Reports from employees
Our Business Unit Energy offers varied opportunities for career development. Working for the Salzgitter Group also gives rise to further opportunities and prospects.
Read more about the careers of current and former employees.
Bend it like Muthmann
Interview with Elke Muthmann
|"I came into contact with materials science early on and found it very interesting.” When Elke Muthmann talks about her passion for things technical, she describes a logical path of development. Under the influence of her mother, a metallographer by profession, she became acquainted with materials in her early years and, throughout her school and university education, never lost her interest in the subject. She is meanwhile in charge of our pipe-bending plant in Mülheim. Customers used to think she was the secretary, but those days have long gone.|
Ms Muthmann, are you ready for some straight talking?
I should think so. Why do you ask?
We want to find out if you’re doing the right job. After all, it’s your job to bend straight pipes.
(Laughs) That’s right, I’m constantly bending things.
And you enjoy it?
Oh yes, very much. I’d choose this job again, any time.
How “straight” has your education and career path been?
In my home town, I studied metallurgy, specializing in materials science, at RWTH Aachen University. I managed it in 13 semesters, one more than the standard course envisages. A bit more isn’t bad for extra life experience. Then I started my working career at the Mannesmann Research Institute (MFI), as it then existed, in Duisburg-Huckingen, which is now part of Salzgitter Mannesmann Forschung GmbH. This is a straight path, because there have been traditionally close ties between the MFI and the Institute of Metallurgy in Aachen. At the MFI, it was usual for graduates from Aachen to apply, and they were readily accepted. That’s how I ended up in Huckingen.
How did it come about that you studied a technical subject? Does this mean that as a child you preferred to play with steam engines rather than dolls?
It wasn’t quite that bad. Because I had an older brother, I found playing with cars a bit more interesting than dolls, say. But I also have a kind of genetic predisposition. My mother is a metallographer, which means that I came into contact with materials science at an early age and found it very interesting. In school, I had a greater liking for sciences with maths and physics as my sixth form advanced courses. It was therefore logical that I wanted to study something technical and then chose a course that’s somewhat unusual for women.
You were born in 1969 and have a huge range of responsibility. What exactly does it entail?
I’m in charge of the pipe-bending plant of Salzgitter Mannesmann Grobblech GmbH and am responsible for the plant. This covers the whole of production, maintenance, sales, technical customer advice, quality, job scheduling – in other words, everything that such a self-contained unit needs. We market our products independently or with support of the trading organization. Overall, 51 people work for the pipe bending plant, 37 with blue-collar and 14 with white-collar duties.
And what does this plant produce?
Our products are induction-bent steel pipes mainly for oil and gas pipelines and primarily for the overland variety. It’s mostly large pipes measuring 700 to 1400 mm in diameter that we bend. These include the connecting pipelines for the famous Nord Stream Baltic pipeline.
How was it that you were appointed to this position?
The classical route was then, and still often is, to move from the research institute to one of the plants and there start off in the quality department. I was appointed head of the quality department at the pipe bending plant straight off, which was a huge leap. I was initially responsible for the quality department and, a short while later, for the quality management system as well, while gradually inheriting other tasks such as job scheduling and dispatch. I was finally appointed boss of the whole pipe bending plant inclusive of sales.
What do you find so fascinating about your job?
The main thing is that I can really put what I learnt at university into practice. And very few people can say that. We have to have a thorough grounding in materials science here if we want to successfully manufacture our product. As you know, we produce a niche product that’s highly specialized and requires special expertise. I learnt a lot about this at university. What you can’t prepare yourself for so well from books – which you therefore have to acquire if you don’t have it by nature – is social skills, communication and people management. In a technical course, the commercial side and business economics are somewhat neglected. But it’s not a closed book – you can fill the gaps with the active support of the colleagues in Controlling.
You’ve made your career in a sector where female technical managerial staff are a rarity. Have you had to overcome any obstacles?
There haven’t been that many. I never had the feeling that I was appointed because of quotas that had to be fulfilled, but because I was appreciated as a person with my training and skills. I’ve found that at MGB more and more women are now moving up into technical managerial positions.
So there haven’t been any reservations among your staff about having a woman in charge?
No, not at all among our staff. Sometimes you notice that customers don’t expect to be talking to a woman. Right at the beginning, people on the phone often thought I was the secretary and asked to be put through to the boss. But that doesn’t happen much any more.
Would you describe your style of management as typically feminine?
I set a lot of store by teamwork, keeping staff informed and explaining things so that they understand what they’re doing. An authoritarian style of leadership isn’t my thing – and if that’s feminine, then so be it. I always have an open-door policy and am open to questions at all times. But I have also noticed that too much scope for unsupervised work can sometimes be pretty difficult. Some employees need clear instructions and feel more at ease when they’ve been clearly told what to do. At the same time, I prefer to first explain something and then to say: now go away and do it yourself, I’ve got confidence in you, you can do it.
How do you resolve conflicts? Do you adopt a certain strategy?
It would be awful if I didn’t. All the same, you have to take account of people’s different characters. We usually solve conflicts by talking about the issue, leaving out the emotions, and sometimes you have to break off a meeting and come back to it later. It is important to come from the often personal and emotional level to the factual level and talk about things sensibly. We do have a common goal, after all. I don’t know any employee who says he doesn’t want success in his work. We sometimes spend more time together than with our families, and this forces us to get on sensibly. As a leader, you have to be authentic and not try to operate in contrived structures and copy things that don’t suit you.
What do you expect the future to bring? Do you actively plan your career or do you leave some things to chance?
Haven’t I got a fine career already? All the same, I still have goals. But it’s not as if I want to be general manager in three years or on the executive board. That’s where I leave things to chance. And anyway, I’ve developed a soft spot for the bending plant, and it’s already become my baby to some extent. At the moment I wouldn’t find it easy to say that I’m now going to do something else.
So you’ve still got ambition.
Of course. I wouldn’t be in charge of the plant if I didn’t.
What would you advise young women who are thinking of studying after leaving school?
Our sector may have a strong male bias, but women have pretty good chances all the same. These days, women are happily taken on. They must of course have plenty of brains, just like their male counterparts. So any woman who’s interested in natural sciences shouldn’t shy away from studying engineering. I can only encourage her to do so. For what could be nicer than putting what you’ve studied into practice in your work, and that’s definitely possible at the Salzgitter Group.
Reconciling work and family life is a big topic these days. How do you manage to strike a balance?
No trouble, because I’ve got a great husband. He’s a mining engineer and has decided to be a stay-at-home dad, which he does really well. Our two daughters, four and seven years old, are just as wild about him as I am. Obviously, there is a constant conflict between fulfilling one’s daily obligations at work and spending enough time at home with the family. Harmoniously reconciling work and family life certainly is no easy task.
What does private citizen Elke Muthmann do when she comes home from work?
First of all, of course, I spend plenty of time with the family. Mum isn’t home that often as she’s either at the plant or away on business trips. Our children are still at an age where we can do lots of things together, and we take advantage of this, do lots of sport together, cycling or hiking.
Ms Muthmann, thank you for the interview