The unknown world market leaders


"Hidden Champions" is an original theory and concept that relates specifically and exclusively to small and medium-sized companies (SME) and encourages them to implement a strategy that combines the claim of market leadership with focus and globalization. The term "Hidden Champions" was first introduced as a research construct in 1990 in a study by Hermann Simon, It was first published in Zeitschrift für Betriebswirtschaft. Simon defined the criteria for classifying a company as a hidden champion as follows:

Market leader

Hidden champions rank among the top three in their industry globally or are leaders on their home continent.

Market niche

The company operates in an often narrowly defined market segment.

Annual sales

Annual sales of 5 billion Euros are usually not permanently exceeded.


The company is known its industry, but hardly in public.

Other characteristics that make up hidden champions:

– Generally not listed on the stock exchange, but owner-managed

– Market leader in narrow niche markets (focus)

– High specialization and significantly high customer proximity

– Often little or no external financing

– High level of vertical integration (thus control of high quality and performance)

– Innovations / patents

– Hidden champions do not strive for large market shares in mass markets, but pursue a niche and price-premium strategy.

niche and price-premium strategy (resulting in successful and sustainable growth)

– HC are generally not industry leaders.

Hidden champions form an elite among companies. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in particular can learn a lot, as many markets are local or regional, in which they can strive to become number one. However, large companies can also learn a lot from the hidden champions when it comes to managing their business units.

The hidden champions are focused on their technologies and markets. Only focus leads to world class. Through depth, they create unique products that make them better than everyone else. And that is what they concentrate on.

A brief history of the Hidden Champions theory

From their emergence in the 1980s - until today...

Focus on medium-sized, little-known companies: In the 1980s, a group of successful German companies were identified that were global leaders in their niche markets.

The book “Hidden Champions – Aufbruch nach Globalia“, published in 1996, presented the corresponding research results and the success factors of these companies.

Recognition by the business world: The concept quickly gained in importance and was positively received by companies, politicians and academics.

Further development of the theory: Over the years, the concepts of hidden champions have been further refined and adapted in order to do justice to the changing global markets.

International dissemination: The idea of hidden champions also found favor outside Germany and was applied to other countries and regions.

Influence on economic policy: The findings of hidden champions have been and are still being used by governments and organizations to develop strategies to promote SMEs.

Hidden champions are a key driver of Germany’s export strength.

Of more than 4,000 hidden champions worldwide, around 1,700 are based in Germany. The three German-speaking countries of Germany, Austria and Switzerland account for around 55 percent of the world’s hidden champions.

Many of their products are “inconspicuous”, i.e. they are used in the service creation process or are incorporated into other end products. Some hidden champions deliberately want to remain unknown.

They secure prosperity and jobs in the country and generate a large part of the export power.

Hidden champions worldwide <=> Germany

Hidden champions are primarily a phenomenon in German-speaking countries. Only in Germany, Austria and Switzerland do these medium-sized, globally active market leaders exist in large numbers.

The urge to internationalize/globalize is in the blood of German-speaking entrepreneurs and lives on to this day. They start internationalizing earlier than entrepreneurs in other countries. This enables them to benefit from global growth trends and strengthen their market position.

Germany has a long tradition of SMEs, with many family-run companies that have often been successful for generations. These companies often have a stable foundation and a high degree of continuity in management, which contributes to the development of hidden champions.

German products and services are often associated with high quality, precision and reliability. This reputation contributes to the fact that German hidden champions are valued worldwide and can hold their own in their niche markets.

Germany is also known for its technological expertise and engineering skills.