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The FCSI Interview: Frank Wagner

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Frank Wagner FCSI of K’DREI in Germany has built an enviable, global reputation as a designer, but his attention is firmly on the future, he tells Michael Jones

Frank Wagner FCSI is a man who prefers to look forward, not back. He’s perhaps more comfortable discussing the future – for his company and the industry he clearly loves – rather than dwelling nostalgically on his past achievements, and indeed, life. But it’s a fascinating past, even if Wagner spent much of his youth dreaming and reading about alternate realities.

It’s no surprise that Wagner’s reading material of choice as a young man growing up in post-war, communist Berlin, East Germany, was science fiction. The imagined worlds of Jules Verne, Stanisłav Lem and Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, intertwined with childhood fantasies of becoming an actor, astronaut or pilot, offered Wagner a sense of escape while he and his friends “played in the ruined buildings from the war.”

Yet, within that testing environment, the influences that would shape Wagner’s professional future – and his celebrated association with design, engineering and hospitality – were all being forged. Wagner’s mother trained as an art teacher, while his father was an engineer in a government bakery plant. The family lived above a pub. “People were beating each other; furniture being thrown around – everything you can imagine,” he laughs. He has fond memories of carrying two-litre glass bottles of beer upstairs for his grandfather, snacking on the pub’s currywurst while he listened to the juke box through the floorboards and watching the meter-tall ice blocks and wooden beer barrels being delivered to the pub every Sunday morning.

Yet at that stage at least, the idea of pursuing a profession in hospitality, or engineering like his father, was not under consideration. “I thought engineering was such a boring job because my father would sit in his room, studying and studying… But I could read those [technical] drawings. I was able to do that from childhood – I think that’s the main thing my parents gave me.”

That innate ability eventually won through and Wagner studied to become a chartered engineer at Humboldt University of Berlin between 1985–1989. “I was already good at organizing things, but at university I learned that, if you can’t write something out on a single sheet of A4 paper you haven’t thought it through enough. You need to refine things again and again,” he says. “My professor of thermodynamics, Professor Fleischer, encouraged us to question everything. He taught us that technology and science are not defined by letters and data. You have to understand the process.”

Walls come tumbling down

After graduating, Wagner worked in the engineering office of a food institute. “My first job was building a mini factory to produce an algae-based red coloring used for medicine products,” he says. That period coincided with a seismic event in recent world history – the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. “My wife and I could not believe the news. We listened to it all day on the radio,” says Wagner.

While the fall of communism brought with it huge opportunity and increased freedoms as Germany reunified, it also necessitated a change in career, says Wagner. “Our monthly rent went up by 100 times or more. The company let me go because their projects got canceled. My daughter was only one at this time. I had no driver’s licence. We had a lot of fear and needed to earn more money.”

Under pressure, Wagner put an advertisement in the local newspaper. He received a number of different offers before taking a sales position at Stock Concepteinrichtungen GmbH, working on market halls, food courts and bakery shop concepts. In the role for three years, it gave Wagner a strong appreciation for the value of quality kitchen design – and a dislike for those dealers and kitchen houses that gave away designs for free. “Those designs were stolen from other companies. I hated that,” he says.

Wagner quickly became immersed in different foodservice concepts and also traveled extensively, including tours of malls and food courts in the US and Canada organized by the International Council of Shopping Centers.

He returned to Berlin hugely enthused. “I came back from these tours high with endorphins and full of stupid ideas,” he says, but soon found his ambitions to deliver similar concepts in Germany were not always matched by clients. “They told me: ‘Calm down: We’re in Germany – we don’t want to be so big’. That hurt a lot.”

Riding the rails

At this point, Wagner, frustrated at seeing his kitchen designs stolen and used elsewhere for free, decided to create his own design company. He and fellow consultant Helge Peter Pahlke FCSI, his long-term K’DREI colleague, staged a management buyout from the former owner of Profil Concept Planungsburo GbR in 1994 (later to become Profil Concept GmbH in 1995). The firm offered project management and interior and kitchen design.

“We were working for two years, then we got a very nice contract with [German railway company] Deutsche Bahn AG to renovate 500 staff canteens. It was difficult to do that as a two or threeperson company, so we had to build up,” says Wagner.”

The project lasted four years and was a major learning curve for the team. “First, we developed the concepts, then took over the project management before hiring interior designers, kitchen designers, architects, mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) designers, trying to get them on the project as fast as possible.”

Wagner says he and the team learned not to panic, and to feel comfortable asking another expert for help when required. “If you don’t know how to do something, ask somebody who does. I tried to find someone with the special discipline of ‘multi project management’, because not many people can do that, especially, if you have 500 projects all over Germany, Austria, Switzerland and a DM 500mn budget.”

That expert, was Peter Neumann, who excels in project planning, says Wagner. Together, Wagner, Pahlke and Neumann transitioned the company into K’DREI, the three partners playing to their individual strengths and knowledge of different territories. “The three of us together manage the whole thing. What we are good at glues us together,” says Wagner. “For the Deutsche Bahn project, we divided Germany into the north and south and then seven districts. Helge was responsible for the internal work, organizing the company. Peter was responsible for the North and all the project management. I was based in Frankfurt at the Deutsche Bahn headquarters, trying to get the ball rolling. It was difficult because it’s a public company and you had to follow rules. All these people were saying, ‘In the last 100 years we have done it this way; why would you want to change it?’” laughs Wagner.

K’DREI continued to also work on shopping malls, food courts and bakery shops (“That was what I really wanted to do,” says Wagner), but resources were very much focused on the Deutsche Bahn project. They were, however, able to flex their wings further into the hospitality market once that was completed.

“We are very open to new concepts,” says Wagner. “We don’t do things the same way for 10 years. We’re changing constantly and trying to integrate new things; getting better concept-wise. [Paying attention to] the details is what makes you a good designer. If you make mistakes you have to learn from them.”

Wagner says he is most proud of how K’DREI was able to change its profile “from canteen design to hotel design. That’s the best achievement. The German railways project was nice, but it’s in the past. New life experiences are always coming. New things you can concentrate on; things that are changing the way you do business.”

Africa and beyond

In 2006, a significant new ‘thing’ came in the form of international work in both Russia and South Africa. “That was a big achievement,” says Wagner. “My colleague Fritz Lemme met the corporate chef for Radisson Hotels in Berlin, Cologne and Frankfurt, Urban Denk, who now works with IHCL in Mumbai. He urged us to ‘go international’.” Wagner went to South Africa and began working with Herman Coertze on The Radisson Blu Hotel Sandton, Johannesburg. “It was a big dream for me to go to Africa,” he says.

That project and Lemme’s connections meant more international work followed. “Fritz introduced me to Flatow & Drews Consulting. Jürgen Drews helped us with the design for the Intercontinental in Sanaa, Yemen, while Michael Flatow FCSI was always so supportive with all my questions. He helped me without hesitation. This is what we celebrate in FCSI Germany/ Austria: we support each other.”

The team learned quickly and soon built up a storied reputation for contemporary design excellence for four-, five- and six-star hotels. “We were working in Russia, Africa and the Middle East from 2006 onwards. We are very good at solving those hotel problems,” says Wagner, who had to learn English while working in South Africa. Since then, he has also learned to understand Spanish, Italian and Russian.

For Wagner, K’DREI’s reputation has enabled him to gain mastery of his own destiny – and certainly his own schedule. “I’m the boss of my time,” he laughs. “I can decide when I wake up. I cannot work from 8am. That’s too early for me – but I can work long into the evening.” Wagner also feels blessed that his work has taken him to places he only used to dream about as a boy. “I’m lucky that I have seen the world: bad places, good places, luxury, no luxury. I like that very much.”

\When asked what the secret of K’DREI’s success is, Wagner feels it has a lot to do with the differences, rather than similarities, between himself, Pahlke and Neumann. “The three partners all have different interests and a different way of working. When we’re working, we still fight, but we come back together again. With our different strengths we have a good mixture that keeps us running well and motivated and positive towards projects. We are all allowed our own opinion and air our views. Then we make decisions when everyone has had their say. I’ve worked with Helge since 1991 – he left us for 10 years to work for a contractor but we were reunited in 2008 – and Peter since 1994. It’s like a long marriage. But if we were not together, we might not have been so successful.”

The past though, is not where Wagner prefers to dwell. Looking forward is what excites him. “Everything is changing – that’s unbelievable to me. It’s like a game, trying to predict the future.”

Figuring out how Covid will impact an industry already in flux fires Wagner even more. “It’s a great time now because we have to speed up a little bit. That’s riskier, because changes are coming faster than expected, but I like change very much. Otherwise life is boring,” he laughs.

THE WIDER VIEW:

Frank Wagner became chair of FCSI Germany/Austria in 2013, a position he has held ever since. He joined FCSI in 2005 in order to be part of an international society, becoming a divisional board member in 2008. “FCSI gave me a vital, wider view,” he says. “I went to the FCSI Worldwide conferences in Beijing and Edinborough and thought, ‘This is unbelievable. Getting to talk to consultants from Australia, America, Britain, France and so on, and seeing how they worked and sharing knowledge. It’s about opening your perspective to other people’s views and learning from them.”

Michael Jones

 

Pictures: Robert Balogh-Csapar; Antonia Richter