“I can’t just always complain about things; I have to take the plunge myself.”06 May 2019
Serving Customers - Serving Voters: Entrepreneur & Politician
We talked to CDU (Christian Democratic Party) member and Member of the Parliament Jan Metzler about his training as a winemaker and asked him what food for thought his family and the citizens of his constituency give him for his work in Berlin.
In fact, Jan Metzler’s professional future should have been quite different: as a winegrower and business economist at his parents’ winery in Rheinhessen. But in 2013, the CDU member managed to enter the German Bundestag as a direct candidate. In Berlin, he has been committed not only to the concerns of his constituency, but also to economic and energy issues, including regional economic policy.
You represent a very rare occupational group in the Bundestag, the winemakers. Do the other politicians ask you for advice on wine?
Indeed they do. One could say that I am quite exotic – namely the last remaining winemaker in the German Bundestag. And that’s something that has gotten around over time. Wine is a very communicative, a very connecting drink. It is not only ancient, it is recreated again and again, combining traditional elements with innovations. Wine is really a cultural asset. And I try to pass on some of this fascination.
Looking at your resume, it seems rather unusual that you ended up in politics. When did you start to get politically involved and when did you realise that politics would determine your professional life?
For me, as for many others, it all started with standing up for something. For example, I was the class representative at school or I got involved when a youth space was missing in town. Those were the first tentative encounters with the idea of “You can make a difference. You can do something.” When I was 15 or 16, I joined the Young Union (youth organization of the CDU party), because it was clear to me that I wanted to get involved and move things forward. So, over many years, one thing came to the other. The leap into professional politics came in 2013 with a Bundestag mandate as a direct candidate.
So your political career wasn’t predestined?
At that time, my professional and academic training, the involvement in my parents’ business really pointed to a completely different path with regard to the future. But I live according to the motto “I can’t just always complain about things; I have to take the plunge myself.” And so I campaigned in 2013 in a constituency where everyone told me, you won’t make it anyway. When I said, “Guys, I’m running to win here”, they thought they had to take this young man’s pulse. After all, this constituency had never been won by the CDU before. The fact that I was able to win the direct mandate is still a tremendous gift for me. Because I see myself as someone who is, in the best sense of the word, a service provider for the people in his home region, a carer for the small but also the big issues, locally and beyond.
One could say that I am quite exotic – namely the last remaining winemaker in the German Bundestag.
Running the winery with your family – was that never an option for you? After all, you have completed an apprenticeship as a winemaker.
I have already had many different positions in my professional life. In the beginning I wasn’t always the best student, I was rather reserved until things clicked into place and I even became class representative. Then my grandparents didn’t want me to be a winemaker. They told me to find my salvation elsewhere. But I was fascinated by winemaking, so I went for it. In secondary school, I was told to forget about the A-levels, because my grades were not good enough. But I did it anyway. Studying at the university was accepted as a consequence. But then I started to enjoy economics instead of oenology (viticulture). Later I became an assistant at the university and for five years I was the international coordinator for the university in Worms. During this time, I was fortunate to see so much of the world and was responsible for students from 148 partner universities worldwide. That was an incredibly great job. And just at the moment when I had taken the path that my dad had made possible for me, according to the motto “Enjoy yourself first, you will be in the business for a long time after all”, things changed in 2013. And even then, people said it wouldn’t work out anyway. But it did.
You are familiar with the day-to-day work of a company as well as the political world. Do you see yourself as a mediator between worlds?
One permanently lives in this interplay, especially as a directly elected mandate holder. Everything we discuss here in the Bundestag is immediately reflected in the constituency. And that doesn’t leave me indifferent. When through individual conversations we learn what our decisions mean for people in their everyday lives, when it becomes clear what is and would be decisive for people – then I take this knowledge with me and try to convey it here as well. That does not mean that I want to diminish the work of those colleagues in any way who won their seat via state lists. They often have the responsibility for their topic for an entire federal state. But I now know every tree and shrub in every village near me and have knocked on so many front doors. I drive across the country like a country doctor and take my time to discuss problems with people, even in their own homes. You could say that my office is the permanent representation of my constituency in Berlin.
What are the biggest challenges facing the self-employed, as well as small and medium-sized enterprises in rural areas?
I believe that we are turning the bureaucratic screw further and further. We want to know more and more details, make everything even more transparent, even more verifiable and even more traceable – but all of this has to be documented too. A larger company or corporation will expand the administrative level accordingly. But my dad can’t do that, and he’s directly affected by the fertilizer ordinance and the like. If he can’t end the weekend comfortably with my mom on Sunday evenings, but instead has to go back to the office, he’ll let me know for sure. Then he puts the respective forms in front of me and says, “Tell me, what have you thought up again, and now I am supposed to do all of that too?” We all talk in Sunday speeches about cutting red tape, but on Mondays we always want to know things in more detail. The medium-sized company and the micro-entrepreneur are drowning in a flood of red tape.
We all talk in Sunday speeches about cutting red tape, but on Mondays we always want to know things in more detail.
Why is it that this is not being understood in politics?
We are following a social trend here. At the same time, many politicians actually have awareness of this issue. Here in our party, for example, the very influential Parliamentary group of small and medium-sized enterprises is keeping an eye on this. But there is a tendency towards maximum transparency in society as a whole. All you have to do is take a look at all the info on the packaging of a food product. That’s great, but in primary production, it has to come from somewhere. And for those at the start of the value chain, with respect to agriculture, there is a lot of moaning and groaning. And as I said before, when I’m at home, my family will document this quite vehemently and tell it bluntly.
If my mother, father and sister are basically no longer at the point of sale, but are tied up in the office – then you can come to the conclusion that no money is earned. Time can only be devoted once to one thing and if I use it for excessive bureaucracy, I cannot create or sell products.
Then what do you say to that?
I then always say “I set out with the conviction that I cannot change the whole world on my own, but that I would try to make my contribution to the best of my abilities”. And that I would represent the experiences from home and from the constituency in Berlin. But I am also making no secret of the fact that there will tend to be more bureaucracy. My hope is that by using digital tools in the future, we will be able to reduce the effort.
You completed an apprenticeship, worked at the winery. What skills have you retained from this time and how do you use them in politics?
In my apprenticeship I was taught “You have to see where things are missing.” That was the credo of my first employer. You don’t have to go long ways first, but rather you have to recognise in the work processes where there is a problem and then it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to work. And I really don’t like that sometimes, when we talk about things forever and forget to ask in concrete terms, what do we tackle now? Meetings could sometimes be over much faster if we didn’t blather so much for the auditorium. I want to be part of the team in the engine room with fewer words, but more hands-on action, and really get involved. In line with the motto, we have identified the problems, we now have to tackle the solutions. This starts on a small scale, for example when I see a coffee-to-go cup lying on the ground, I throw it in the garbage – and stops on the large scale.
In my apprenticeship I was taught: You have to see where things are missing.
Would it be different if more members of the Bundestag came from the business world?
I know many of my fellow Members here who have a completely different background and who are doing a great job. That’s why I don’t want to say this as a blanket statement. But, of course, something I’ve observed from time to time: There are also really down-to-earth originals here, and these are mostly those who have already stood on a field, are a seasoned master butcher or were master millers. These originals are dwindling. Now I don’t know whether the political establishment will still have space for these originals, because everything has to be a little smoother, a little more polished. I don’t suppress every word in Rhine Hessian, I speak my dialect now and then. Because I believe that authenticity is part of politics. And to the extent that we’re all trying to make ourselves more uniform here, that’s exactly what’s getting lost. And at the end people say “Oh no matter what he does, they’re all the same anyway”. Well, that’s something I miss sometimes.
Politicians do not know what will happen in the next legislative period. Have you considered that it is always an option to be able to return?
Absolutely. But, I have to tell you in all honesty, there comes a time when you have to make decisions. Last year, when I was re-elected directly to the Bundestag, we had to reorganise our management and my sister took on more responsibility. But, you know, this life given to us all is far too exciting to focus on something like politics alone. I have previously worked in exchange with the DAAD and I have been able to intensively engage in my parents’ business. I’ve now ended up in politics, which I enjoy tremendously. But I am no one to cement his life by saying “It can only go on like this or like that”. I am quite free in my thoughts and I am also open to new things.
Is this kind of freedom good or bad? After all, many companies have problems with succession.
Personally, all of this hasn’t left me unaffected. That’s obvious, isn’t it? I was the one who completed the winemaking apprenticeship. I was the one who had to promise his grandma, “Okay, you’re the fifth generation now, you’ll carry on with it.” I didn’t take the decision lightly a year ago. But there is also a responsibility for the big picture, for keeping the business going. I find myself as a mosaic piece in an entrepreneurial history, in a long line of those who came before and hopefully will come after me. And it is part of my responsibility to say that if I cannot give the company full attention at the moment, things must nevertheless continue in an orderly manner. My sister takes care of that, and I support her to the best of my knowledge. But the driver’s seat, that has now been taken over by someone else. That is part of the responsibility.
The medium-sized company and the micro-entrepreneur are drowning in a flood of red tape.