fast. We also came up with great innovations, polarising designs and – linked to this – operating at significantly higher, almost unbelievable, price points. Almost overnight, ski touring was attractive and cool. We have expanded one core competence after another. First ski touring bindings, then skis, then ski touring boots, then clothing and accessories, such as rucksacks. Our focus was always solving users' problems and offering significant added value when it comes to being faster and lighter.
How should people behave in exceptional and crisis situations – as an extreme sportsman or as a company or entrepreneur?
Benedikt Böhm: I don't know whether I can give you a patent remedy but I often think back to exceptional situations I have experienced. Panicking or rushing around certainly doesn't help. A cool head in these situations is the best solution for those affected. However, this is easier said than done but we can certainly develop mechanisms and automatic systems for crisis situations that help us to deal with them more effectively.
In what way has your risk appetite changed since you lost two mountaineering partners and friends – Sebastian Haag and Andrea Zambaldi – in an avalanche accident in 2014?
Benedikt Böhm: I didn't really have any more appetite for risk after my first expedition to Peru in 2004. I was never looking for an adrenaline rush or mortal fear. For me, it was always about sporting challenges in a wild mountain landscape, and that involves a lesser or greater degree of risk. But the accident certainly changed me, as a part of me died that day too. Andrea was a great colleague and Basti was a friend for many years, a source of inspiration, someone I trusted, a rope and sparring partner and much more. Without him, I would never have completed my first 8,000m climb in 2006 and the experiences we have shared are unique. Since 2014 I've not done any more 8,000m events, and I couldn't tell you whether I ever will. Thankfully, the accident has not affected my enthusiasm for the sport and for mountains.
As people get older and start a family, their blind willingness to take risks tends to decline rapidly. How do you reconcile the life of a father and husband with that of an extreme sportsman?
Benedikt Böhm: I think of it in a similar way to partners of police officers, soldiers, stuntmen or racing drivers. As I've said, there is a greater or lesser risk involved. I complete the majority of my tours with no real risk at all. It's also about trust. My wife trusts me to know what I can do and what I can't do, as I'm always aware of the risk and of my responsibility to my family. I'm convinced that she's never been scared for me. That's one of the main reasons it works.
The questions were posed by Frank Romeike, Editor in Chief of RISK MANAGER, member of the FIRM board and founder of RiskNET – The Risk Management Network.
Benedikt Böhm is the international CEO of Dynafit and an extreme mountaineer and skier. In 2006, he set the speed record on the Gasherbrum II with a complete ski descent. For almost his entire life Benedikt Böhm – born in 1977 – has been fascinated by speed and began his winter sports career at the age of just eleven. He was born in Munich as the fifth of six children. After completing his military service with the mountain infantry in Mittenwald, he studied International Management at Oxford Brookes University (UK) and Massachusetts (USA). Between 2003 and 2006, Benedikt Böhm was part of the German national ski mountaineering team. The discipline involves climbing mountains and then descending them again on skis in record time. Since joining Dynafit in 2003, the company has developed into the global market leader in ski touring equipment, and has 15 global subsidiaries with around 300 employees.