Professor Sönke Albers, 74, is ending his academic career and his time at KLU, which he was instrumental in building as its first professor and first Dean of Research. In the interview he talks about the startup spirit of the early days as well as significant milestones in his twelve years at KLU.
Interview: Susanne Löw
What was your first thought when Mr. Kühne asked you in 2010 if you wanted to build a new university-level institution?
Prof. Sönke Albers: I thought, “Oh my God!” (laughs). But seriously, I’d already had contact with private universities with varying degrees of success. For instance, I was the first professor at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management, which shaped up well. In Kiel, however, I experienced the founding of private institutions that failed due to poor funding. But Mr. Kühne sent a signal that the funding wasn’t a problem. We also agreed on the basic approach. It wouldn’t become another normal German university; it’d be deliberately different. I was 62 at the time, and it was clear to me that I wanted to do something new again. Even my wife said, “Do it. It could be interesting this time.”
What did your strategy for KLU’s first steps look like; what was your focus?
Albers: My premise was no chairs, rather a departmental structure just like abroad so the professors collaborate closely. Along these lines I introduced the stepped professorship – assistant, associate, and full professor – in order to keep motivation up. I wanted a research-oriented university.
How did the initial phase of assigning posts go? What were the biggest challenges and how did you solve them?
Albers: The big problem was who wants to go to a university where there aren’t any professors and no one knows where it’s all headed? So I looked around at international universities and logistics conferences. Are there German professors who want to return to Germany with their international experience and have enough punch for a university without chairs? My reputation helped here. The field knew: “He stands for research.” The strategy panned out.
How long did it take until you knew, now we can get started?
Albers: After about a year we made appointments public. Three Germans came from Rotterdam, Singapore, and Penn State. Maria Besiou, from Greece and currently Dean of Research, came from the private business school INSEAD in France. Kai Hoberg switched from a consulting firm to us. I also brought two habilitation candidates with me from Kiel. Initially, this was controversial. Today they’re strong research professors at KLU. One of them is Christian Barrot, current Dean of Programs. Then Mr. Logistics Alan McKinnon joined and we had our first team. From that moment on I knew this is going to be good.
At the same time, a structured doctoral program was important to you. Why is that an important part of a successful university-level institution for you?
Albers: Mr. Kühne definitely wanted a PhD program. For me it was clear: not how German universities usually do it, meaning you apprentice with a professor and hope to learn enough. It emerged around 2000 that structured courses give doctoral students better guidance. How do you do research? How do you write essays? I had experiences with structured PhD programs. With my academic teacher in Kiel I oversaw the first research training group in business administration in Germany. I wanted to establish that at KLU, too.
You’ve often compared the atmosphere at KLU in the early days to a startup. What experiences do you remember? How have practice and culture changed over time?
Albers: My most significant memory was entering a room with an empty table on the first day. There wasn’t anything but a telephone. Computers? “We still have to buy those,” they said. The first space was an open-plan office near the current Spiegel building where you were disturbed at random. Everyone ran to everyone when something needed solving because there weren’t any structures yet.
Here’s an example of the dynamic startup structures. The German Research Foundation (DFG) informed us that KLU wasn’t allowed to apply for funding because it didn’t have “standards of good scientific practice.” So I researched other universities, wrote a text for KLU, and tweaked it with the Academic Senate. Three weeks later our eligibility was approved. At public universities such a process takes two years. Of course, KLU has gotten slower as it’s gotten bigger.
Which of the milestones you set is most important to you?
Albers: For starters, the fact that we were able to recruit professors quickly. Thanks to our startup mentality we reviewed applications in a day and sent offers the next day. Second, the fact that we were able to advance these faculty members along their career path, as per tenure track. Even comparatively young professors back then now have robust networks, excellent publications, and teaching experience. And then of course institutional accreditation in 2015, which wasn’t easy due to the demanding requirements of the science council, and the right to award doctorates, conferred on us in 2017.
Not least owing to these milestones KLU has a positive future in 2022. What can KLU contribute now in times of global crises and uncertainties?
Albers: KLU is strong in research, for starters in the current big hot topics – supply chains and sustainability. But professorships in associated and adjacent disciplines, such as marketing, accounting and finance, company organization and leadership are taken, so these areas can be researched very well. And KLU can significantly support the economy as a driving force.
You’re known as an international networker. What are your keys to success?
Albers: I’m wasn’t born a networker. I had an excellent academic teacher, Prof. Klaus Brockhoff, who made it clear to me that if you want to achieve something in the academic world, you have to get out and about. In Stanford, I was a visiting researcher, went to a lot of conferences, and met a lot of people I’m still in touch with. I liked that. I’ve encouraged my PhD students to do the same. Many took that to heart and have a professorship today. I was also involved in the European Marketing Academy (EMAC) and active in various associations.
Which is how the “Albers School” family came about.
Albers: Right. Upwards of 100 people attend our annual SALTY Meeting. A student of mine coined the term after a stay abroad in Australia. Salty is the name of the Australian saltwater crocodile, and SALTY stands for: Sönke, Albers, Lehrstuhl (chair), Team. I have a lot of academic students in marketing and innovation to whom I’ve always preached: You have to get along well with each other personally, but you may compete professionally. All of them accepted this, and a great group came about.
What’s important to you in research at the intersection of marketing and business administration practice?
Albers: In my collaboration with companies I’ve always stipulated that I get to keep data for analysis and research purposes and that I’m allowed to publish interesting findings. In the past years, digital marketing and the use of artificial intelligence have really transformed the sector. For research this means you have to constantly keep up with methods – even if it’s strenuous.
What are your greatest insights from your KLU years?
Albers: You should fight hard for things, but keep professional exchange separate from personal life. I’ve had tough fights with my colleague, Alan McKinnon, but personally we still get along well. Another insight I’ll take away is: If you follow a structured plan you’ll be successful, just like the original structures laid out for KLU which not everyone liked at the beginning.
Aside from the SALTY Meeting, how will you stay in touch with KLU in the future?
Albers: I’m relieved of teaching now, but a lot of research projects are ongoing. I’m still an active reviewer and attend conferences. So I’ll keep going, just less.
Thank you for the conversation. All the best!