Interview Of The Week

Interview Of The Week: Oliver Birk, BASF Coatings

Oliver Birk has been leading the platform business within the BASF Automotive Refinish Coatings division since 2020. The business includes the digital platforms UBench in Belgium, which was acquired by BASF in 2019, and RepairFix in Germany, a corporate startup launched in 2020. These platforms serve fleet, leasing, and insurance companies, helping them to stay connected with their vehicle drivers along vehicle life cycle and coordinating all relevant processes with other service providers like maintenance and repair shops, towing services, or rental car companies in a digital collaborative ecosystem.

Birk joined BASF in 2009 after RELIUS, the decorative and industrial paint company he was working for at the time, was acquired and merged into BASF Coatings. As BASF’s European Head of Business Development for Commercial Transport Coatings Solutions, Birk worked closely with large manufacturers of agriculture and construction equipment, trailers, trucks and busses and commercial vehicle builders. In 2013 he was given additional responsibility to build a global key account management organization for the Automotive Refinish Coatings division.

Since March 2023 he has been supporting TheNTWK | Digital Business Models network as TheNTWKAmbassador for Germany. Birk, a scheduled speaker at The NWTK Summit 23  in Barcelona May 18-19, recently spoke to The Innovator about how BASF built and is benefiting from platform business models.

Q: Not many traditional businesses in Europe have succeeded at building platform business models. What led BASF Coatings to operate two ecosystems?

OB: During my career I learned about the power of customer-centricity and collaboration with all relevant stakeholders. We still see many analog processes in the automotive aftermarket, where digitalization can create value for all involved parties. Our two platforms help us to further develop a holistic view on the automotive aftermarket, connect digitally with influential stakeholders along the value chain, and build partnerships with them based on shared purpose in a way that is beneficial to all who participate.

Q: Can you tell us more about the ecosystems you have built?

OB: One platform is our corporate startup called Repairfix. Four people founded the company in 2020, as a B2C-business model initially. Soon they pivoted to B2B, focusing on small and medium-sized fleets. After gaining traction in the German market they are expanding into the DACH region [ Switzerland and Austria], further building the product and gaining more and more customers. By keeping the business at arms-length and creating a separate company, RepairFix has the freedom to operate without having to deal with the usual corporate alignment processes and benefits from being independent from our core business. At the same time, the platform benefits from BASF’s industry knowledge and  stakeholder network, helping to speed up its expansion. The RepairFix team quickly gained market understanding, identified relevant key stakeholders, and then figured out what are the demands and how to optimize the efficiency of fleet management, not only in case of an accident but throughout the entire life cycle. The offer has been on the market now for more than three years and is growing exponentially.

We first connected to the other platform, UBench in Belgium, in 2018. UBench was founded in 2003 and became a market leader in software-as-a-service for leasing companies.  UBench connects repair shops and other service providers with large leasing companies along the lease car life cycle, using a very collaborative and efficient Cloud-based platform solution. In 2019 we bought a majority share in the company, helping it to scale up by further internationalizing its business.  As a global business BASF Coatings could help UBench expand into other countries, like Germany, Spain and Italy, and provide new digital solutions to our automotive refinish coatings customers and their relevant business partners in these markets. UBench is scaling up fast now and gaining new, large accounts.

By connecting the two platforms, UBench and RepairFix, with our digital and physical product offer, we expanded our reach in the automotive aftermarket ecosystem and developed new business by offering an even broader solution to our paint customers and all related aftermarket players, like vehicle manufacturers, leasing companies, fleets, and insurance companies. What we are aiming for is expanding the ecosystem for all involved parties and increasing the business development opportunities. We are constantly scouting the market and checking which partners should be added to the respective platforms to further increase the value we can offer to the different users.

Q What was BASF Coating’s biggest challenge?

OB: Change management. Ecosystems require a move from a purely competitive to a more collaborative approach and an understanding that it can be more attractive to grow the pie and participate in this growing pie than just fighting for a bigger part of the pie.  Company decision makers must be P&L driven and programmed to earn money and value for the shareholder, but ecosystems require more complex thinking. They require companies to ask themselves: ‘How can I and my partners create a value to the users of an ecosystem?’ It is also challenging to figure out how the ecosystem should be set up and what role to play: orchestrator, partner, or participant?  Orchestration requires effort and complexity which translates into cost and therefore you must be able to extract more value.

Q: What advice would you give to traditional companies that want to adopt a platform business model?

OB: Most organizations are part of an ecosystem they are just not aware of it and are not consciously managing the relationships in the best way. They often miss out on the opportunity to leverage digitalization to evolve their ecosystem. Companies need to map the landscape and start deliberately building an ecosystem as a business development opportunity. It’s important to take a view from the user perspective to understand who else is involved with the consumer, then you can start identifying the right opportunities to target and understand with whom you would want to collaborate with to strengthen your position towards the end user. Many companies want control, so they automatically think they need to be the ecosystem orchestrator. This is not by definition the position you want to be in. If you have none of the key assets needed, you can spend a lot of time and money and miss the opportunity to potentially partner with someone else who could give you a faster solution. To make a comparison in traditional value chains not every company wants to be fully forward and backwards integrated. Just like you choose a position in the value chain you need to make a choice about your position and role in an ecosystem. By expanding our ecosystems, BASF Coatings has strengthened our strategic position in and beyond our core business.

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About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.