„We will have a smooth transition!“
Since the beginning of July, W. MÜLLER USA, Inc., has a new general manager. The new man at the helm is Jens Schlueter – who knows a thing or two about the USA after having held several jobs there. We spoke to him about his experiences in the land of opportunity and his plans for the future.
In Germany, if someone gives you a business card with "General Manager" printed on it, one would normally expect them to be wearing a business suit. Jens Schlueter is refreshingly different: casual shirt, comfortable trousers. Understatement? No, rather lived culture. Of course, Schlueter could and can also do suits. But after speaking to him for a while, one soon realizes that rolled up shirt sleeves are more his style than wearing a tie and talking posh: the new General Manager of W. MÜLLER USA, Inc., looks just like how we in Europe imagine an American to be.
It is certainly safe to say that W. MÜLLER USA is one of the largest customers of the blow moulding experts in Troisdorf: for years, the Americans have been at the top of the sales statistics in Germany. Little wonder: the seven US employees who operate from Massachusetts not only serve the USA as such, but no less than the whole of the American continent. From Canada to Chile: W. MÜLLER heads and extruders for more throughput, higher quality, increased competitiveness.
To be a cultural bridge
What awaits Jens Schlueter, who is replacing Wolfgang Meyer, the previous General Manager of W. MÜLLER in the USA, is far more than just the job of a warehouseman, purchasing W. MÜLLER machines in Germany and passing them on to interested customers in the States. "I want to be a cultural bridge!," emphasises the "new manager" repeatedly in an interview on the occasion of a visit to Germany at the end of May.
Who is Jens Schlueter? To begin with: Someone who knows what they are doing. He was born in Königswinter near Bonn, almost within earshot of a number of established German mechanical engineering companies – the current headquarters of W. MÜLLER GmbH is also only a "screwdriver's" throw away. Little wonder therefore that Schlüter – written at the time with the German umlaut "ü" in his name – decides to take up a career in this industry: With a toolmaker and mechanical engineering apprenticeship, he lays the solid foundation he needs in order to be successful later in this industry.
The first years of his working life prepared him for his new job in the USA: in 1995, after working for a German toolmaker for two and a half years, he joins the technical sales and distribution organisation of a Swedish company specializing in industrial filter systems. Within a short time, he worked his way up to Sales Director; at the turn of the millennium, he was appointed Managing Director of the German subsidiary. At that time, he travelled nearly every year to the USA, where his employer had established a large dealer network over the years. "I have developed a high affinity for this country," says Jens Schlueter today about the beginnings of his love for the USA.
And it continues and is going well: in 2006, he relocated to the Swedish head office of the company and took over export sales. And he managed to achieve what others dream of on good days: to increase sales by around 25% in just twelve months. The trick: Schlueter does not let things simply take their course, he goes out of his way to find new customers. "Up until then, we always presented our products only at large trade fairs“, he says today. "These trade fairs were only visited by the company proprietors“. There must be more to it than this, he thought, and began to turn the concept upside down: He sent his experts to where their input was required: to the customers. "We were then able to speak directly to the responsible employees."
Seeking talks with customers
Nonetheless, what happened in the same year was unbelievable: The company was sold to interested parties in Holland. And Schlueter, the innovator and manager not only remained on board, he took over the management of the German subsidiary of the new proprietor once again. Whereas company sales continued to fall overall, profits in the division under Schlueter's control increased – thanks to the successful formula "1:1 customer support": Schlueter achieved the best result within the group.
In 2012, the company was split up into three business units. Schlueter, in the meantime an established problem solver, was noticed by certain people and was put in charge of one of the business units. At the same time, he was given a top position at the German subsidiary.
And this did not only mean success and fun, but also: double burden, pressure, a great deal of work, above all however: a life on two continents. Every month, Schlueter spends 14 days in Europa and 14 days in Cranbury, New Jersey, USA. And, he also spends a great deal of time flying instead of being with customers. "It was very stressful, but I also learnt a great deal," says Schlueter today about that time.
The USA becomes the main place of residence
But the next career move is already waiting: by chance in the airport departure lounge on one of his 14-day trips, Schlueter meets a supplier who mentions the idea of opening his own subsidiary in the USA. Schlueter sees this as an opportunity: he moves with his wife and all his belongings from New Jersey, where they previously lived, to Indiana. They already had the all-important green card since 2013. At last, getting down to brass tacks.
After all those years in the States, one can describe the man as "almost American". It is not by chance that he immortalized his love for the USA in his surname and, since Americans are not familiar with German characters, unceremoniously replaced the "ü" on his business cards with "ue", which prompted fewer questions. Until having an accident, he loved riding his 1600 cc Harley over the highways in his spare time. And at sometime or another he discovered American football: Schlueter's favourite is the team at the University of the same name in Notre Dame, Indiana, which regularly attracts 80,000 fans to the stadium.
From Grand Canyon to industrial trade fair
One of the best experiences in his new home was a friendly match against Schalke in Philadelphia in 2012. Other jewels in the treasure box of memories: the birthday concert of no other than Bruce Springsteen in New Jersey. Schlueter and his wife also visited other US highlights, including the Grand Canyon. Ten minutes of profound amazement on the observation terrace were definitely not enough: Going down into the Grand Canyon was obviously something not to be missed – despite the three-day visit to the trade fair the next day. The question that arises is which was more strenuous: Walking in sweltering heat or standing around at the information desk with blistered feet the next day.
"One cannot educate the market!"
Mr Schlueter, is it true that you dined with the then Vice President of America?
Jens Schlueter: Yes, it is true. At the time, Mike Pence was still Governor of Indiana, the federal state in which my previous employer wanted to open a subsidiary. Pence was in Germany and took the opportunity to visit our head office in Gelsenkirchen. It was a great experience, with all the bodyguards … at the time, he gave me a tie as a present.
What do you like about Americans?
Schlueter: That's easy: Americans always think positive! In the States, people don't get depressed when summer comes to an end: instead, they look forward to Thanksgiving, Halloween and Christmas. At work, people start wishing each other "Merry Christmas" already from the 2nd of December. There is always something to look forward to!
Most Americans are also patient: they say, everything happens for a reason. If, after a hurricane, there is no power for a few days, one manages and welcomes the repair crew with coffee and cake. Most Germans would already have been up in arms. In the USA, people do not complain, but prefer to stick together! This solidarity is also reflected in customer relationships: building long-term relationships are very important. The be all and end all is: always call in on customers from time to time. Christian Müller is frequently in the States, this goes down well, although W. MÜLLER USA is not W. MÜLLER GmbH, but an American company that also pays taxes and creates jobs. But, Christian Müller, like his father, is a great innovator, whose products help our customers across the continent to remain internationally competitive.
The Americans are also unbelievably good at perfecting things once they have been adopted. Take recycling, for example, which is becoming more and more important. This is where I see a golden opportunity for W. MÜLLER: the three-layer technology fits perfectly in the recycling concept! California is not only one of the largest national economies in the world, it is also way ahead environmentally. The former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is not the only one who sees a connection.
Does this mentality also have drawbacks?
Schlueter: One has to be clear about the cultural differences. Every country, every market has its own attributes. These fine shades of grey in personal relationships, which many newcomers perhaps do not understand, can quickly influence the atmosphere – and then one wonders why no progress is made. And, of course, the American market places completely different demands on the products.
In what way?
Schlueter: Americans often attach importance to things that Germans don't. In Germany, one could not sell cars with spot welded joints on door hinges, for example, even though they are not visible when driving. This doesn't matter to Americans. On the other hand, cars without coffee cup holders are difficult to sell in the States.
In addition, there is perhaps sometimes more scepticism towards new things. German engineers rely heavily on their technology. To start with, in America, this is only a new machine, which has to show what it can do. Up until then, they have to be treated with caution. This is something one has to adapt to. One cannot educate a market.
What are your plans for the coming years?
Schlueter: I would like to modernize our marketing. I would like to find new ways to win customers. Of course, not abruptly, but calmly. In my opinion, we are still too passive in this area. I believe that we must move away from the idea that the most important customers already know us.
I would also like to launch new technologies onto the market. An important catchword is foaming. And I would like to expand business in South America. And I would like to make our business more transparent.
How do you propose to achieve this in detail?
Schlueter: Via the social networks, for example. One must use networks, write reports, engage in groups, perhaps open a YouTube channel. WhatsApp is also ideal for exchanging information. Although all this can no longer be documented in detail, it is more extensive than 20 years ago when our telephones still had dials. I am quite sure that in ten years time we will no longer be the e-mail slaves we are today.
Is there something you like in particular at W. MÜLLER USA?
Schlueter: Yes. They take care of their employees. I had an accident with my Harley before starting work. A few days later, there was a gift hamper at the front door. I found this really moving.