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How Elementar began: from a vision to a company
Dr Hans-Peter Sieper
8 min.

Dr. Hans-Peter Sieper is the founder of Elementar Analysensysteme GmbH, which emerged from the Heraeus Group in the early 1990s. Under his leadership, Elementar developed into one of the world’s leading manufacturers of analyzers for organic and inorganic elemental analysis. An 11-fold increase in sales attests to the startup’s robustness and it’s long-lasting dynamic growth.

Dr. Sieper was awarded the 2017 SME award by the German Federal Association of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (BVMW) as industry-wide recognition of his firepower in international competition, his standing as an expert in his field and his direct contact with its employees.

In the same year, Dr. Hans-Peter Sieper left the executive management to become a member of the supervisory board – a role that he still actively performs today.

We asked Dr. Sieper about the challenges he faced when he founded his company and what advice he has for anyone wanting to start their own business today.

Elementar Analysensysteme GmbH is your life’s work. How did someone from the former DDR come to found a company in Hesse, in former West Germany?

I originally come from Jena – a town with a long tradition of producing precision-engineered optical products and the hub for research and development for scientific research equipment, which was dominated by optical spectroscopy at the time. My PhD supervisor at the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena, Dr. Roland Paetzold was a renowned molecular spectroscopist and one of the youngest members of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, founded in 1652 and based in Halle, Germany.

My experience in research, teaching, sales and marketing across the entire field of instrumental analysis formed the foundation for my later trajectory.

I spent a long time working as a scientific and technical consultant at Carl Zeiss in Jena for product groups in analytical technology and, later, microscopy and ophthalmology. With such an incredible breadth and depth of technologies and applications, it was good training in the strategic analysis of the entire instrumental analytics market. The valuable contacts I have in the Far East market also date back to my time at Carl Zeiss.

At the age of 42, I came to Heraeus with nothing but a few letters of recommendation in my pocket and was asked to advance the instrument business. It soon became clear that I was actually sitting in the ejector seat, as the segment was more in need of being shut down than being built up. But I am still very grateful to Dr. Jürgen Heraeus for giving me the opportunity, which allowed me to build something of my own. That was how I came to found Elementar Analysensysteme GmbH in the early 1990s.

I knew early on that I could do it and that I wanted to. I also knew I had good people with me who were willing to go the distance, and I was the one responsible. You have an obligation, not just to the equipment and the figures, but also to people and entire families.

It’s not a responsibility you should take lightly. Even today, I have little respect for people who take risks with other people’s money and still call themselves entrepreneurs.

How did you build up the skill set a managing director needs so quickly?

Well, it was obvious I wouldn't succeed without specialists from the ongoing core business operations. The colleagues at Heraeus felt secure there – who would leave that behind and take the risk of helping to found a company?

I had to do some convincing – and invested a lot of time in employee motivation.

To begin with, the core team comprised around 40 people. And my employees were asking themselves: How is a team of only 40 people supposed to cover all the roles in a company? Who can manage all that? But we did succeed in covering all areas.

For instance, at the start we were still working with a cardfile system: Index cards contained all the relevant information on our suppliers and we used a punch card system to filter the index cards according to specific criteria. This is how our purchasing processes worked back then – it was an adventure, but it worked.

Sometimes, you just have to choose what you feel is important, grab hold of it, and apply a healthy dose of common sense. For example, I wanted to be financially independent as quickly as possible – not reliant on banks or other financial backers that could then have any sort of say in how I make my decisions. That was my goal and I achieved it. 

Of course, compliance with the correct business regulations was in the hands of (just) two qualified individuals, who were also responsible for human resources. Our head of commercial back then was also responsible for production planning and materials management control. It seems an almost unbelievable mountain of tasks today. When it came to foreign trade law, I benefited from an earlier qualification I had gained in foreign commerce.

I was particularly useful to my new company in the areas of product innovation, marketing and the development of new export markets. This meant that, in addition to my responsibilities as managing director, I was also the head of product development and personally oversaw marketing and product management. 

My main focus in developing new markets was on China, Japan, and the USA. The advantage in having all these multiple responsibilities was not only significant cost and time savings but also the ability to lead the company out of the red not long after its founding. I also want to highlight how quickly our sales manager at the time succeeded in establishing our global export organization in over 90 countries.

Dr Hans-Peter Sieper in his old office in Hanau
Dr. Hans-Peter Sieper at his workplace in Hanau, 1990.

Being managing director leaves little time for your personal life. What did your family say about your decision at the time?

Well, we made the decision together. And of course, it was a lot of work. The self-employed rarely get a weekend off. My wife is a dermatologist. I still encouraged her to open her own practice, which would later become very successful.

What advice do you have today for anyone looking to launch their own startup?

Let me tell you an anecdote from the world of sport: I was a passionate alpine skier. It takes a lot of training before you start having good runs. When a run doesn’t go as you hoped, you need to grit your teeth and find the energy to push on. To fight. And to sometimes to let yourself feel the frustration when you don’t succeed. That is what gives you that push to carry on. Taking a relaxed attitude all the time won’t cut it. Courage, fighting spirit and belief in yourself is what it takes. 

You have to learn to let go of the idea that everything is under control or that things will sort themselves in the end. No. You have to take matters into your own hands, give it your all and learn from your mistakes. 

And you soon notice that you spend a lot of time working with other people – they are your strongest capital. If you can’t do that, or you don't want to, then it’s better to just walk away. 

Personally, my background meant I never had any issues when it came to acceptance or felt a lack of support from colleagues or my superiors.

Hesse is an ideal location for anyone wishing to start their own business, even if some of the development steps and methods seem a little strange.

I have one last basic rule: Never touch anything you don't understand. And sometimes, a little arrogance goes a long way. (He says with wink.)

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