Metamorphoses and Transformations

Interview with Tobias Ragge, CEO of HRS Group

Tobias Ragge, CEO of HRS Group
Tobias Ragge, CEO of HRS Group

From a travel agency to a technology company - it sounds like a fairy tale, but it's a very real story: The HRS Group, headquartered in Cologne, works for some of the world's most successful large companies and takes care not only of hotel brokering for business travelers but also offers its clients numerous Software-as-a-Service services related to their travel transactions. In conversation with Wirtschaftsforum, CEO Tobias Ragge reports on how HRS has reinvented itself time and again and what he expects from German politics.

Wirtschaftsforum: Mr. Ragge, HRS has been on the market for 51 years, ever since your father founded it as a travel agency. Today, it is a global technology company with over 1,000 employees, specializing in hotel mediation for business travel in the Travel sector and has also positioned itself as a service provider in Business Automation Technology for its clients. What were the defining steps on this path?

Tobias Ragge: The first major step was entering the internet. In 1995, HRS was one of the pioneers to launch online. This transformed the business model into an e-commerce company – an incredible booster for our further development, because it catapulted us from an era where bookings were mainly processed through call centers into the era of e-commerce. Consequently, we were not only able to operate 24/7 but also internationally.

HRS Procurement Platform
The heart of HRS: The Procurement Platform connects customers and hotels
HRS AI-optimized Recommendations
Using the data obtained from the end-to-end process, the proprietary AI actively offers recommendations for optimization

Wirtschaftsforum: Back then, you acquired your competitor and became the market leader. From e-commerce, HRS developed another business area by establishing a Software-as-a-Service model – yet another complete metamorphosis.

Tobias Ragge: Yes, and one that involved a shift for us from the B2C business to a B2B context, by starting to develop procure-to-pay processes for large companies. So, we digitalize the procure-to-pay processes for large corporations around their travel transactions, again a change in our business model that has led us from the German to the international market. Meanwhile, we work with 35% of the Fortune 500 worldwide. This ranges from corporations like Google to Siemens and VW, to Tencent or Alibaba. Consequently, we also had to globalize the company – HRS now employs people from nearly 70 nations. In fact, only 25% of our employees are now based in Germany. Today, we are a technology company that is active in the fields of Procuretec, Traveltec, but also Fintec – we have built our own Fintec. From the travel segment, we have thus moved into entirely different fields, namely Fintec and also Business Automation Technology. It’s actually about building digital process chains to make our customers' lives as transparent and simple as possible.

HRS Hotel Portal
The hotel portal in a new look – the HRS business solution for freelance business travelers and small to medium-sized enterprises
HRS App for Smartphones

Wirtschaftsforum: HRS is today a holding company, whose shares are still 100% owned by your family. You grew up with the company – was it a logical consequence for you to join it?

Tobias Ragge: No, I didn't join because my parents wanted it or I expected it of myself. Rather, it's because I find the travel industry incredibly exciting and see great potential in it. We have many great people here; it's a global environment. This suits me very well because I have always been interested in the world and other cultures. Being able to work here, I saw as a tremendous stroke of luck. Of course, you then have to find your own way, which also means facing realities.

Wirtschaftsforum: What do you mean by that?

Tobias Ragge: HRS is large, globally positioned, and operates in an extremely dynamic environment where speed matters and having the best people is crucial. You might not find them within the family, but they come from the outside. It can be a balancing act between the family and the needs of the company. Thankfully, I can say that I am blessed with many good colleagues.

Wirtschaftsforum: As someone who works in such a globally operating company and therefore also travels all over the world, you probably also have ‘the external view’ on the political situation in Germany. Would you have a message for politics?

Tobias Ragge: Politics must understand the sustainable transformation we are undergoing. It is a process of digitalization, de-globalization, and decarbonization. Here, sensible, long-term goals must be defined, but not in the rushed manner it sometimes seems. Politics must set frameworks that allow companies to do their job and at the same time withdraw from this dirigisme with constantly new legislative proposals. Bureaucracy makes this transformation almost impossible. Moreover, if we want to preserve our prosperity, we all need to achieve more and want to! Just work-life balance, wellbeing, and a 4-day work week with full salary compensation doesn’t work.