Johannes Gutmann is the founder of Sonnentor, one of the most successful Austrian companies. In the 80s it was common to move away from the countryside and live in the city, but that was not what Johannes had in mind. He started his own herb business in Waldviertel, Austria, which has grown beyond country boundaries producing organic herbs, spices, teas, coffees, cocoa, and sweet treats following the common good economy.
How is Sonnentor adapting to current circumstances?
We are doing business of circulation; we know our soil needs and what our farmers can do. We are not dependent on any fertilizer, so we have not really a problem with energy, gas, oil, or something else. We have been aware of taking care of the soil since the very beginning of organic farming and we will do this for the next hundred years, or as long as I live. I’m taking care of the next generation.
Corona made a very big step forward, now we are making steps behind. We are losing people. They are very afraid; they do not buy anymore organic. Our nearly exploding turnover is now in a very healthy stage. This means that we are not besting in investing. Now we can do really senseful things back to our rules and back to our vision.
«The future for organic is: small steps, grow naturally and stay in circles»
Organic movement is a healthy movement. Right now, we are very thankful for every partner, partnership, farmer still with us. Organic has to grow step by step, naturally.
With the current crisis, organic is the only way.
There’s no other way. We are not thinking about fertilizers, which are exploding in prices, or depending on oil, or gas. We are independent. That was as well the main keynote from the beginning of the BIOFACH Congress. Organic is the only way to a healthy and sustainable future.
At this moment, which sales are maybe back to the level prior to the pandemic, what do you say to retailers that want to look into the future?
There is only one message: you are part of the solution; not part of the problem. We are stable with our franchise system. All the big expanding chains are crashing. So, when you stay in sustainability, in healthy steps as well in business forward, you will keep your way.
«Our philosophy is a part of the answer to climate change, the fertility of our soils. We have to close the circles again»
So, the future for organic is…
Small steps, grow naturally and in an organic way, like a tree. Stay in circles.
Do you think the movement, the sector and politicians have stepped too much towards too ambitious targets?
They became greedy, because the organic movement was too successful for them. They are lost and looking for new ways. But success is not measured by turnover, it is measured by sustainability, by what you think makes you healthy. We are looking for resilience and not to become the biggest in the market. When you are the best, of course you become successful, but take care for your size.
Our management style is sustainability, and not to become the greatest, which is the main management style in Economics.
How do you maintain this essence?
I was asked many times to produce for other brands, and I always told them ‘thank you for asking. I love to stay in an independent way’. I love the organic movement and we stay in our very traditional circulation of common goods.
«It’s time to change the whole system. As soon as politicians are open-minded, they will find new ways in the future»
What is Sonnentor doing every day in terms of the common good economy?
The main thing for the vision of common good is that you can measure your own sustainability: all the things you are doing inside and outside your company, which sources do you need, what are you doing with your suppliers and all the people you are taking care of in order to stay in good health and bring your brand to the future. This common good vision is the long-term vision of sustainability.
My vision is to be like a trainer to my team, to my employees, to the people we work with. I’m one of them. Sometimes they call me boss, but mainly I’m their partner.
How many people are currently working at Sonnentor?
At the moment, we have over 500 employees: 370 in Austria and 170 in the Czech Republic. This year we are investing in a little facility in Romania and we know that it will be as well successful. We are happy that we understood our vision for the future.
«New generations are looking for new things, are open-minded people, and that brings us forward, to new markets and to a senseful, sustainable life»
When talking about ingredients, has the Ukrainian war affected you somehow?
Not at all. The Ukrainian war affected people’s mindset, the whole European style, but not our business. At the moment we are all afraid of the prices of energy. But we are sustainable, in our headquarters, we don’t use any gas… All our energy is renewable.
Waldviertel, the region in which you are located, is far away from big cities.
We are very close to the Czech border. And 95% of our employees live around 20 km. I know the power of the area. Nobody knew about it, because everybody went away. When I decided to start my own business, I decided to stay in the region where I grew up. I left my mother 7 km away and bought an old damaged farmhouse. Nobody believed I would be successful or that I could do my idea. I was alone. But this quietness brings you new ideas. When you are always infected with loud people and everybody knows it better, you become stressed.
In the organic movement there are some pioneers who have managed to continue running their businesses.
New generations have everything, but they are looking for meaning in their lives. There are so much crisis outside and their basis is our lifestyle, our economy and our evolution. And now they see that other styles are requested for the future. I think that our philosophy is a part of the answer to climate change, the fertility of our soils. We have to close the circles again. That is the reason why we get so many people outside that want to be part of our vision.
«Close circles, take care of our sources for the people, the nature, the environment… Then we we’ll have a good life. If we don’t take care, we will burn»
New generations are looking for new things, are open-minded people, and that brings us forward, to new markets and to a senseful, sustainable life. I’m always happy that the people that want to join in our community, they bring us forward.
Is it possible to transform the whole food system also in a policy way?
Twenty years ago, nobody took care of sustainability. But at the moment, they have to think about it because they are dependent on conventional style, and dependence is not a way of the future. It’s time to change the whole system. They are pressed. As soon as they are open-minded, they will find new ways.
I’m sure people really want to move in the organic movement. I’m sure Corona and all the other crises will change our world. But if we don’t change, everything will change. Our head is burning right now. We are sitting all together in one boat. When will we wake up to turn the course of the boat? It’s high time. We are here. We are sure this is the one way. Close circles, take care of our sources for the people, the nature, the environment… Then we’ll have a good life. If we don’t take care, we will burn. It seems that we are running out of time, but we have to do it. That is our future, we are responsible for it.
Author: Oriol Urrutia, Co-Editor
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