Serving Customers - Serving Voters: Entrepreneur & Politician
One of the best-known entrepreneurs in Hamburg: Christina Block. She is a co-shareholder and member of the Supervisory Board of Eugen Block Holding (Block Group). Born in Hamburg, she studied hotel management at the Bayerischer Hof in Munich and thus entered the world of the hotel industry and business. Not too long ago she joined the CDU competence team to support as an economic expert in the election campaigns.
You come from a very successful family of business owners. Was it clear to you from the outset that you would follow in your father’s footsteps, Eugen Block, or did you have completely different plans?
My father is very passionate about his profession and his independence, which of course also influenced us children. I didn’t know any other life than to go to Block House on Sundays and later, at the kitchen table, to talk about what was good and what could be done better. New Year’s Eve was and still is celebrated at the Grand Elysée in Hamburg. The companies of the Block Group and their employees were always part of our childhood. That was beautiful and special. We were endowed with entrepreneurship at birth, so to speak. At the age of 14 or 15 years, I wanted to get to know the multifaceted hotel world even better by doing my school internship in a hotel other than ours. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to do my vocational training in the hotel business.
You are a very successful business woman today who by all means has pursued her own business projects and goals in recent years. Which path did you take to do this?
The foundation stone is of course a solid and thorough education. I completed my training as a hotel manager at the Bayrischer Hof. I wanted to learn this profession from the ground up, I always want to know and understand everything in detail.
One experience during my training at Bayrischer Hof had a particular influence on me, I was lucky enough to manage one of the departments as a substitute. That’s when I realised that being independent and self-responsible appealed to me, and that’s what became my driving force. After my training I went to France, worked in the kitchen and experienced the hard daily grind of a chef. Afterwards, my path led me to the practical experience of the American hotel industry and to Cornell University in New York. After that I went to Beijing for a hotel opening and then to Edinburgh, where I completed an MBA to deepen my knowledge in business and economics.
When did you discover politics for yourself?
Since I am a business woman, I was and am automatically in touch with the political events of my city and the country in which I live. Everyone should feel that way. As businesspeople and freelancers, we are always responsible for our environment. I personally started my own business in 2000 by opening the upscale sandwich bistro “Prima Pane”. The necessary steps were the search for a location, visits to the authorities, clarification of financing issues, employee search, product development and so on and so forth.
On my way to establishing a business, I was confronted with many obstacles and difficulties. This is when you start to think about how to make things less bureaucratic and more user-friendly.
Did you already do voluntary work back then, or did that come later?
While I was self-employed, between 2000 and 2015, I did nothing but work. Because the truth is also, if you are self-employed, you do everything yourself and that all the time. Unfortunately, there is little room for voluntary work, especially in a small company.
In 2011, my father approached my brothers and me, asked us if we would like to join the family business and offered us shares. So, going forward, I decided to devote myself primarily to the new task in the family business. My brothers and I are members of the holding company’s supervisory board. When you’re no longer involved in day-to-day operations, you automatically have a little bit of leeway to think outside the box and do some voluntary work. And I think it is the responsibility of our family and our company to get involved.
What goals do you pursue with your voluntary work?
We must support the economic performers. Those who do good for the economy. The ability and productivity of these tradespeople, these businesspeople must pay off again. We always talk very much about the social aspects of our society. But the fact that everything that is spent also has to be earned often takes a back seat. This can only be done by re-focusing on the capabilities of business people and tradespeople.
Does your experience in the hotel and restaurant industry help you to better manage political processes? Or is the approach different from that of traditional politicians?
Yes, it’s quite different. In our large company, of course, I have to pay attention to a large number of people, listen to them and engage them. This begins with our employees, who do their work every day, and continues with our partners, the Supervisory Board and the Management Board. Nevertheless, as a business person you are of course more capable. You can act much more decisively, you can push things forward, you can accomplish more things and bring about changes and achieve both of these more quickly. In politics, this path is a different one and much more tedious.
As businesspeople and freelancers, we are also always responsible for our environment.
We need to re-focus on the capabilities of business people and tradespeople.
Where do you perceive the biggest problems of the restaurant trade at the moment and which solutions do you see?
Well, I’m non-partisan which might make the whole thing a little bit more refreshing even. I am particularly committed to small and medium-sized enterprises. They need much more support so that they can realise innovations, ideas and visions. This is exactly what we need again to achieve growth. We need more start-ups and more visionaries. And that’s exactly what the hotel and catering industry is concerned with: How can we give hoteliers and restaurateurs the framework they need to concentrate on their core business again? So that they can again come up with innovations and visions and thus generate growth. So that they do not have to deal with how to account for the bed tax, manage the working time account and implement the General Data Protection Regulation. These are some of the things that are being imposed on business people by policymakers, without them knowing how much is connected with these requirements.
In other words, your recommendation would be to simplify or eliminate red tape in these areas?
It’s always easy to say, eliminate red tape. You have to consider in concrete terms, where to begin. At present, the registration form in the hotel industry still has to be filled out by hand, from 2020 this can now also be done digitally. This is positive, but it can only be a first step. We do everything on our mobile phones, everyone always has one with them. Then why can’t there be more digital solutions?
For many small and medium-sized enterprises, digitisation poses a challenge. How do you assess the development?
Indeed, it is often much more difficult for small businesses. But it’s dangerous to neglect important trends. I’m referring to the booking portals and the platform economy that the hotel industry have virtually skipped. The hoteliers only woke up when the portals already had one foot in the door, in the door of their own distribution and their own product. And this can’t be happening. Here you have to think ahead and keep up with the times and consider this question well in advance: Do I allow my sovereignty over my own sales to be taken away or do I use these middlemen and work together with them?
Would you welcome it if more business people became politically active?
Definitely! When you come from a business background, you have a completely different approach to and view of issues. Many politicians often do not even know what companies are dealing with on a daily basis. But the sad thing is that only a few people move from business to politics. I think one reason for this is that it is often portrayed negatively in the press.
You are a successful businesswoman, active politically and you have four children. How do you maintain your balance?
Politics is important, but I am and will always be a woman of business. First and foremost, I am a business woman, and I enjoy being this for our family business every day. Of course, I am also a mother, and that is an important part of my life – the most important. It’s a balancing act and it takes a certain calmness and flexibility to handle it all. And it is important to me to be at home with my family on some week nights, not to have any work appointments. Another rule I try to follow is that I go away alone with each child once a year to have time alone with each of them. This is all a matter of organisation and prioritisation.
Which values are important to you in your work, your political commitment and your family environment?
First of all, honesty. In the evening I want to look in the mirror and be able to say: Yes, you stood up for what is important to you. Being down to earth is also of great importance to me. I would like to be understood as someone who knows how important the grassroots are and the appreciation of our employees, who carry out the daily business for our company. It is important to me to also convey this to my children. The third value is respect for each other. To sit in the other person’s chair and just see and hear what it feels to be in that person’s chair before judging. That, too, is something I try to teach my children every day.
And one value that has driven me to embark on this path of life in this manner is independence. It is this drive to be self-employed, to be able to structure my day and my thoughts myself.
Many politicians often do not even know what companies are dealing with on a daily basis.
Allow us some personal questions
At the end I have prepared a short round of four questions. Let’s start with food: What do you prefer to have on the table, fish, meat or vegan food?
A varied diet is important; therefore, I also like fish now and then!
Regarding holidays: Do you prefer the beach, a city break or the mountains?
What pet person are you? Dog, cat or small pet?
Which drink do you like most?
And I have just one final question. If all this that we just spoke about hadn’t happened, what would have become your favourite profession?
That’s a tough question to answer because I never wondered what else I’d want to do. But what I always would have done, because of my autonomy and sense of freedom, I would have established my own business in any industry and would always have been my own boss.