How can you innovate if you don’t even dare to think about it?

An Interview with Hermann and Thomas Neuburger.

Today we spoke to a truly innovative team of entrepreneurs, father and son. Hermann and Thomas Neuburger from the Mühlviertel region are behind the HERMANN brand, under which they are the market leader in the production of vegetarian products based on the king oyster mushroom. They have a patent for their processing method in Europe. The idea was born by Hermann Neuburger, who, as a producer of meat products, saw it as his responsibility to create an alternative. For our environment and health.

AnyIdea: With the background of a butcher’s business: How do you thought of HERMANN?

Hermann Neuburger: It simply came from the thought that meat production or animal husbandry had changed a lot, and I was sitting there in the front row. I had been dissatisfied with that for a long time, because I think that every person is responsible for himself, for what he does and how he nourishes himself. And with the conditions in the butcher’s businesses, you have to think about whether that’s okay. It was a long process for me until I said that I wanted to continue producing high-quality food, but from a different ingredient than meat.

AnyIdea: The king oyster mushroom is probably not the first thing you would think of.

Hermann Neuburger: Right. I started looking for alternatives about 10 years ago and realised that there is actually no knowledge in Europe about how to produce good meat substitutes. And so, after doing all kinds of research, I came across Asia again and again, and finally set off there. I have made many trips to Asia – Thailand, China, Japan. Although I did not find any finished product or process, I was able to take three groups of ingredients with me: soya, seitan and mushrooms. We came across mushrooms again and again during visits to vegetarian restaurants.

AnyIdea: You are now considered a flagship for food and innovation. What do you think was the reason you made it?

Hermann Neuburger: I think my own conviction was certainly the origin and is the motor. But of course you also have to form an effective team. Such a project cannot be realised alone. It started with a team of three people in the company. Of course I had to convince the people first. But they understood very quickly what it was all about. And then the team slowly expanded to 10 people. Then my son Thomas joined us, who also shares my conviction. I always say: the boss can have a good idea, but he needs more hands to implement it.

AnyIdea: Did the development of HERMANN took place internally in a team or with the involvement of a broader audience?

Thomas Neuburger: Mainly it happened in a small team. But because we are entrepreneurs, we have of course always carried the development into the private sphere. Our families have had to go along and endure, so to speak. In the beginning we also started a field trial with a local restaurateur. Because if the product is taken to a different environment, you get a completely different perspective than if you test it in isolation in the laboratory. So we always made sure that we had field experience. We didn’t get any external help or a consultant, it was important for us to develop it internally. But we did make sure that we got many different opinions.

AnyIdea: After all, there was no know-how about the processing of the king oyster mushroom. Did you therefore access external knowledge or was the internal learning-by-doing?

Thomas Neuburger: No, it was actually all learning-by-doing. We bring industrial know-how from the Neuburger food processing industry with us, the experience from the sensitive hygiene sector helped us. But we also had to learn a lot of new things. Nobody could have helped us with that, because the product did not exist. It was more that we had to show the others how to do it.

Hermann Neuburger: It was actually a combination of several fields. I’m a trained chef, and there are also a few cooks in the team. So we worked together in a very unconventional way. We also obtained an EU-wide patent for the process we developed, as it is new.

AnyIdea: Which goals in the further development of HERMANN are important to you and how do you ensure your success?

Hermann Neuburger: The most important thing is to be first in the consumer’s mind. That is the best protection, so that every imitator has no chance. Of course, we also have a certain lead that will not be easy to catch up with. A project of this kind must not be preceded by a time or financial budget, but must be pursued patiently until solutions can be found. The king oyster mushroom is only produced in very limited quantities and cannot be bought on the market. The demand is currently growing faster than the production can keep up. With the establishment of our own breeding we have tackled another huge task, which was also new territory for us. Firstly, to acquire the know-how to grow the king oyster mushroom economically and secondly, to make the investment. These are certain efforts that others cannot imitate so quickly.

AnyIdea: HERMANN and Open Innovation: Do you receive and listen to customer feedback?

Hermann Neuburger: Of course. We have a very active community management. We also have 15 employees in the sales team who do daily evaluations in the retail trade – Billa, Spar, Edeka, Rewe: this way we get almost 200,000 customer contacts and direct feedback. This is very important to us. Of course, you always have to put the feedback into perspective, you can’t let certain groups drive you crazy. In fact, it is the consumer who buys and not us.

AnyIdea: What does this process look like?

Hermann Neuburger: Suggestions or even a complaint reach the management via the sales or quality management departments. This means that every customer feedback is on our table. And of course we react to it. Mistakes can always occur, and we naturally want to avoid them and learn from them. It does not mean that we already know everything. So we accept every customer feedback.

AnyIdea: So you listen to the expectations of your customers? 

Hermann Neuburger: Yes, in any case, this also ends up in our management. It may well be that we then sit down together and talk about it in our team. And then it is our decision whether we go in that direction, yes or no. But we really do look at every request from the customer, no matter how interesting or strange.

AnyIdea: Is there anything else you would like to say in conclusion about innovation?

Thomas Neuburger: A friend of ours always says: There’s no such thing as can’t be done! How can you come up with innovations if you don’t even dare to think about it? I see time and again that many people have this mindset and say, “I can’t imagine that”. If you just give it a try you have a 50% chance that it will work. Sure, you always take a risk, but the chance of success is always relatively high. Often it is really just a matter of trying it out. You then deal with a topic more intensively. A large part of our innovations have also come from the employees. So you don’t have to do the whole thing alone. But you still have to deal with a topic in depth, 24/7. You can see that in many companies or start-ups, they have simply had an intensive interest in something. This is what leads to success. Then innovation happens. If you deal with the matter intensively, you will also find solutions.

Hermann Neuburger: For us it is also simply an attitude to life. There are also those people who prefer to preserve existing things and do not like change. And there are people who are curious and quickly get bored, and I am obviously one of them. Unfortunately, we hardly ever celebrate success because then we are always already in the next project. I stick to Heraclitus who said that the only constant is change.

That is an attitude to life and if you don’t have it, you have problems everywhere, whether privately or professionally. We are not saying that innovation is just any topic in the company, but that innovation is normal thinking, constantly moving with the times. That is the case everywhere. Everything changes. And if you look at it positively, it’s much easier to do things in a company than if you want to slow down change.

AnyIdea warmly thanks Hermann and Thomas Neuburger for the interview.