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Spotlight On: Andreas Zielke, 21st-century Renaissance man
June 19, 2017
There are McKinsey alumni who work in the film industry, a few who are involved with car racing, and many involved in the hospitality business. But former Senior Partner Andreas Zielke may be the only alum who is involved in all three. Andreas says he has always had diverse interests, but adds that there is a common thread in all his endeavors: “a dedication to extraordinary experiences.” 

This is the twenty-second in our "Spotlight On" series of articles, which feature prominent alumni sharing their thoughts about their careers at the Firm and beyond.

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Andreas Zielke (DUS, CLE, BER 85-86, 88-16), Managing Owner at Berlin-based holding company Zielke GmbH, had a moment a few months ago relating to Radical Sportscars, one of the businesses in which he is involved. “I was at the Geneva auto show this March, which is a well-attended industry gathering,” he says. “Practically everybody in the auto industry of any importance shows up. In my McKinsey years, I went there to meet clients and potential clients [Andreas used to head up the Automotive Practice at the Firm], and I always visited them at their stands. This year, for the first time, I could say, ‘Let’s meet in Geneva – and why don't you come over to my stand?’” 

When some former clients did indeed come and visit his stand at the show, “We laughed about this reversal, but there was a grain of respect, and that I thought was just wonderful,” Andreas says. “You grow up, you have your own stand in Geneva, and you can invite people over. You've finally arrived.”

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“I was able to show my tail lights to a lot of people”

Zielke GmbH brings together Andreas’ varied interests: race cars, films, and hospitality, this last of which allows him to also indulge two of his other passions – aesthetics and wine.

Andreas began his career conventionally enough, with a business degree. “The previous alternative was architecture, which I only decided against because my father is an architect,” he says. “I felt that it was probably not the best idea to follow in his footsteps and then always be compared to him.”

During his nearly 30-year career at the Firm, Andreas was principally involved with the Automotive & Assembly Practice, which he ended up leading for more than ten years – from 2000 until 2011. The work encouraged his interest in high-performing cars and ultimately led to his becoming involved with Radical Sportscars, a British maker of purpose-built race cars (of which some are even road-legal) and organizer of several race series for its customers to compete in around the globe. 

The pace of production is different to what Andreas was used to; the company makes between 120 and 150 cars in a year – “not even the output of one hour of production at the typical client that I served,” Andreas says. 

Does his interest in race cars extend to personally driving them? It does: “I have indeed been racing a Radical myself on the Formula One track at Silverstone in Great Britain,” Andreas confesses. “My hands on the wheel, and an instructor next to me to make sure that I wouldn't hurt myself. And I didn't.” He adds cheekily, “I was able to show my tail lights to a lot of people who took their more expensive sports cars there for a weekend spin, which was quite a satisfactory experience.” 

Risk-taking films

The second part of Andreas’ business is Maze Pictures, a maker of “art house” movies – films that, as Andreas puts it, “stylistically, and in terms of their target audience, are a little bit more ambitious, more demanding.” While he’s clearly interested in the artistic aspect, his business training informs his decision making. “The strategy behind it is not unlike venture capital, in that we want to create a portfolio of films that are individually seen as a little bit more risk-taking in terms of the visual style or the topics that we address.”

He continues, “We feel that the risk management principles that other people have brought to venture capital, or to product development in the pharmaceutical industry – the ideas on how to contain risks in inherently very risky industries – we bring to film. Film is a very risky industry, because a lot of money is being spent upfront, and you can absolutely not be certain that people will come and want to see the movie once it's done.”

Maze Pictures is about to release its first major co-production project – “The Happy Prince,” a biopic about Oscar Wilde’s last years, which he spent in exile from England after serving a brutal two-year prison term. The film – slated for entrance to the Venice Film Festival later this summer – is directed by Rupert Everett, who plays Oscar Wilde, and also stars Colin Firth as Wilde’s loyal friend Reggie Turner. Andreas serves as Executive Producer – meaning that he is involved in virtually every aspect of the film, including the editing process and approval of the final product. “Through the final stages of his life, in spite of his faltering health, and the poverty that soon engulfed him, Oscar Wilde maintained his genius and his acerbic wit,” Andreas says. “Watching this triumph of the human spirit over miserable circumstances is what makes the movie deeply emotional. We hope to have created something that is new and original, although of course Oscar Wilde is a very well-known figure.”

Understated luxury

The third piece of Andreas’ enterprises is a boutique hotel, the Gasthof Zufriedenheit (which translates to “Satisfaction Guesthouse”) in Naumburg, Germany, two hours from Berlin. The name is an old one; there was a small hotel of the same name on the site in the mid-19th century, and Andreas chose to bring that original hotel back to life, rather than creating something new. “When considering the name, a friend pointed out that this was such an old-fashioned way to name a hotel that no one would ever forget it once they had heard it.” 

When it’s pointed out that Naumberg is an out-of-the way place that most people have never heard of, Andreas responds, “That's true. I have unofficially become one of the key ambassadors of Naumburg. What you might see as a common thread running through my endeavors now is a dedication to experiences, extraordinary experiences, things that people live through that they otherwise would have missed out on.” He is ready with some interesting historical facts about Naumberg: it was there that Martin Luther installed the first Protestant bishop, and it was the place that philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called home for many years. Additionally, Naumberg is the northernmost formally recognized wine-growing region in Germany and it is particularly known for its white wines (fine wines being another of Andreas’ interests).

Andreas drily points out that his years spent traveling as a consultant provided him an excellent opportunity to form opinions on hospitality standards. “You might say that the 28 years that I spent in the Firm were an extended market research exercise into the qualities of hotels worldwide, which were not always to my liking,” he says. He sets a high bar at the Gasthof, which has well-appointed rooms furnished with understated luxury. “We wanted to create a hotel that we would like to stay at ourselves,” he says simply, adding that his personal aesthetics are built into every room: “It is very much my vision of an ideal hotel. The substrate of my years at McKinsey, spent in countless hotels, is now synthesized in the Gasthof Zufriedenheit. It is reflective of my own taste. I would have to take the blame if you didn’t like it.”

Speaking of Andreas’ personal aesthetics, he is well known for his sharp, innovative fashion sense. When asked if there is a line between his personal sense of style and his professional endeavors, Andreas responds: “I think it is all one. I have never believed in the idea of keeping your private and your professional existence in two separate buckets. Certainly, there is spillover from my personal wardrobe into how I designed the hotel. How I dress is a reflection of what I find important.”

What personality characteristics went into creating this three-fold business? “My unwillingness to get pinned down for anything easily, and the spirit of independence,” Andreas responds. “And also my nosiness about so many different things that I wanted to understand and learn more about, even though there was absolutely no practical purpose to it.”

“I look for a clear and independent mind”

With so many spinning plates, Andreas clearly needs talented teams. Finding and keeping good talent, he says, is the biggest business challenge that he faces. “It is actually far more of a problem than I had anticipated,” he says. “The share of attention that I put on people issues is far greater than at McKinsey. First, I look for a clear and independent mind, and that is not quite as common as one would wish. Second, I look for a good work ethic; and third, I particularly look for the ability to work in teams – people who are aware of their own strengths and potential weaknesses, who know where to lead and where to let others lead.”

Andreas' respect for the Firm's non-consulting staff is such that he hired two former colleagues – Beate Golembowski and Britta Scheffel – to work with him at Zielke GmbH. "I firmly believe that those we commonly refer to as 'support staff' deserve more explicit credit for their contribution to our success, which actually – at least in my case – extends well into my post-McKinsey professional life," he says. 

He advises other would-be entrepreneurs not only to pay attention to building their team, but also to start early. “I was beginning to build my ideas several years ago in small increments, and creating options for myself to step up my involvement once I left the Firm. It’s important not to wait until your last day at McKinsey. There are a couple of years – at least – required to meaningfully nurture the small sprouts of ideas into something that can then occupy you once you leave, when you are used to the pace and the intensity of a McKinsey life.”

“The Firm teaches you modesty”

Andreas has a characteristically unique take on his time at McKinsey; for him, it was a humbling experience. “Ultimately, the Firm teaches you a sense of modesty,” he explains. “You realize that other people are very, very smart as well – many of them are quite smarter than oneself. Also, our clients have achieved quite a bit. I think it is important to be respectful of their contributions and not overestimate oneself.”

He adds that he learned important lessons from and was deeply influenced by his two mentors, Wilhelm Rall (STU 77-05) and Jürgen Kluge (DUS 84-09). 

“One of the things that Wilhelm taught me was to always retain composure and remain calm, even in the face of the greatest adversity – screaming clients, unprepared meetings, an agenda going completely askew, realizing that you don't have the right presentation with you. Be it a small problem or a big problem, Wilhelm would remain rock solid and always keep his cool. I took away quite a bit from that.”

And from Jürgen, Andreas learned to trust his ability to take on big challenges. “We worked together with one particular client, and he was always remarkable in that he was willing to put enormous trust in me, and grant me responsibility far ahead of my ability – more than what others would have entrusted me with. He was confident enough that either I would be able to actually do it, or that he would be close enough to step in to cover for me if that should be required. I found that very powerful.” Andreas takes the same approach with colleagues now: “I have tried to also let people take responsibility ahead of what others would entrust them with, because that can accelerate their development. If it all goes wrong, I can still intervene and prevent bad things from happening.”

The future of Zielke GmbH: “There is a lot of cultivating required”

Where does Andreas see himself in five years? Hopefully, he says, pretty much exactly where he is now – with possibly a few expansions. Ultimately, he says, he has a dream job: “Great cars, movie stars, and hotel nights.” 

“I think I would like to see maybe three large movie productions a year, instead of just one,” he says. “I would like to see Radical produce 250 cars, instead of the 150 that we’ll do this year. The seed has been sown, but there is a lot of cultivating required before we can reap the reward. I'm not sure that I will be through with the cultivating in five years – I think that will still be going on.”

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