Nine dealerships, 200 employees, and a years-long ranking among the 20 largest Opel dealerships in Germany – as impressive as these figures seem, two other figures are even more important: 103 and 85. 103 years ago, Fritz Nolte became an automotive pioneer when he set up a haulage and taxi firm. Ten years later, he concluded a dealer contract with Wilhelm Opel. The Noltes have held on to Fritz’s original desk ever since.
A ‘grand dame’ among Opel dealers?
Senior Manager Fritzi Bimberg-Nolte still works at this desk each day. Does she consider herself a ‘grand dame’ among Opel dealers? No, the humble entrepreneur doesn’t think of herself that way, or like to be referred to that way, for that matter. The 85-year-old leads the dealerships together with her daughter Petra Pientka – with a steady hand, a clear voice, and credibility. She follows a very simple key to success: “We serve the customer!”
Of course, that’s not all. Tradition grows out of continuity: Those who complete an apprenticeship at Gebrüder Nolte often stay until retirement – or beyond. “Some of our employees have been with us for over 50 years, and still come in to the office once a week at 73,” says Petra Pientka. As she speaks, her mother, Fritzi Bimberg-Nolte, receives a text message. “Of course I use modern means of technology,” she says, resolutely but warmly. The only thing she hasn’t warmed up to yet is the Internet. Whenever some googling is required, Sabrina Lametz, the assistant to company management, steps in.
Courage coupled with discipline and compassion
Women occupying leadership positions is now a given in many industries. But back when Fritzi Bimberg-Nolte assumed managerial responsibility at the ripe age of 23, her father had passed away at a young age, and women were not allowed to open a bank account or sign an employment contract without their husband’s consent. Others in her shoes would likely have backed out of the role, but for this businesswoman from the city of Iserlohn in Germany’s Sauerland region, that was not an option. She faced the challenge with entrepreneurial courage, iron disciple, Christian compassion, and the constant desire to serve customers – and maintains these principles to this day.
Although she doesn’t say it outright, you can tell that her faith in her own capabilities as well as her faith in God have helped her overcome occasional difficulties and take big hits in stride. For instance, back when Bimberg-Nolte was an apprentice at Opel-Dello in Hamburg, there was no hot water in her room. Once a week, she went to the local baths on Esplanade street. “I can truly enjoy modern technology and modern comforts since I can compare them against how things were in earlier times,” she says.
The workforce is just a kind of extended family
She speaks in a breezy yet appreciative tone of her apprenticeship. After all, she learned a great deal at Dello. Moreover, as she specifically emphasizes, her father trusted her and encouraged her to make far-reaching decisions at the tender age of 21. She gradually learned how to cope with disappointments. In fact, she faced one fairly recently. An employee stole from the company, and was inevitably dismissed. “The act itself shocked me less than the obvious lack of trust did,” recalls Bimberg-Nolte. A loan, therapy – there are always other options. Apart from this sort of incident, dismissals are virtually unheard of at Gebrüder Nolte. “About half of our employees started out as apprentices. They stay with us,” explains Petra Pientka. When she first began working at the company, Pientka had difficulty coming to terms with her position, since her mother was such a strong presence within the organization. “That felt too stifling for me. There wasn’t any clear separation between work and family,” she recalls. It took her time to realize that the workforce can be a kind of extended family.
Those who complete apprenticeships at Gebrüder Nolte often stay with the company until retirement – or beyond.
Another key moment occurred a few years back – an employee lost an eye to a firework. These days, doctors might have been able to save it, but back then medicine hadn’t advanced to that point just yet. Bimberg-Nolte’s response to this incident once again demonstrated the drive that, despite some of her own health limitations, she brings to the company each day. While others would have invested their energy into grieving the incident, she started an employee relief fund, stating that wheelchairs or other aids for employees in need cost a great deal of money, and it helps when there’s enough of it there. Bimberg-Nolte doesn’t spend much on herself.
As is the case with many people of an advanced age, she occasionally spends time at the hospital. Is she able to rest there? Yes. Can she go without thinking about cars? Hardly. “A nurse will call me up and tell me that we should send someone over with two or three purchase agreements,” says Petra Pientka, describing her mother’s independent sales work from her hospital bed.
Over the past few years, the Gebrüder Nolte dealership group has expanded its portfolio. Beyond improving customer loyalty even further, this expansion was mainly driven by the desire to spare former employees of struggling competitors from going jobless. Residents of Iserlohn, Hemer, Schwerte, Hagen, Lüdenscheid, and Gevelsberg can choose from among a wide range of dealers. However, when you ask them where they got their car, they typically respond: “From Opel-Nolte, of course!”
Worth Reading: Fritzi Bimberg-Nolte’s Books
on Living and Making an Impact
Both books cover Fritzi Bimberg-Nolte’s life and work. Adventurous accounts of companies that have withstood two World Wars and various crises are often exciting to read. These two books offer all that – and more. ‘Da hinten wird es schon wieder hell…’ (It’s getting light out back there again) was published in 2014 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Gebrüder Nolte dealership group. It tells the story of a pioneer who, in a time when women needed their husband’s permission to open a bank account, assumed managerial responsibility for a company – and remains successful to this day. The now-85-year-old didn’t want to fill the book with preaching; instead, she simply told the story of how she lives and how she gathers the strength to surmount the hurdles that are thrown in her way.
In the second volume, ‘Ein halber Segen reicht für ein ganzes Leben’ (Half a blessing suffices for a whole life), Opel takes on a more marginal role. Bimberg-Nolte’s fiancé once spontaneously traded in a BMW V8 because it seemed more reasonable to him to drive up to Iserlohn in an Opel Rekord. The book highlights Bimberg-Nolte’s particular mindset, as in this excerpt from page 95: “When I see young people today trying out a great deal of different things without following their own clear goal, it makes me sad. In my opinion, they lack the necessary inner guidance.” Bimberg-Nolte’s two books are real gems, full of wisdom and goodwill. They can be ordered for €16.80 and €19.95, respectively (plus shipping) directly from Gebrüder Nolte GmbH & Co KG:
Gebrüder Nolte GmbH & Co KG
Mendener Strasse 17-23
58636 Iserlohn, Germany