Companies who wish to succeed as suppliers in the global market need more than smart engineers, top-quality products and a desire to persuade rapidly growing markets, particularly those in the Far East, of the merits of these products. Globally successful companies such as MANN+HUMMEL also need employees with international experience, mixed nationality project teams and people who possess a fundamental understanding of other cultures.
The Industrial Filters Business Unit has made great progress in developing internationally over the past three years. Although our move into global markets was initially cautious, today we boast an impressive international presence. The MANN+HUMMEL group is represented at over 60 locations worldwide manufacturing specialised filters for off-highway vehicles such as agricultural machines, tractors, construction machines, forklift trucks, municipal vehicles, fire trucks and ships.
A typical example of our successful international development strategy is the new Service Centre for Engineering in the southern Indian city of Bangalore, which has afforded MANN+HUMMEL greater proximity to its Asian customer base. In a relatively short space of time, the Service Centre team has been successfully trained to carry out its own product development activities.
This accomplishment was never a forgone conclusion. Many European companies have failed to establish a foothold in India, in my experience very often because they have insufficiently familiarised themselves with the culture of the sub-continent. Numerous decisions that Europeans would understand and find rational would meet with consternation in Asia simply because cultural norms would render them impossible to implement there. It should be clear to anyone who becomes intimately acquainted with these cultures that, as Europeans, we could do things much better. However, do not assume that I see this in a negative sense; I see it as a real opportunity.
Language skills and openness to other cultures
It was whilst in my very first professional position that I learned that we need to be more open to other cultures and more willing to question approaches which have proven their worth in Europe. Overnight, I found myself, a young Belgian engineer, performing crisis management for a Japanese automotive supplier. My job was to establish a shared basis for the previously strained communications between a conservative, hierarchical Japanese company and a French company which fostered a culture of debate and improvisation. It was a prime example of cross-cultural management.
Adequate working language skills are another essential factor for success in the international arena, as these are necessary in order to broaden ones understanding of the relevant culture and to engage with people in day-to-day interactions. Foreigners who come to work in Germany settle into their job much more smoothly if they can speak German, ideally from the moment they arrive. It makes it easier for them to enjoy a satisfying social and professional life. It follows, therefore, that a Dutch-speaking engineer should immerse himself in the French language in Paris, communicate with his colleagues in Japan in a mixture of English and Japanese and acquire a working knowledge of Mandarin while constructing production facilities in China.
The culture, language and local structures, these were the challenges I was faced with when I was appointed Vice President Engineering three years ago. We could already rely on outstanding German engineering and an excellent team spirit and this constituted ideal platform from which to transfer our success in the field of industrial filtration to other continents.
Persuasion in the “International Engineering”
We started with a small, recently formed project group called International Engineering, whose team members already had well-rounded international perspective thanks to their activities in other parts of the world, such as China and the US. This was a vital prerequisite for addressing the new tasks assigned to the team: communicating with the various regions around the world, performing on-site engineering checks, organising knowledge transfers, solving capacity constraints and monitoring budgets. This afforded us with a clear overview of the status of the business and of our options, as well as indicating where we need to invest more in HR and support or training, in order to boost our competitiveness. The approach has allowed us to make significant improvements to both the quality and the quantity of the work we conduct on an international basis.
Internationalisation wasn’t an “easy sell” in Germany, with much initial scepticism over the ability of our Asian locations to deliver technical solutions. But any country which is able to send a rocket to the moon also has the potential to develop sophisticated filtration solutions. We were able to cite many positive examples to demonstrate this, albeit that the solutions were reached via different routes to those taken elsewhere. Eventually, through a combination of measures including expert dialogues, on-site service and a great deal of persuasion, we succeeded in changing perceptions in our favour. We have now reached a point where routine tasks are delegated to our Indian Service Centre, which is increasingly able to operate as an independent entity, allowing us to focus our efforts on other matters. This is an important milestone for us.
A great opportunity rather than a concern
Our employees in Germany are also particularly concerned about job security whenever tasks are transferred to Asia. I believe these fears to be entirely unwarranted in a company which cares as much about its employees as MANN+HUMMEL. An autonomous and foreign-based Engineering Centre in fact provides us with an enormous opportunity: it means that many routine tasks can be outsourced and we can concentrate all our energies on the highly innovative topics that often fall victim to time pressures.
Germany’s real strength is that it is one of the most innovative countries in the world, but it is a strength that it often does not make full use of. MANN+HUMMEL has set itself the task of harnessing the full potential of this vast innovative strength and also German thoroughness which is admired around the world. However, we will only succeed in this task if we delegate certain tasks and dedicate ourselves to innovation. India is our opportunity to become more innovative.
Openness to internationalization and innovation
Over the past three years, we have trebled our industrial innovation budget. The latest statistics from the German Patent and Trademark Office are evidence that our approach is the right one. The MANN+HUMMEL Group has advanced to 25th place in the list for the most patent applications, behind big names such as Audi, Bosch and Daimler. MANN+HUMMEL products may not be the cheapest on the market, but they win customers over with their high quality and highly innovative solutions.
I am confident that our international success story is only just beginning. We must be much more open to other cultures but without abandoning our tried-and-tested approaches. We must listen to our counterparts more carefully in order to understand them. This would greatly benefit us all. It does us no harm to put our European prejudices to one side and see things from a different point of view. Every culture has its strengths, but we must work together to find a middle way if we are to tap their full potential.