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“A champion proves himself in a crisis”

With twelve world championship titles in open water swimming, Thomas Lurz is one of the most successful German athletes ever. He has been HR Director at S.Oliver since 2019. “The willingness to torture yourself is certainly what makes the difference between those at the top and the others,” says the 45-year-old. “I have yet to meet an athlete, an entrepreneur or a CEO who has achieved success with little effort. What they all have in common is hard work.”

With twelve world championship titles, you are one of the most successful German swimmers of all times. Why did you choose this particular sport back then?

Endurance sports were simply my talent. I realised that at a young age. I have the ability to push myself, so I was predestined for such an endurance sport. It’s like in professional life: You have to know strengths and weaknesses in order to be able to navigate the employee or athlete in the best possible way. I didn’t stick with the long distance because I thought it was so great to swim 25 kilometres. The success motivated me.

If you had played in the Bundesliga, you would probably be rich now and could coach Bayern Munich.

Long-distance swimming is of course not that popular or financially attractive. It’s been okay over the years, but ultimately you don’t do it for the money. However, participation in the Olympic Games is something you can’t buy. It’s only possible through personal achievement.

Looking back, does it bother you that you were denied Olympic gold?

Definitely. Of course I would have loved to have won Olympic gold. It was enough for silver and bronze; it would have been nice to complete it. But I think I got the best out of myself for my ability. I was never a super talent, I’m not 1.90 metres tall and I was never German youth champion. But I have come a long way. In the end, you also need a bit of luck and the right form on the day.

Leadership is totally relevant in a crisis. Employees also understand unpleasant decisions if they are well justified.

Why did you decide to pursue a career in HR management after your active sports career?

I actually wanted to become a franchisee of a large system catering operator. You’ll know who I mean. But then I got to know Bernd Freier. He probably thought to himself, Lurz has achieved something in swimming, he must be good at something else too. And so, I joined S. Oliver, initially in various roles in HR development. Simultaneously I did my MBA at WHU, then became assistant to the S.Oliver-owner for three years, and finally in 2019 the position of HR Director became available.

What’s more strenuous: twelve years of training for world championships? Or being Head of HR at S Oliver for five years?

(laughs) It’s actually not that much different. Since I’ve been doing this, it’s been all about crisis management, with everything that goes with it. I’ve learnt a lot personally.

You’ve been through a pretty exciting time in Rottendorf: Covid19 and the lockdowns, then the change from Claus Dietrich Lahrs to Jürgen Otto and the return of Bernd Freier. How have you experienced the past few years from an HR perspective?

Of course, many of the issues I had to deal with were not pleasant: restructuring, employee dismissals, court hearings – all of these were largely planned and implemented in my department. As you say, I got to know various CEOs during this time. It was also a good learning curve to see what works and what doesn’t.

Can you be more specific?

Leadership is totally relevant in a crisis. It’s like in sport: you need a good coach, someone who has a vision, who can motivate people, who communicates honestly and transparently and is absolutely stringent. The worst thing is not being stringent and consistent, not making decisions, not communicating well. Employees also understand unpleasant decisions if they are well justified.

Is it all just a question of communication?

It is important to set goals and guidelines for each individual. On the 25 km distance, I sometimes seriously thought about drowning and in the end, I still became world champion. You doubt yourself, feel sorry for yourself, ask yourself ‘What am I doing here’ and say ‘This makes no sense’. That’s why goals are so important, no matter how small they are. As soon as you realize that there is a process that is moving forward, you can keep going even in a tough crisis. That’s difficult, of course. You need patience and perseverance and at least a glimmer of hope. Incidentally, the crisis is where the champion is decided. It’s easy to be at the top in good phases. Keeping going in difficult phases shows the true champion.

I often get the impression that HR work in many companies is still not given the importance that managers postulate in their pretty speeches. You meet most CEOs at fashion fairs, where the focus is on selling. At career fairs, where you sell yourself as an employer, the bosses rarely show up.

That is correct.

A good HR manager must also understand the business model. Then it is extremely relevant.  

Shouldn’t HR managers also sit at the very top, in the management bodies?

After all, most decisions in companies affect employees. That’s why HR work is of utmost importance. A good HR manager must also understand the business model. Then it is extremely relevant.  

Your topic, on which you have also written books and given lectures and seminars, is motivation. Do you have a missionary streak?

I wouldn’t say that. Of course I’m happy to pass on my knowledge and experience from competitive sport, and I’m happy when it helps someone.

Open water swimming is an extremely strenuous sport in which you not only have to fight against the competition, but also against your own inner bastard. Do you have to torture yourself to be successful?

Yes, you have to. But it can also be fun. You probably know this: when you go running, it’s exhausting, but afterwards you feel good. The willingness to make an effort certainly makes the difference between those at the top and the others.

But you also have to have talent.

In any case.

Swimming is a rather solitary affair. Is that the best prerequisite for teamwork?

I’m often asked that question. I don’t know if it’s the best. But you always work as a team in a competition. Preparation is crucial, and you always do it as a team, with your coach, physiotherapist, doctors and training partners. You can only get better if you train with the best. In the end, it’s the strength of the team that pulls the individual along. I wouldn’t have won anything on my own.

As a top athlete, you can talk very credibly about motivational topics. But not every boss is a world champion.

That’s true. That’s easy for me to say. In sport, that can also be measured objectively.

How long does it take you to cover 25 km?

4 hours 47, but in business it’s sometimes not so easy to measure. Eloquence and appearance do play a role.

You have always worked hard on yourself. You certainly need determination and toughness to achieve such top performances. What do you think about GenZ, which is said to have all sorts of things, but not excessive ambition, special discipline and the will to perform?

There is something to that. You can also see that in sport, especially at the Olympics, where it is becoming increasingly difficult for German athletes to compete at the top. It may sound unpopular, but I have yet to meet an athlete, entrepreneur or CEO who has achieved success with little effort. What they all have in common is hard work.

Of course, I can’t expect everyone to become a world champion.

Don’t you sometimes feel at a loss with this performance credo?

Of course, I can’t expect everyone to become a world champion. I tend to ask myself what is the key to getting the best possible performance from everyone. I try to convince people that it’s fun to achieve your goals.

Young people supposedly need a purpose more than ever. What is the purpose of a company like S.Oliver? Or H&M, Tom Tailor, you name it?

We offer people the opportunity to express themselves. I think that many people also enjoy shopping for beautiful things.

What motivates employees today? Is it even possible to motivate employees? Is it not the case that intrinsic motivation is needed for top performance and that as a manager you can at best demotivate employees?

I think that everyone has a talent within them. The trick is to find this talent. It was no different for me. I wasn’t born a swimmer, but my supporters used a certain system to find out what I was particularly good at. That is also one of the tasks of managers: to identify strengths and weaknesses and to promote the strengths. But you’re also right: employees should also want to do this to some extent.

What role do defeats play? After all, you haven’t won every race you’ve entered, and when you’ve got 25 kilometres behind you, surely it hurts a lot if you “only” come second?

Defeats have shaped me. That’s why I think it’s so wrong that ratings and grades are negated at school today. At my first Olympic Games in Athens, I was such a mess, to put it bluntly. Without this experience, I wouldn’t have won my medals in Beijing and London. We’re talking about twelve world championship titles. But as an athlete, I’ve lost far more often than I’ve won. Today you lose, tomorrow you win, that’s no different in professional life than in sport. Learning to cope with defeat is extremely important.

Can you plan a career?


No luck and chance also play a major role?

Sure. You never know whether everything will turn out exactly as planned. Of course there are options along the way. But I firmly believe that you can’t go in the right direction without planning. I need goals. And goals motivate me.

Last question: Do you prefer to employ athletes at S. Oliver? Bernd Freier is also a passionate tennis player. Do you take that into account when making your selection?

I do. It’s not the most important criterion, but it says something about your character and you have soft skills that are an advantage in your professional life.



Thomas Lurz (45) was world champion in open water swimming twelve times between 1998 and 2013. His speciality was the long distances of 5, 10 and 25 km. His record for the latter is 4 hours 47. He won 26 titles at German championships and was European champion five times. He won bronze at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and silver in London in 2012. Lurz has been working at S. Oliver since 2013 and took over responsibility for HR in 2019. The qualified social pedagogue and MBA is a lecturer at the University of Würzburg and has a seat on the university council of the Würzburg/Schweinfurt University of Applied Sciences. He is an author and gives lectures and seminars on motivational and career topics.