In a country without enough fast-growing companies and even fewer female entrepreneurs, Ingrid Hofmann stands out. Her Nuremberg temporary-employment agency, Hofmann Personnel Leasing, boosted sales last year to $120 million from $105 million while the workforce swelled to 4,200 from 4,000. The company, which supplies skilled workers to German auto makers and other clients, last year rose to No.33 in an annual ranking of Europe's 500 fastest-growing companies compiled by Europe's Entrepreneurs for Growth, a Brussels-based group.
Pretty impressive for someone who wanted to spend her life tending orchids. Fascinated by Africa as well as flowers, Hofmann apprenticed at a flower importer and lined up a job in South Africa in the 1970s. But unrest there persuaded her to stay home. She accepted work with a temporary agency instead, and the rest is history. "At that time, temporary work in Germany had no reputation at all. People expected to work for the same company their whole lives," says Hofmann, now 50. "The idea of flexible work struck me as something with a future." After several years working with a partner, Hofmann opened her firm in 1985.
Her plan was to run a small operation supplying highly skilled office workers. But demand exploded. When Siemens asked for help in 1987, she opened a Munich office. Growth got another boost with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Hofmann began hiring unemployed workers from the East to supply manufacturers in the West. Today, Hofmann Personnel has 53 offices in Germany and operations in Austria and Britain. Hofmann is laying the groundwork for an office in the Czech Republic.
To keep her own workers busy, Hofmann spends much of her time crisscrossing Germany in her BMW sport-utility vehicle looking for new clients, typically sleeping four hours a night. Even when she's home, Hofmann, after dinner with her 15-year-old daughter and husband, Bernd Heinrich, also an exec with the company, typically works until the wee hours and rises before 6:30 a.m.
Success is bringing Hofmann recognition. In December she became the only female member on the Federation of German Employers' governing body. She's using the position to speak out on behalf of temporary employment. "I'm not afraid to say what I think," Hofmann says. Thanks in part to that boldness, temporary work has found a permanent home in Germany.