Back to the Future: 30 years of zeb consulting - summary of the episode

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The “Zentrum für ertragsorientiertes Bankmanagement” (in English: Center for profit-oriented bank management), better known as zeb, is one of Europe’s leading strategy, management and IT consultancies in the financial services sector, with over 1,000 employees and 15 offices in 11 countries.

It all began in 1980, when Münster University appointed Prof. Dr. Schierenbeck to the Chair of Banking and made him Institute Director. Back then, banks were undergoing radical changes necessitating a paradigm shift regarding their business models, away from a pure focus on volume to a consistent focus on profit. Prof. Dr. Schierenbeck and Prof. Dr. Rolfes dedicated themselves to the task of developing the necessary management tools with real-life banking in mind and sharing their findings with the banking community, for example through publications, workshops and seminars. In order to promote the practical application of the methods they developed in their academic work, they founded the “Zentrum für ertragsorientiertes Bankmanagement”, or zeb for short, named after Prof. Dr. Schierenbeck’s well-known textbook, in Münster in 1992. Prof. Dr. Rolfes was the prime mover behind zeb and responsible for establishing the company culture. He and the first zeb employees Carola Ernst, Wilhelm Menninghaus, Patrick Tegeder, Stefan Kirmße and Andreas Rinker, who later became partners and founding shareholders, played a significant role in establishing and expanding zeb. 

The culture at zeb is characterized by appreciation and respect for everyone who is part of the company, as was already the case at the academic chair of Prof. Dr. Schierenbeck. zeb follows the principle “reasoning beats hierarchy”, which grants all employees a high degree of autonomy and creative freedom and leaves room for personal development. This promotes a sense of capability and responsibility, as well as a mindset of mutual support among the staff.

Over the past 30 years, the challenges facing zeb’s clients have changed. In 1992, i.e. just a few years after German reunification, significant structural changes in the financial services industry were already becoming apparent. Financial products with derivative components, which were new at the time, had become more complex and required a modern profit and risk management system which zeb was able to help set up. Compliance with the minimum requirements for market and credit risk management imposed by the banking supervisory authorities at the time was another important topic. Moreover, competition had become much tougher for zeb’s clients which led to higher cost and consolidation pressures. zeb successfully assisted its clients in adapting to this situation and collaborated with them on the preparation and implementation of the vast majority of mergers. The banking landscape has also changed considerably: large banks such as Dresdner Bank or WestLB, whose business models failed, no longer exist.

Currently, zeb’s remarkable and wide-ranging expertise is mainly requested by clients who need to tackle challenges such as resilience to crises or sustainability, including compliance, and digitalization.

zeb itself has also changed in some ways over the last 30 years. Its corporate governance is one of the company’s success factors. The basic principles were established very early on, such as the decision in favor of decentralized entrepreneurship and the fact that the founding partners’ shares cannot be inherited. Instead, the shares are successively transferred to the partners actively involved in operational business, ultimately putting them in full charge of zeb in line with the intended growth process. In 2014, the partners decided to tighten zeb’s corporate governance and the management organization. Since then, they have elected Managing Directors to lead the company with a specially assembled Management Team for a limited period of time. In addition, Prof. Dr. Schierenbeck and Prof. Dr. Rolfes relinquished their right to lifetime shareholder status, and Prof. Dr. Schierenbeck was the first shareholder to resign at the age of 75. The governance structures will have to be further developed in the future in order to keep the decision-making structures flexible and suitable for future partners and employees, once the other founding partners have left. This is the only way zeb can tackle future challenges and remain a competent and innovative partner for change. 

We cannot yet tell what the future holds for zeb. The founding fathers’ wish for the next 30 years is that zeb might become an even bigger and better institution, able to provide a great future and a fulfilling (working) life for many families and stakeholders.