German Synthetic Fiber Producer Seeking to Set Up Toothbrush Manufacturing Facilities in Thailand – not the normal thing you read in the Wanted ads, but the offer caught the eye of Anja Reimann just after completion of her bachelor’s degree in Amsterdam. The headline was linked to a job advertisement placed by SCMT GmbH for Hahl-Pedex as part of their executive master’s program for MBEs at the School of Management and Technology (part of Steinbeis University Berlin). The 27-year-old graduate is now gathering her first management experience as the Representative Director and CEO of BBC Hahl-Pedex Filament Ltd., a Hahl Pedex Co. joint venture in Asia.
The Steinbeis Center of Management and Technology (SCMT) calls itself the first “project establishment” in the Steinbeis Network. Its focus lies in delivering consulting projects of a national or international scope, typically looking at issues of a business, scientific, of even technical nature. To date, over 3,500 successful consulting projects have been carried out through the SCMT, which looks back on many years of in-depth experience, primarily in the fields of management and technology. The project establishment’s portfolio is rounded off by degree programs offered by its own business school, the School of Management and Technology (SMT), which works under the auspices of Steinbeis University Berlin (SHB). These degrees are based on the “project skills degree” concept developed by SHB. Each degree revolves around a project with a direct bearing on business practice at a partner company. As well as working on the consulting project for Hahl-Pedex, Anja Reimann is currently completing her Master of Business Engineering at SMT.
Once competitors in the production of synthetic filaments, Hahl and Pedex merged in 2007 to become Hahl-Pedex. The Pedex part of the new company now specializes in dental, cosmetic, and 3D printing products whereas Hahl focuses on producing synthetic filaments used in technical textiles and abrasive filaments needed by the tool industry. The company recently joined forces with the PerlonNextrusion Group and now falls under the umbrella of the Serafin Group, the largest filament producer in the world. As the company has grown, international expansion has become more and more important.
Anja Reimann’s starting point for the project was thus to immediately start drafting a business plan for a joint venture already being lined up with a company in Thailand. Negotiations had reached an advanced stage with the potential business partners but shortly after Reimann joined the project team, everything ground to a halt. A search for a new Asian partner had to be started, resulting in negotiations with a Korean brush producer called Best Bristle Company (BBC). This fired the starting gun for Reimann’s project in Asia. While negotiations were underway with the new potential partner (BBC), Reimann also worked on the theoretical parts of her degree at SMT, which ran in parallel to the project. This gave her detailed insights into the company in areas such as production, machine maintenance, and sales. Central to this part of the project was also an introduction to the technical features of the filament production machines, primarily thanks to the support of the engineering manager Vitali Hanikel.
As negotiations with the Korean partner went into more detail around the middle of 2014, Reimann travelled more and more frequently to Korea. At this point, experience with the cultural differences in business came in handy for the junior consultant. After just one year, the negotiations were completed and the project moved into the local implementation phase. For Reimann, this meant it was time to wave goodbye to a relatively tranquil life in Germany. In January 2015, she embarked on a new life in Seoul – alongside 10 million other people. For Reimann, everyday challenges such as finding an apartment, opening a bank account, getting telephones connected, and most importantly learning a new language, seemed not to present any problems and business issues were also dealt with quickly.
After a short delay of only two months, it was time to start commissioning the machines, which had now arrived from Germany. Three of Reimann’s Hahl-Pedex colleagues flew out to Korea from Germany to train local colleagues and help them set up the machines. Reimann also joined in practical aspects of the project. It turned out that there were not yet any training materials in English and a training plan had to be drafted quickly. The first machine entered production in 2015 and then things really became intense. Significant cultural differences soon emerged, mainly relating to the different work mentalities of the Germans and the Koreans: “The Germans think first and then act, the Koreans work the other way around. Neither approach is necessarily better or worse, but the problem is that this underlies basic expectations,” explains Reimann. The plan of Hahl-Pedex was to do a test run for one month in order to embark on regular production afterwards. The BBC plan was to test for half a year and if any problems still arose these could still be solved in regular production.
Everyone was aware of the different approaches to intercultural collaboration, but the question was whether there was enough middle ground to provide a good enough starting point to solve the problem. One thing Anja Reimann is now certain of is that it is crucial for colleagues to exchange ideas regularly, not only to find areas of overlap but also to gain acceptance of the different work philosophies of two such different cultures. Hahl-Pedex and BBC are both keen to make things work.
Personal relationships also play an important role in business in Korea. It is rare for people to capture contracts and other agreements on paper. Instead, many things are based on jeong: a relationship and sense of connectedness, or in plain terms trust in business partners, family members, or friends. Relationships on a purely business level often do not work in Korea and the rest of Asia. It is also important to establish a personal rapport with people and without trust in a business partner, it is impossible for a business to grow.
Reimann’s work still involves working more closely on these cultural differences. It is not always easy to adapt to local differences but it will be absolutely necessary if Hahl-Pedex wants to keep expanding in Asia. One thing the SCMT consultant has come to recognize over the last two years is that her project is moving things in the right direction. The German and Asian co-workers at the company now talk to each other regularly and a number of close friendships have developed. This is why Reimann once again emphasizes that, “Internationalization should not just be seen as a pure business concept – it’s always about colleagues from different cultures growing together through their work.”