vonMatthiessen moves on
business differently at YSI
When he took over as CEO of YSI Incorporated in 1985, Malte vonMatthiessen
promised to company co-founder Hardy Trolander that he would make sure
the company survived, that he would ensure its prosperity and that he
would keep YSI independent.
Now, a few weeks after he retired and handed over the companys leadership
to Richard Omlor, vonMatthiessen feels satisfied that he delivered on
Id like to be remembered as someone who had a vision for YSI
and who was able to bring into the company a group of folks who were able
to make it happen, vonMatthiessen said an interview last month.
Id like to think YSI is making a difference in the lives of
its workers, its customers and in the community. Its always been
VonMatthiessens vision included an expansion of YSIs unique
structure of employee ownership and an emphasis on identifying YSI with
the value of environmental sustainability. YSIs environmental commitment
has been challenged during the companys ongoing investigation of
groundwater contamination, which has been found on YSIs property
and on the properties of several of its neighbors.
The combination of employee-ownership and a focus on environmental sustainability
has contributed to the companys prosperity, vonMatthiessen believes.
Its all about making work meaningful so that people who work
here feel good about what theyre doing, he said. At
the end of the day, the companies with strong values are the survivors.
When he took over in 1985, YSI Incorporated then Yellow Springs
Instruments had 350 employees and sales of $15 million. Seventeen
years later, YSI still has 350 employees but sales have quadrupled, topping
$60 million and, in the last 12 years, its stock value has risen 500 percent.
Theres been an incredible appreciation in the value of the
business, said vonMatthiessen. Were one of the few companies
left in our industry that are still independent. We get lots of inquiries
from prospective buyers.
But YSI has no intention of selling out.
Our objective has been to create a sustainable enterprise in order
to ensure our independence, he said. The idea of independence
has appeal to many who work here.
It matters what appeals to YSI workers, since 55 percent of the company
is employee-owned. All of the companys current employees participate
in the employee-ownership program, he said. The rest of the companys
stock is owned by Antioch University, former employees, retired executives
and community members.
Shortly after he became CEO in 1985, vonMatthiessen expanded the companys
practice of employee-ownership, which previous management had begun. With
the boards approval, vonMatthiessen instituted new policies that
resulted in extending voting privileges to all employees and providing
workers with stock dividends.
It was a lot of risk, he said. I knew coming in that
we would have to make fundamental changes. But I never doubted that we
could reinvent ourselves, and thats what we did.
Employee-ownership contributed to employee empowerment, said vonMatthiessen.
Employees became even more self-directive when the company went through
further restructuring in the early 1990s, he said. At that time, a national
recession contributed to a downturn in business, and a recognition that
company costs were too high. While many companies chose to cut costs by
relocating in areas that offered cheaper labor, YSI management took a
Lots of companies were doing things like moving to China,
he said. I think thats crap. You have to look at how to reorganize
yourself, how to make the work force more productive.
Contributing to excess costs were excess layers of management, company
leaders decided. Consequently, two layers of managers were gradually eliminated,
We flattened the organization structure so that workers managed
themselves, he said. YSI workers formed teams which performed tasks
previously done by management, such as monitoring themselves, making work
assignments and evaluating their own performance.
Overall, the changes worked, vonMatthiessen said.
People became more productive, more valuable to the business,
Also contributing to the companys success has been a shift in its
focus, said vonMatthiessen, from an emphasis on products a variety
of temperature monitors that produce highly accurate data to an
emphasis on markets.
Along with an emphasis on the markets came an emphasis on identifiable
values, he said. Around 1995, company executives asked others in the field
to identify YSI in terms of its values, and found that those values were
not clear to the outside world.
Everyone said, great company, great products
said vonMatthiessen, but people couldnt pinpoint what, exactly,
the company stood for.
YSI leaders chose to emphasize the companys value of working to
enhance environmental sustainability, said vonMatthiessen. The effort
led the company to adopt the slogan Whos minding the planet?
YSI also chose to adjust work practices to lighten the companys
own environmental footprint, an effort that led to YSIs
being selected by the U.S. EPA as an environmentally conscious company.
VonMatthiessens desire to live his life according to his values
has been growing since he came from New York City in 1961 to study at
Antioch College. It was a heady, thrilling time to be a college student,
he said, and especially to be a student at Antioch.
The campus was alive, he said, especially with civil rights
activism. There was a tremendous amount of energy. I had never been
an activist but Antioch helped me refocus, become more involved.
Following college, vonMatthiessen spent three years in Tanzania in the
That experience changed me fundamentally, he said. I
developed a passion for the environment and the beauty of the natural
world, and a belief in the importance of preservation.
After returning to the U.S., vonMatthiessen worked for 17 years in human
resources at NCR in Dayton, in what he calls a diamonds and dirt
As an opportunity to learn about the business world, his time at NCR was
an incredible apprenticeship, he said, and nothing could have
better prepared him to run a business.
However, vonMatthiessen said, at NCR he became increasingly aware that
his values were not the values shared by most people in the corporate
world. So when he was approached by Trolander in 1985 about taking over
YSI, vonMatthiessen was ready for change.
Adding to the appeal of YSI, he said, was its location in Yellow Springs,
a community that influenced the shaping of vonMatthiessens own values
as well as those of the company.
We need to be a part of the community, said vonMatthiessen.
The companys history is here. The community has been helpful
However, YSIs relationship to the Yellow Springs community was challenged
nearly two years ago, when the company became aware of groundwater contamination
on and around its Brannum Lane property. Initially, said vonMatthiessen,
company leaders never considered the possibility that YSI caused the contamination.
We absolutely believed it couldnt be us, he said, due
to the companys longtime emphasis on environmentally sustainable
However, said vonMatthiessen, a few employees admitted last spring that
they had improperly disposed of waste products.
It was very hard emotionally for me and for a lot of folks,
he said of that discovery. I felt ashamed. The problem affected
people in Yellow Springs. We found out we were like other folks
who had contaminated the environment.
The company has tried not to be like other companies, however, in how
it handled the discovery of its culpability, vonMatthiessen said.
Most companies circle the wagons but weve done the reverse,
he said. Weve said, Here are the facts, lets be
open and not try to cover it up. Weve tried to be as visible
As part of their process, YSI has sponsored meetings of the community
Source Water Protection Committee, in an attempt to devise a community-based
solution to the contamination. The company also paid $250,000 to extend
Village water service to affected neighbors and, when a neighbor wanted
to leave the area, bought the neighbors house.
Currently, YSI is under an administrative order from the Ohio Environmental
Protection Agency, which was filed when the company claimed responsibility
for the contamination. In the next few weeks, said vonMatthiessen, the
company will finalize details of the agreement with the Ohio EPA and proceed
with the remediation.
The companys environmental situation has led to a federal lawsuit,
which three neighbors have filed against YSI, alleging that hazardous
wastes and chemicals from YSI contaminated the neighbors properties.
VonMatthiessen remains optimistic that the lawsuit will end positively.
We will eventually have resolution with all of the neighbors,
he said. Its a matter of time.
Coming to resolution with its neighbors over the contamination is one
of the challenges facing YSI Incorporated, according to vonMatthiessen.
Other challenges include stepping up to the demands of an increasingly
global market, which includes learning to operate in different cultures,
respond to different needs, he said. Currently, YSI is a global
company, with affiliates in California, New Jersey, England, China and
Japan, and it will increasingly operate in a global market, said vonMatthiessen.
YSI is also poised to shift its focus from a company that manufactures
products into a company that provides data solutions, said vonMatthiessen.
While it will continue manufacturing, YSI will enhance its capacities
to provide customers an integrated suite of products that
relate to temperature monitoring, including expertise with data collection,
he said. That shift corresponds to the increasing need of municipalities
to monitor water and natural resources at a time when governments are
cutting funding from agencies that traditionally have helped in doing
Were reinventing ourselves once again, said vonMatthiessen.
VonMatthiessen will continue to address these challenges in his new position
as consultant and his continued position as chairman of the YSI board.
However, at 61, he wants to spend more time at his second home in Crested
Butte, Colo., with his wife, Pam.
Their home sits within 3,500 acres of national forest, which provides
a habitat to some 5,000 elk, said vonMatthiessen, who gets excited talking
about the open spaces and beauty of Colorado.
All in all, vonMatthiessen seems like a satisfied man, having spent much
of his working life leading a company he loves and now giving himself
time to work a bit less and enjoy life a bit more.
I have the best deal of all, he said. I live in a wonderful
community and have a great companion and friend. What else could I ask