With pioneering spirit to success – in the past and today

Looking back at company founder Fritz Henkel on the occasion of the 175th anniversary of his birthday

Innovation Mar 17, 2023

When company founder Fritz Henkel was born 175 years ago, everyday life looked very different. Doing laundry was a laborious task that had to be done by hand and the invention of liquid shampoo or glue sticks was still in the distant future. With the foundation of Henkel, Fritz Henkel broke new ground with his innovative ideas and his sense of responsibility toward society and his employees, paving the way for solutions that would permanently change the way we live.

The environment in which companies operate today is changing at a faster pace than ever before. However, Fritz Henkel's mindset laid the foundation for the values by which Henkel still operates today based on our family business tradition. With the corporate purpose "Pioneers at heart for the good of generations", Henkel continues to write the success story of innovation, responsibility, and sustainability today and in the future. But what exactly does it look like when pioneering spirit meets tradition? And how do Henkelaner around the world carry it forward today?

Developing individual talents

The corporate success of Fritz Henkel was preceded by one thing above all: the vision of using his products to create solutions that make life easier and better. He was always aware that his employees, with their diverse skills, perspectives, and ideas, made a decisive contribution to building up the company and developing its products. At an early stage, Fritz Henkel involved his sons Fritz Jr. and Hugo in the company. While Fritz Jr. was trained as a salesman in the company, Hugo studied chemistry and became Henkel's first chemist with a doctorate. With their commercial and chemical-technical experience, the two sons brought important expertise with them to further develop the business.

Since 1893, young talents have also been trained directly at Henkel, initially mainly in technical professions such as locksmith and electrician. Henkel now offers 25 apprenticeships and five dual study programs in Germany. In addition to scientific, technical or commercial professions, vocational training can also be completed, for example, in the site’s fire department or in the field of gastronomy. Those looking for a more practical experience instead of a traditional university degree can choose from Henkel's dual study programs in various disciplines, such as Business Administration, Business Informatics, Electronics & IT, Chemical Engineering or Chemistry & Biotechnology.

And even after completing a degree program or apprenticeship, Henkel encourages lifelong learning among its employees in order to equip them with the right skills to meet the challenges of rapid technological change and the demands of volatile markets. It is not just a matter of advancing professionally, but above all of finding joy in learning and remaining curious.

Fritz Henkel, pioneer and company founder, 1926

The best that came from my company was not the fruit of my own thoughts, but the result of my employees working together in partnership.

Doing good together

Whether on an economic, social, or political level – Fritz Henkel was involved in different ways, both locally and beyond the region. He joined the local municipal council, was a co-founder of the Brand Protection Association, and set up support funds for his employees and a foundation for employees’ children in need of convalescence.

Keeping this tradition, Henkel today is committed to social engagement based on three pillars: through the voluntary participation of Henkel employees and retirees worldwide, partnerships with non-profit organizations, and emergency aid in the event of crises, conflicts or natural disasters. In 1998, Henkel was one of the first companies in Germany to initiate a program that encourages and supports employees in their social commitment and personal volunteering initiatives. To date, Henkel has supported more than 17,300 charitable projects in over 100 countries through the "Make an Impact on Tomorrow" (MIT) program – with donations in kind and money, but also with paid leave and time off of work in which employees make a difference on site.

Last fall, two groups of Henkel employees went on "construction trips" to Romania and Poland in cooperation with the organization Habitat for Humanity. The activities of Habitat for Humanity are multifaceted: On the Romanian Black Sea coast, the volunteers spent a week helping to make the dream of a family home come true for people living in poverty. In Poland, Henkel employees contributed their individual skills in the areas of marketing, purchasing, communications and HR to drive forward the construction of houses that now offer shelter to refugees from Ukraine.

Henkel's first laundry detergent was not yet a success in 1876. The washing effect of the “universal detergent” was not satisfactory and the manufacturing costs were too high. The young company achieved its first resounding brand success in 1878 when Fritz Henkel developed “Henkel's Bleich-Soda”.

The lion as a symbol of courage, strength, and assertiveness accompanied Fritz Henkel his whole life. To this day, it is the animal displayed on the emblem of the city of Vöhl and the state of Hessen, where Fritz Henkel was born, as well as that of Düsseldorf. From 1895 to 1961, the lion was the symbol of the Henkel brand until it disappeared from the packaging and was replaced by the Henkel oval.

During the first decades of the company's history, unusual products found their way into the portfolio time and again, including “Henkel's Tea”, the fertilizer “Martellin”, the antifreeze “Dixol”, and the egg pickling liquid “The Chicken in Winter”, among others.

Early on, Henkel used innovative and unusual advertising to draw attention to its products. These included Persil clocks with the iconic White Lady, neon signs and skywriters. As early as 1927, the then new medium of radio was used for Persil advertising.

The “old man” (as Fritz Henkel was lovingly called) would undertake daily site walkabouts, visiting all his departments. He would greet his employees kindly on these patrols, but he would also make it unmistakably clear if he saw something he disliked. Many employees considered the accessibility of the “old man” a sign of mutual respect and appreciation.

One step ahead through innovations

In 1907, Henkel chemists succeeded in creating the first self-acting laundry detergent known as Persil. The combination of sodium silicate and sodium perborate caused fine pearly oxygen to be released when the laundry was boiled. This innovation led to a particularly gentle and odorless bleaching of the laundry. From then on, exhausting and time-consuming laundry washing was a thing of the past. Fritz Henkel recognized early how important innovations were for entrepreneurial success and, with Persil, offered an answer to the needs of consumers at the time.

Even today, the key to successful corporate management is to realign the business through innovation. But how does Henkel drive innovation today? Then as now, we question the status quo – and always keep our customers and consumers in mind. With our products, we stay close to consumer trends and the demands of our time.

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