YPO Insights chats with Katrin Hohensinner-Häupl, YPO member and Austria winner of EY Entrepreneur of the Year™ 2023. (Entrepreneur Of The Year in the category “Trade & Services” and representative of Austria at the World Entrepreneur Of The Year™ 2023)

For Katrin Hohensinner-Häupl, the second-generation CEO of Frutura, Austria’s leading fruit and vegetable seller and one of its largest vegetable producers, building sustainability into the business has always been a matter of survival. Since joining the family business 10 years ago, she has continued her father’s entrepreneurial drive, expanding the business on sustainable grounds while modernizing and innovating business processes. Her motivation is twofold: safeguard the long-term viability of the company for the next generation and create a supply chain that may serve as a model for the industry. 

A family of farmers 

The family-owned business was started in 1999 by her father and two partners in eastern Styria, the “orchard of Austria,” with a pear drying facility.

 “We are farmers, and my father and his partners started with (producing and distributing) dried fruit, then we moved to fresh fruit,” says Häupl.  “I grew up with the company, on the farm.”

After completing her higher education in finance and taxation, she worked for PWC Austria as a tax adviser and Certified Public Accountant (CPA) in New York. In 2013, at age 26, she returned to Austria. “Going back to the family business was not initially the plan. I grew up in the business and saw how much work and responsibility it involved,” recalls Häupl. “But then I realized it was a great opportunity to make a difference to things that matter to me, including climate change. I had many ideas and accumulated global experience in finance, accounting and taxation.” 

She spent those first years reacquainting herself with the different functions of the company. “I knew the company as a child, so I had a lot of learning to do,” she concedes. 

Reflecting on the long hours and hard work she put in to prove herself, Häupl adds, “Agriculture is not a female industry, and being the daughter of the founder, I had to work twice as hard. But by the time I became CEO in 2016, I was able to say, ‘I earned it.’” 

Prioritizing sustainability 

Häupl’s father and his partners started the business with the shared goal of supplying Austria with fruit and vegetables while respecting the planet. 

“Twenty years ago, climate change was not a big topic. But because they were farmers, they understood early the importance of the soil and caring for the environment,” says Häupl. “Sustainability was engrained in the business before I came, but it has become even more important.” She adds as farmers, they see the effects of climate change every day.

Sustainability practices introduced since 2016 include using thermal water from 3,500 meters below ground as an energy source. It is pumped to the surface at 125 degrees Celsius before irrigating 26 hectares of glasshouses and tunnels, where up to 9,000 tons of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, eggplants and radishes grow each year. The water is then cooled and pumped back down — without losing a drop throughout the process.

Häupl says, “Growing fresh vegetables year-round in a climate-friendly, resource-saving manner and with the cycle of nature was the vision from day one. Now they come from modern glasshouses and native soils.” 

Today, Frutura supplies fruit and vegetables to approximately 3 million Austrians daily year-round while helping decrease Austria’s contribution to the EU’s total greenhouse gas emissions (in accordance with United Nations Development Goals). 

Fostering a culture of innovation and risk-taking

While prioritizing environment and climate in every decision and process, Häupl keeps an eye on the bigger picture, following modern food trends to stay competitive.

“Although we are a family business, we are fast in decision-making and don’t have a lot of hierarchies. This has helped us be innovative,” she says. You have to be innovative to bring in new ideas and remain competitive, while ongoing investment in digitalization of business processes helps pave the way for new approaches and technologies.” The urgency for digitalization, she says, is due to the shrinking labor pool, especially in Europe.

Frutura is now a pioneer in digitization in the industry and has been able to double revenue in the past two years. This has helped feed the innovation funnel and set new ecological standards. In one of their recent projects, fresh vegetables can be bought directly 24/7 with the help of “Gemüsekisterl,” a self-service vegetable box. In another EU Parliament-backed cross-border social project “BoiBienenApfel,” Futura is creating 1,200 hectares of new bee meadows within five years.

Empathetic leadership 

As the CEO of a company of more than 900 employees, Häupl places great importance on extending the family’s strong values and leading with empathy. This has helped create an enjoyable working environment and build employee loyalty.

“It is important to invest in creating a positive company culture, with benefits and conditions so that employees actually like to go to work,” she adds. “We are fortunate that most share our passion for sustainability and for working with fruits and vegetables.”

Her final message to leaders of established family-run businesses looking to evolve and modernize, startup entrepreneurs and other businesses, “My father showed that it is possible to start from a small farm, with no education or funding, and build what is now a EUR500 million t company. You have to believe in yourself, in your idea and be willing to work hard.” 

YPO is proud to collaborate with EY, its Strategic Learning Advisor to help global leaders drive innovation, accelerate growth and create long-term value.

Learn from the successes of thousands of the world’s fastest-growing entrepreneurs and realize your ambition faster. Consider nominating yourself or a fellow entrepreneur for EY Entrepreneur Of The Year.