Once a quantum theorist, now the CEO of Siemens

Image: Enno Kapitza
Image: Enno Kapitza

Roland Busch is the CEO of Siemens AG and chair of the University Council. After completing his doctoral degree in physics at FAU in 1994, he entered into research at Siemens. Later, he was responsible for directing the company’s strategic planning and was appointed to the Managing Board in 2011. He has been the President and CEO since February 2021. In our interview, he shares his favourite spot at FAU and lets us know what he would ask Werner von Siemens.

Why did you decide to study physics?

I’ve always been passionate about mathematics and the sciences. I thought that studying physics was the best way to get a better understanding of the phenomena behind our world. I found answers in the field of theoretical physics, which I chose to focus on.

And why did you choose FAU?

It was the natural choice, after growing up in Erlangen. FAU had an excellent faculty of physics, with very good professors. Another important aspect for me was that FAU offered such a wide range of academic disciplines, as I was also interested in languages and took courses in Spanish and French. Today, FAU would be an even more obvious choice, as it is one of the most innovative universities in Europe and the most innovative university in Germany.

What makes Erlangen an attractive place to study?

Erlangen is a city, but it’s not too big, which has a lot of advantages, for example you can get everywhere by bike. The quality of life is extremely high. At Siemens, it’s very often the case that when we arrange for employees to come over to Germany from abroad they all want to be located in Munich, Berlin or near Frankfurt, but after spending six months in Erlangen they don’t want to leave.

Do you have a favourite spot at FAU?

Two, actually. Firstly, the ‘Roter Platz’ at the southern campus in Erlangen in summer. I remember sitting out there enjoying the sun and eating my lunch. And secondly the building with the old lecture hall in Glückstraße. It had an atmosphere all of its own, with old wooden benches which creaked when you sat down. That’s where I worked on my thesis.

You also did your doctoral degree at FAU. How did you motivate yourself to keep going?

After writing my thesis in quantum chromodynamics with Professor Frieder Lenz, I wanted to move more into applied physics. That was why I chose a topic which connected theory and practice: high temperature superconductivity. An excellent scientist agreed to act as my supervisor, Professor Saemann-Ischenko. I found it fascinating to delve deeper into a subject which no-one else had investigated in detail. And then I was lucky enough to find another supervisor at Siemens, the brilliant physicist Günter Ries. He was a great source of inspiration for me, and taught me how closely physics relates to our day to day lives. For example, he was involved in inventing MRI scanners, which are of great benefit to us all today. I was immediately drawn to research with such relevance to everyday life. This fascination kept me motivated for three years, and was also the reason I started work at Siemens after completing my doctoral degree.

Are you still in touch with fellow students?

I’m still close to two who started out at the same time as me. One of them lives in Bamberg, the other pursued an academic career and is now a professor in Karlsruhe. We keep bumping into each other, for example at school reunions, as we were both in the same year at school.

You were appointed CEO of Siemens AG in February 2021. An extremely responsible position. What do you do to relax?

Work-life balance doesn’t really work when you are as busy as I am, instead, I aim for what I call work-life integration. It works quite well. I relax by doing sport, usually in the morning, or at other times of day over the weekend. I enjoy reading, and although I usually read non-fiction, now and again I enjoy a thriller or another novel. A fascinating book about cells motivated me to explore the topic further, as I saw an analogy to physics. Cells are to biology what atoms are to physics. And I have started to play the guitar again. I played it a lot when I was younger, and have just recently started to play again. It’s great fun and focusing on fine motor skills helps me relax.

If you were able to meet Werner von Siemens, what would you ask him? What would you like to talk about with him?

I am particularly interested in Werner von Siemens as a person. What were his values, what was he interested in as a private person, what did he like to read, who were his friends? What was the driving force behind his decision to think globally from the outset? How did he manage to stay so motivated even after so many setbacks? Driving innovation like he did is a stony road littered by disappointment.

You are also the chair of the University Council. Which projects are planned between FAU and Siemens AG in the coming years?

There are a lot of different projects in the pipeline. Several of them are focused on digitalisation, as well as new technologies for use in industry, for example using hydrogen to power trains. The projects are extremely varied. FAU covers a wide range of activities and is therefore an important strategic partner for us. I’m quite sure we won’t run out of ideas.

Thank you very much for the interview, Dr. Busch.

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