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#ASKTHECEO | INTERVIEWS WITH CREATIVE TECHNOLOGY LEADERS | GWF

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GWF – #AskTheCEO – Dr. Ioannis Fotiou, CFA – Managing Director – GWF Labs MIKE

Water is one of the biggest challenges in the world today. It is also a global topic that requires local solutions and dedicated leadership. At GWF, we combine our innovative sensor technology and software with our global network of experts to provide an impact-oriented approach to solving the water challenges that water leaders face daily. We are a leading Swiss company with over 120 years of history, and close to 250 people across Europe.

In this frame, GWF Labs in Thessaloniki, co-shapes the future of industrial IoT in the flow control space. Our people have a passion for electrical, mechanical, electronics and software engineering, that create novel metering devices and combine them with software applications and communication networks – such as LoRa and NBIoT.

As a company, we invite change and provide a dynamic, evolving environment. We aim at attracting, developing, and retaining a team of brilliant people, to contribute to the local tech ecosystem and the company’s international growth. Our team offers passionate bright colleagues and a clear goal to help manage the world’s most valuable resource: water.

What was the path you took to get to where you are today? What is the story behind your company?

The history of GWF starts in 1848, when the then 25-year-old Siegmar Elster establishes the company «Elster Gasapparate» in Berlin, specializing in the production of street gas lamps and their associated gas meters. The establishment of the Swiss branch in Lucerne – later to become what GWF is today – follows in 1899. In 1940, GWF and the Zurich Water Authority develop together the first water meter.

Fast forward, and in 1997, GWF introduces the patented GWFcoder® system for data transmission − a globally-acclaimed technology for automated meter reading. In 2018, GWF boldly expands by opening research-intensive sites in Hanover, Kaufbeuren and Thessaloniki. And we look at the future with confidence.

I feel that families in Greece place a very strong emphasis on their offspring’s education, which results in people with outstanding creativity and a desire to excel. Among our colleagues, we have great persons with international track record in advanced industries that have chosen to “go home to Greece” with us.

Why… Thessaloniki?

Thessaloniki is a center of immense geopolitical importance for more than 1500 years and it continues to attract and nourish unique personalities. When we set out to establish a new R&D center, we obviously examined the typical factors such as talent, legislation, and cost. Talent turned out to be the decisive factor. Although Greece cannot compete with some of its neighbors in terms of cost, and generally leaves lots to be wished for regarding the ease of doing business, the dimension of talent triumphed.

I feel that families in Greece place a very strong emphasis on their offspring’s education, which results in people with outstanding creativity and a desire to excel. Among our colleagues, we have great persons with international track record in advanced industries that have chosen to “go home to Greece” with us.

What do you hope to accomplish within the next year and what are your future goals?

Our goals are derived from a carefully crafted strategy that places focus on growth, excellence, innovation and human capital. The team in Thessaloniki plays a crucial role in materializing these goals, with focus on the R&D and New Product Launch agenda of the entire Group – both for hardware and software. For instance, the architecture and development of our new Sonico® Ultrasonic flow meter is driven to a major extent out of Thessaloniki – from hardware design, to embedded firmware, to communication networks architecture and software IoT platforms.

Obviously, the close collaboration across our sites in Europe (Lucerne, Hanover and Kaufbeuren) is a key success factor that makes our work not only international, but fun as well. The team keeps on growing well, and we are confident that we will deliver on the ambitions we have set ourselves.

How do you assure that the company is ready to meet future challenges like changing demands and technology?

Well, one could write an essay to answer this question. In short, I would say by investing in people with a lot of potential, our people, and providing them with all the support they need to figure out the answer. Change is the only constant as the saying goes, and the only good insurance against an unpredictable future is an unsatiable desire to learn, understand and gain insights in all we do – be it software architecture, flow channel design or developing a new market. It is insight that eventually provides the foresight needed for smart entrepreneurial decisions to take on a challenging – and very interesting – future.

In addition, the solid ownership structure provides us with the necessary long-term orientation a company needs to be successful in the long run. This long-term orientation allows us to place the “right bets” in all three time horizons, short, medium and long – which is a key reason why we remain relevant for more than a century now. Customers, partners and colleagues are very appreciative of this approach, as they realize that it creates substantial value for all.

This approach places a good deal of responsibilities on all of us – from the shop floor to the board room. After all, a nonnegligible part of the company’s free cash flow is thus reinvested every year back into research and innovation – with a clear goal of generating and capturing value.

“Beyond this, since GWF in Thessaloniki is still a young office, those who join now are given a unique opportunity to co-shape and have an exponential impact on the office’s future trajectory.”

From an employee’s perspective, what makes your company a unique place to work?

As an employee myself, I have worked for various, very diverse companies. After numerous years, achievements, promotions, failures, sweat, laughs and tears, what remains mostly is not the what or the how, but the who. Who you built a relationship with; to whom you feel grateful; who is thankful of you after years and years.

The uniqueness resides in the human relationships that are built and fostered at the workplace, through a combination of striving towards a common goal, sharing deeply rooted values and being appreciative of each other’s differences.

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Beyond this, since GWF in Thessaloniki is still a young office, those who join now are given a unique opportunity to co-shape and have an exponential impact on the office’s future trajectory.

Moreover, I believe that we are among the very few companies in Macedonia and northern Greece in general that go beyond the intangible software product, and deep into the physical product world. This implies meaningful challenges such as supply chains, electronic components, 3D printing prototyping, regulatory certifications, and embedded firmware – to name a few.

In short, we manage the full software and hardware product development lifecycle, which is truly exciting! I will be happy to see more companies in Thessaloniki extending their activities into the physical value chain. “Things matter” after all. I would also like to point out that we do not consider ourselves employees. We are all rather colleagues.

What have been the biggest challenges you have had to overcome while choosing to stay in Greece?

First of all, given a clear plan, well-set priorities, willingness to work and a good deal of humor, anything is possible. Well, almost anything. An important challenge we faced and is universally true, not only for Greece, is setting up a team from scratch. This is one of the most delicate, uncertain, and complex undertakings in business – extremely rewarding, too. Getting the right people “on the bus” is far from an easy task.

Also, certain combinations of skillsets are very hard to find. Mainly for two reasons: first, because some technologies are so new, that there is not yet a developed market for those skills; and second, because certain profiles can be groomed only in larger organizations with a certain level of complexity and professionalization – such companies are not so common in Greece, unfortunately.

In 20 years from now, however, this could change. We have a chance to change that. Many people with international experience come back and with them they bring immense know-how and experience. These people can grow other people around them, and so the ecosystem gains “organizational muscle”.

All in all, and despite the challenges, we are thankful we have managed with perseverance and good faith to build a growing team at GWF, which we all cherish and are proud of.

Brain Drain vs Brain Gain… Give us three reasons why a tech oriented employee should stay and work in Thessaloniki or come back after gaining some experience working abroad.

There are no recipes for success in professional life; therefore, the reasons one person chooses one career option over another may not apply to another person. Anyway, doing business in your own turf does have substantial advantages.

First, you understand the cultural context; this makes communication easier and promotes trust.

Secondly, you come with your network from University, your school, your neighborhood. This is also an asset, especially for entrepreneurially minded persons who think of eventually building their own business.

And third, you remain part of your broader family’s life – which becomes increasingly important as the years pass by. On the other hand, a short or medium-term tenure abroad is a valuable experience that is appreciated by international companies like GWF.

In the end, this is a very personal decision. As a Greek living abroad for more than 18 years, I would like to remind us of Kavafi’s lines “Keep Ithaka always in your mind. Arriving there is what you’re destined for. But don’t hurry the journey at all.”

“The combination of local creativity with the repatriation of international “yeast” transforms the tech scene as we speak.”

Give us three reasons why a TECH company should choose Thessaloniki as a new TECHstination for opening its next branch.

Thessaloniki has huge potential. Just look at the last 2000 years of history. In the big scheme of things, the last 50 years of relative economic stagnation will go down in history as an aberration. I am convinced that we are about to experience a revival in Thessaloniki in the next 10 to 20 years, not only in tech but also in other areas of economic activity.

My belief stems from a few fundamentals. First, among the cities in Eastern Mediterranean with historically proven geopolitical importance for trade routes (such as Constantinople, Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut to name a few), it is the only one that is on EU soil; meaning, companies can count on a reasonable, European legal framework.

Second, there is a huge, unprecedented imbalance between the quantity and quality of highly educated young professionals and the existing industrial/commercial base to absorb them. The combination of local creativity with the repatriation of international “yeast” transforms the tech scene as we speak.

Third, it is such a cool place to live or visit. It is not the obvious things such as nature and food I am referring to. Imagine a place that combines the ruins of Rome, the spirituality of Constantinople, the bustle of Tel Aviv and the good life of Barcelona – and all this in a small, human scale; where you meet dock workers drinking together with ivy league graduates; and where people can greet you in Greek, English, French and German…

Meet Ioannis

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Ioannis Fotiou joined GWF in 2016. As Managing Director and Member of the Group Executive Committee, he helps manage the world’s most precious resource, water, by delivering innovation for ultrasonic & digital products – from flow meters to IoT platforms. He holds a Diploma in Electrical & Computer Engineering from the Aristotle University, and a PhD in Science from ETH Zurich. He is a CFA Charterholder. He started his career with McKinsey & Company in Zurich and has held various appointments in technology, finance, and general management.

LinkedIn: Dr. Ioannis Fotiou, CFA – Managing Director – GWF Labs MIKE

Find out more about GWF
Website: gwf.ch
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/gwf-messsysteme-ag/