Otto Versand GmbH & Co.



It's no problem finding the way to Otto Versand's head office because the world's largest mail order company (over 30 billion DM in revenues) received not one, but two visits from me four years ago. The massive concrete and glass headquarters complex lies about six miles northeast of Hamburg's city center and as I pedal nearer I start getting steamed up. Why? I'm starting to remember the horrible details of my last visits. Showing up on two separate days I had to deal with receptionists and security guards that were amongst the worst ever encountered. This from a company who's holdings include retailer Eddie Bauer and Spiegel in the United States. They refused to call up the CEO's office to see if my advance materials were received, refused to give me the name or number of anyone in the company so I could make my own calls, refused to allow me to use a phone and even declined to direct me to a pay phone. The surly receptionist smugly refused to tell me her name or those of her accomplices. Here I was an international visitor to their company and was treated as if I were a homeless bum off the street. Thinking back, it was pretty comical especially what followed. The second visit was on a late Friday afternoon and I left the place in a huff-- determined to find a public pay phone so as to call up the CEO 's secretary and tell her what had transpired. However, my search in the next half-hour proved futile as all three phone booths I came upon accepted only phone cards. Now my anger had been redirected to the idiot German phone company for not having coin-operated pay phones. Then, the fitting ending to this fiasco happened; it started raining. I remember staring down at my watch, noting it was 4:40 PM on a Friday afternoon and suddenly coming to the realization that maybe it wasn't meant to be.

Four years have passed and I'm back for another stab. Atop one of buildings is the name "Otto" in big letters. Next to the guard gate is a large covered area for parking several hundred bicycles and since it's been raining on and off all day, I find comfort in knowing my trusty steed will remain dry. Why such a big number of parking spaces for bikes? Over 6,000 employees work in this block long by block wide complex.

It's the moment of truth as I enter the building and come face to face with one receptionist and two security guards. I start to identify myself but before the spiel can be finished the receptionist says she already knows who I am. She discreetly glances at a piece of paper, which I immediately recognize as a copy of the introductory postcard I sent. The receptionist directs me to another building where Detlev von Livonius, Director-Corporate Affairs & Communications, and Silke Bartke-Zeh from the company's press office greet me. Before moving on from the lobby I make note of the television playing in the lobby and the seven eight-foot tall trees scattered about.

I'm most fortunate to gain a few minutes of Livonius' time. Why? There's a small party taking place here over the weekend and he's one of the people in charge. The company's celebrating its 50th birthday this year and tents are being installed on the premises. I politely ask, "how many people are you expecting?". "Over 14,000" is the reply from Livonius. The figure includes employees and their families. My jaw drops as I let out a "wow!" and learn they'll have five massive tents, with each tent being done up to celebrate a particular decade. Hmm, I ask if the 60's tent will have mini-skirt clad dancers. Then again, I should have figured something unusual was amiss because riding up to Otto's complex one couldn't help but notice the massive red bow and red ribbon attached to the sides of a six-story building.

Founded in 1949 by Otto Werner (who will be 90 years old), the company moved to its present site in 1960 (which was previously home to cabbage fields). The surrounding area is overwhelmingly residential but back in the 1960's this was out in the undeveloped boondocks. A half-dozen buildings encompass the site including a massive fulfillment center. The later being the place where the item you picked out of the catalog is physically placed into a box and mailed to you.

Large monster-size posters of Joan Collins, Claudia Schiffer, Cindy Crawford and Elle McPherson (the later two definite favorites of mine) seem to be everywhere. Why? Over the years they've modeled outfits in Otto's catalogs.

Three cafeterias and a casino (where one gets waited on) take care of employee hunger urges. According to Livonius and Bartke-Zeh, the food is very good. Recreational facilities includes table tennis (Ping-Pong), a multi-purpose tennis court and a gymnasium.

The company's art collection is modern and international in scope-including works by that well-known middle-of-the-road artist Andy Warhol. Smoking is allowed in offices but restricted to certain areas. Hamburg's airport lies seven miles away and the nearest freeway 10 miles. Any unusual employee perks? Depending on your length of service, one gets cheaper meals, pension plans and 15% off on items in company catalogs. Since it's the company's 50th birthday this year, employees receive (according to length of service) 500 to 1,500 DM's of worth of free goods from Otto's catalogs.

It's not possible to see CEO Michael Otto's top floor office in the seven-story building housing executives because "he's busy". Michael Otto is the son of founder Werner Otto and has been CEO since 1981. My request to see the boardroom is turned down. As I would have expected this company has embraced the Internet having two E-Commerce sites: www.otto.de and www.shopping24.com.

I'm still a little disappointed in not having asked if the vast improvement in my treatment was a result of the company looking up the previous visit at www.corporatetrivia.com and finding their name atop the list of "10 Worst Receptions In Germany" in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" section of my Website.