Robert, Albert und Ernst Boehringer
28 March 2018
Jacqueline Berlin

A driving force

Ernst Boehringer was an entrepreneur in the best sense of the word: innovative, assertive, inspiring. He understood that financial independence was essential for any kind of innovative pursuit. And for him, respect for employees was more than just an empty phrase. A guest feature by Dr Michael Siebler.

His father gave him just one name: Ernst. His two older siblings were named Albert Karl Christoph (1891–1960) and Ilse Sophie (1894–1978). It was the norm in his family to have several given names, but company founder Albert Boehringer (1861–1939) made an exception for his youngest son. He named him simply Ernst, after his own brother Ernst (1860–1892), who had died suddenly in September 1892. With his brother’s death, Albert Boehringer had lost a source of great support and a mentor who had helped him build up his company in Ingelheim. He was determined that Ernst should not be forgotten.

 

Perhaps more than anyone else in his family, Ernst Boehringer – or rather Dr Ernst Boehringer, as he was always respectfully addressed after earning his doctorate in chemistry in 1927 – exemplified humanistic values, a sense of duty toward his fellow man and society, as well as persistence, optimism, intelligence, creativity, an entrepreneurial vision and an interest in cultural history. Because of these qualities, he was predestined to become primus inter pares in the company. Only a few years after joining the firm’s management in 1927, he became the driving force behind Boehringer Ingelheim’s evolution into an internationally successful pharmaceutical enterprise – and he continued in that role throughout times of great economic and political challenges, such as the years after the Second World War.

 

His older brother, Albert, and brother-in-law Julius Liebrecht (1891–1974) quickly recognized Ernst’s leadership qualities and offered him help whenever it was needed, while Ernst was able to gain their support by acting with tact and sensitivity. Together, the three men worked hard to make their family business an economic success.

 

Albert and Julius were also successful in their own areas of responsibility (Albert’s was alkaloids, Julius’s organic acids) – so successful, in fact, that they reportedly let Ernst know that it was only because of their profits that he was able to invest so aggressively in Pharmaceutical Specialties. The results of this “division of labor” are well known: Prescription medications are now Boehringer Ingelheim’s core business. How things changed is evident from comments Ernst Boehringer made in a letter written on June 10, 1958, betraying some annoyance: “Building up and maintaining other unprofitable departments ultimately slowed the momentum of our Pharmaceutical Specialties department, and that should not have happened...”

 

Without minimizing the contributions of Ernst’s brother and brother-in-law, it should be pointed out that Ernst’s commitment to his company and family was tireless and truly exceptional. The company was his life, and he dedicated himself entirely to it. Today, the price he paid seems high: During the last decade of his life, progressive heart failure repeatedly forced him, reluctantly, to take a step back. But it’s hard to say whether Ernst Boehringer would agree with our assessment, or whether instead he would say that it was all worthwhile – given what he was able to achieve, the friends he made and the opportunities he gained for sophisticated intellectual exchanges.

 

Letters he wrote during these forced breaks from work – he often traveled to the Black Forest for rest and recuperation – suggest that these “rest periods” allowed him to take a longer view and reflect on philosophical matters. Writing to younger family members, he would recommend books and offer friendly as well as critical advice; in other letters, he would share reflections about financial planning, issue investment predictions and express his concerns about bringing new blood into the company. He also wrote about the need for “a mission statement and clear objective – what Americans refer to as a business philosophy.”

 

His wife, his sons, nieces and nephews, other relatives, friends, colleagues and business associates – all of them could expect to receive his letters and notes. He might describe a trip in the South of France or scold someone about his studies; he might talk about plans for the education of a family member or a promising employee; he might share his thoughts about business issues with the company’s executives; and sometimes he would agree to provide someone with financial support. His quiet generosity as well as a foundation known as the Geschwister Boehringer Ingelheim Stiftung für Geisteswissenschaften, which was established in 1956 by the Boehringer siblings to support the arts and humanities, benefited a wide range of causes: museums and libraries, the chemistry department at the University of Munich, art historians and classics scholars, along with the people and institutions of the small French town of Espalion. In 1957, six years before the Franco-German Treaty of Friendship was signed, he was the first German to be awarded honorary citizenship in Espalion.

 

Art history, archeology, literature – those were his great pleasures, thanks not least to another titan of the Boehringer family, Robert Boehringer (1884–1974). Robert was a cousin and lifelong friend and advisor who remained close to the Ingelheim family from 1913 until his death. A poet and classics scholar of some distinction, he encouraged his younger cousin’s interest in Greco-Roman culture, art and literature from an early age. Ernst’s canon included the Swabian icons Hölderlin and Schiller, in addition to a particular fondness for Goethe, although world literature also held a secure place in his affections as well. His letters and reminiscences provide an occasional glimpse of what the spacious, light-infused library in his residence, overlooking the factory and the Rheingau district, meant to him. He must have sat there often, alone or with friends, reading or writing, talking or laughing, contemplating art or lost in thought.

 

His passion for art, literature and culture, as well as for biographies and the works of great thinkers and politicians from diverse eras and cultural regions, must have had an enormous influence on his humanistic approach to life – and also on how he viewed the responsibilities of an entrepreneur.

 

He was an entrepreneur in the best sense of the word – innovative, assertive, and inspiring – whether he was opening up new business areas or discovering new active ingredients and introducing them to the market. All of his actions were guided by his commitment to ensuring the family company’s financial independence, since he understood that independence was essential for innovation.

 

For him, respect for employees was not merely an empty phrase. What it meant to him might be summed up in something he once said:

 

“Intellect is not everything; the heart is important, too. The brain alone does not bring us closer to one another. A leader needs to radiate warmth and know how to win people over.”

 

This might initially seem to be just a simple statement of his conviction and a reminder to others. But it also describes in a nutshell the kind of corporate culture that Ernst Boehringer stood for. Only if leadership is based on natural authority and fairness toward all – at every level of the organization, from the lowliest apprentice on up – and rejects arrogance and selfishness can brilliant intellectual and scientific achievements lead to long-term success. Ernst Boehringer was dedicated to meeting that seemingly simple, yet in fact very difficult challenge throughout his life, up to the moment of his death on the morning of January 11, 1965.

"Intellect is not everything; the heart is important, too. The brain alone does not bring us closer to one another, Ernst Boehringer believed.   "
Jacqueline Berlin
Ernst Boehringer
Ernst Boehringer was an entrepreneur in the best sense of the word: innovative, assertive, inspiring. He understood that financial independence was essential for any kind of innovative pursuit. And for him, respect for employees was more than just an empty phrase.

Boehringer Ingelheim: A Brief History

Learn more about Boehringer Ingelheim in the new “stop motion” video. The video outlines our history from the beginning in 1885 to today. In the extended version our colleagues are sharing insights into our history, our business areas and our research and development department.

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