Frank Appel’s business acumen came not from an MBA program but initially from a science textbook. He earned his Masters degree in chemistry at the University of Munich in 1989, followed by a Ph.D in neurobiology at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in 1993 (although he demurs from using the “Dr.” title). Having trouble finding employment in the sciences, however, Appel sought work in the field of management consulting, eventually finding a position at McKinsey & Co. in Germany.
“I learned how to read a balance sheet, and about cash flow and how you organize businesses,” he said of the seven years he spent at McKinsey. “It was a great training for me, coming from a very different background.” But soon he said he felt the need to make his own decisions in business instead of giving advice to others.
In 2000, he started at Deutsche Post AG, as managing director of corporate development, before the acquisition of DHL, which came two years later. After joining the company’s board of management in 2002, Appel was appointed CEO in 2008, a position he has held ever since.
While he doesn’t use his scientific background directly in his CEO role, Appel says his education has some added benefits in the executive world. “If you’re a scientist, you’re already pretty analytical, and you can handle a lot of different subjects simultaneously. As a senior executive, you have to select what is important and what you can do later.”
Science has also taught Appel to handle disappointment. “I worked as an experimental chemist,” he said. “The majority of experiments, if you touch new territory, will not work. You work hard all day, you get frustrated and then you go home. And then you have to start the next morning again from scratch. And this is what I tell young people – what you have to learn is to live with negative messages.”
But amid the difficult choices that a CEO must make, he says he never forgets the human element in his calculations. “As a neurobiologist, I also believe that we are a reflection of our brains,” he said. “I’ve read a lot about how the brain works and how we should behave like leaders. I have not forgotten that I was a scientist, and I still have a lot of curiosity today.”