Matthias Meier takes over management of Müller DrumTec
Mister Furtwängler (TF), you have been the Managing Director of Müller DrumTec in Rheinfelden until the end of 2021. How long did you head the company?
TF: I joined Müller in Rheinfelden in 1990 as a sales coordinator and became a member of the executive board in 1998. Four years later, I became Managing Director. I held this function until the end of 2021.
Müller DrumTec offers a high-quality range of storage, transport and process containers out of stainless steel. In your communication, you describe your company as a “hidden champion” at the Swiss border. What does this mean?
TF: We actually meet the typical criteria of a hidden champion. We are a global market leader in the area of stainless steel drums and modular system components, but we are little known by the public. This is true also here in Rheinfelden. So, you may happen to ask someone in Rheinfelden where the Müller DrumTec Company is, and nobody will know. Thus “hidden” in the truest sense. In this respect, the thrilling thing is that the Müller drum is known worldwide as the standard drum in the pharmaceutical industry. Müller DrumTec is a typical SME and a family-run company not listed on the stock market, and therefore has exactly the profile of a hidden champion.
A generation change in the truest sense has taken place on January 1st, 2022: Matthias Meier (MM), you are 35 years old and you take over the responsibility for Müller DrumTec. What enables you to lead the 110 employees in Rheinfelden?
MM: I would like to mention several things. First of all, I have been knowing Müller DrumTec for 10 years, and I held various positions during that period. From the technique in the design department, through sales activities and key account management up to the sales management, I eventually joined the management level and now, since the beginning of January, I became the Managing Director. So I know very well the company and its people, its activities and challenges, its processes and interfaces. Secondly, I attended during the two last years Executive MBA studies in the Business Engineering area at the St Gall university. This allowed me to deepen my skills in business management – but above all I learned how to drive successfully a company and its employees through changes and transformations. Thirdly, I feel a strong backing. From the staff, from the management, from the Supervisory Board and from the Board of Directors of the Swiss Müller Group, which Müller DrumTec belongs to. I very strongly feel this trust. This lets me face my new task with confidence.
Generation change at the hidden champion: Matthias Meier (left) takes over the helm from Müller DrumTec helmsman Thomas Furtwängler.
Politicians often take stock of the situation 100 days after the start. This could be the case too for a new Managing Director. Did you plan something special for the first 3 months and 10 days?
MM: I deliberately have no 100-days plan and I must say that I have an advantage for my new position with respect to the starting or initial phase. Last year was a common transition year for us. I planned and prepared many things already during this last year. So we will be able to initiate many new things in the first 100 days. For example, communicate the new corporate strategy developed in 2021 and start its implementation. Another project that will be very far reaching is the reorganization of our production structure in line with the lean concept. The preparations of the last weeks have been completed, so that the production will be modified according to the new design during the first half of 2022.
Mister Furtwängler, when you look back, which three successes do you remember?
TF: All three main successes relate to the production. This is due to the fact that we are manufacturers who have to meet the market and customer requirements and who face new challenges every day. First point: the transition from a pure drum manufacturer to a drum system supplier. Second point: the development of a flexible and modular housing system, also for customers not belonging to the pharmaceutical industry. Third point: the broadening of our manufacturing expertise for rectangular containers, which are demanded especially by the apparatus construction branch. These three successes enable Müller DrumTec to satisfy all customer requirements relating to drums.
Have there been also painful setbacks?
TF: A company that is continuously evolving naturally also experiences setbacks. Also because one wants to try new things – and because not all new things prove their worth. We, here in Rheinfelden, are convinced that only those who do not act make no mistakes. And that standing still means regression.
The integration of the Handling branch in Müller DrumTec has been a difficult issue. Over time, it appeared that this slowed down the further development of the Containers branch. We reacted in 2020 and a major reorganization allowed us to restructure the companies and their portfolios. Since then, at Müller DrumTec, we can again totally concentrate on our core competency. What was painful in this reorganization, and difficult for me, was the fact that we had to take leave of a part of the employees.
Job reduction is of course always a great burden for everyone involved. But such decisions are sometimes necessary for the company as a whole and with a view to the future.
Mister Meier, what is the significance of the employees for you?
MM: The employees are naturally extremely important to me. I especially appreciate the very familiar company structure that developed over decades in Rheinfelden. My personal ambition is to lead all our employees into a future that will surely be characterized by changes. Changes due to the market. Changes that we will initiate ourselves, to improve continuously. The consideration for every single employee is more important here as ever. Therefore, it is my concern to consider every employee individually and to determine his development possibilities. For this purpose, we will start actions for systematic employee development in order to develop every employee individually and according to his strengths, taking into account both his professional potential and his personal motivations. Basically, the goal is to motivate the employees in the best possible manner to allow them producing their best performance, and to produce it willingly. And, of course, all this for the corporate goals.
Not all employees can handle changes equally well. The topic is the resilience. How do you achieve that your employees support the changes?
MM: I believe that the key is communicating in a trustworthy way that changes are good – and that everyone who wants to participate in a change can finally find himself somewhere in a better or at least as good condition as previously. People generally prefer the preservation of vested rights, that is to say: maintain everything as it is. But this can be countered with a new mindset, a new way of thinking, and old thinking patterns can be abandoned. This does not only bring Müller DrumTec forward, but every employee who accepts the new.
Successful change processes require a basis of trust. This is clear to me: changes cannot be forced, even with pressure. In this case, the changes would not be lived, and they would fail.
TF: With respect to changes, it is important to involve the employees at an early stage, to give them the opportunity to participate and to contribute to the change. This creates confidence. This has already shown positive results in the projects initiated by Matthias Müller. The employees feel: “we are also on board”.
Müller DrumTec GmbH is an industrial enterprise located for 60 years in Rheinfelden, between the Cesar-Stünzi-Straße and the Industrieweg, close to the railway tracks and to the Rhine.
110 employees of different age segments are working at Müller DrumTec. Mister Meier, how do you imagine the togetherness across the generational borders, i. e. the good collaboration of old and young people?
MM: Here in Rheinfelden, older and younger employees always treated each other collegially, openly and respectfully, and worked well together. We noticed in the last years, mainly when older employees retired, that we had optimization potential with regard to knowledge transfer. Older employees have a huge wealth of knowledge. And if we do not pay more attention to keep this knowledge in the company, it will simply vanish. In the meantime we initiated formats used to transfer knowledge in a targeted way within the company. We have observed that employees discuss differently together in open workshop formats, they open up more than in conventional meetings and they transmit their knowledge in a lively and detailed way. The best knowledge transfer takes place in personal, informal discussions. This led us to consider allowing more handover time if necessary when taking over a job, to provide for more space for this informal exchange.
TF: Since I now also belong to the knowledge holders that will leave soon, I want to leave you with another thought. The burning question for the knowledge holders is: what do I do with my knowledge? If it the person has technical knowledge, the answer is obvious: the Product Management set up in the last years will be the right address. This is where the knowledge will be processed in a targeted and consistent manner. This way, knowledge can be made available systematically to all employees.
Mister Meier, in the near future, the Generation Z (born between 1997 and 2012) will conquer the job market. A generation that attaches more than ever before particular importance to the separation of professional and private life and is no longer ready to work massively overtime for an uncertain future. How does Müller DrumTec adapt itself to these young people?
MM: Müller DrumTec is a family SME, that is to say that the employees all know each other, everybody can participate individually, all are directly accessible, our daily work is characterized by open doors and short paths, all pull together in the same direction and are focused on our customers. This environment offers many possibilities of meaningful activities, which will surely suit the Generation Z: at Müller DrumTec, young people can realize themselves, reflect their ideas in the teams and find their own way to contribute to the corporate goals.
In addition, we at Müller DrumTec, as a producing industrial enterprise, still have much to do in terms of digitization. Here too, an interesting area of activity opens for the well networked, digitally-grown Generation Z, offering them exciting and meaningful tasks.
Mister Furtwängler, let us come back to the hidden champion. How did Müller DrumTec manage until now to respond to the Asian and Southern European competitors, knowing that these can produce at much lower prices?
TF: Our products meet the highest quality requirements. We provide customers, e. g. from the pharmaceutical industry, with safe production processes and thus increase the safety of both the operating personnel and the environment. Our customers are aware of the fact that quality has its price. As long as our customers demand this high quality and we repeatedly manage to improve our efficiency in all sectors, we will remain leaders on our markets. What is concerning me is the evolution of the personnel costs in Germany. They increase day after day and we will not be able to offset endlessly these additional costs with efficiency. The trade unions, the employers’ associations and the politicians must do something so that we remain competitive.
Did Müller DrumTec already consider to outsource parts of its production to foreign countries with lower production costs?
TF: As an entrepreneur, you basically have to make such considerations within the framework of possible scenarios for the future. One of the main tasks of the corporate management is to look far ahead, think in horizons and assess possible developments. However, today, we see no need for this.
Mister Meier, you recently took in charge the management of Müller DrumTec. How satisfied are you with the legacy of Thomas Furtwängler, which you will now lead into the future?
MM: I am very satisfied. As I mentioned earlier, we have taken the whole last year for the handover process. I thus know the present condition of the company very well, and I fear nothing unexpected (laughs). In my opinion, Müller DrumTec is a great company with a promising future – here, at the Rheinfelden location.
Apropos Rheinfelden. Müller DrumTec has been established here for 61 years. What is the importance of this location to you?
MM: For me personally, the Rheinfelden site is very important. On the one hand for its long history. We are deeply rooted here, our employees live in the region, I personally come from a village close to Rheinfelden. On the other hand because of its ideal location. Müller DrumTec is a few steps from the town, which also makes everyday organization easy for the employees. We also appreciate the excellent access by the public transport.
TF: I totally agree. I want in particular to mention the good contacts with the municipality, the short paths, the goal-oriented counsels which always allowed us implementing in particular construction projects in a quick and unbureaucratic manner.
Mister Furtwängler. You will retire in March 2023. Until then, you will be able to devote yourself to your passion –technique. Without being distracted by management tasks. What would you like to work on?
TF: Besides the continuous knowledge transfer we already talked about and the many ongoing projects we started during the transition year, I will focus on the further development and the redesign of our drum emptying system, which is used all over the world. I am looking forward to the test series and the determination of the new performance data. Our drum emptying system has written a success story. I would with all my heart and soul like to lead our present solution into the future, making the next step. This is a tremendous motivation for me.
Mister Meier, your predecessor’s heart beats for the technique. Where can we “locate” you? Are you rather a technician, a salesman, an accountant or the voice of Müller DrumTec?
MM: In fact, I play each of these roles several times a day. But, deep inside, I am a passionate technician – because of my training, my professional experience, my interest in technical connections. But, in the meantime, exactly this diversity of tasks and the change of roles it implies totally satisfies – and challenges – me, and it greatly rewards me at the end of the day.
TF: Thus, Matthias Meier perfectly matches the requirement profile. Focusing purely on the technique is not sufficient. Focusing purely on figures would not be sufficient. Focusing purely on sales would not be sufficient. Matthias has the gift to combine all this by wearing the proper hat according to the situation. And this is very valuable for the future of Müller DrumTec. Because the challenges remain great and require a 360-degree overview of the company and its functions.
The chemistry between the predecessor and the successor is right – and this can be seen also in their interest for beautiful mechanical watches.
Mister Furtwängler, you were always in a good mood and happy in the factory. How did you manage to keep this positive aura despite your responsible and demanding position and your packed diary?
TF: First of all, many thanks that this is the way people used to see me. I am naturally very glad of this feedback. I must say honestly that it has not always been easy to convey a positive state of mind. But it was always important to me that the employees had confidence in me when they saw me walking in the factory. I did not want them to be demotivated by a manager looking concerned and contrite. I wanted to set a good example to counter this. The inside was then not quite the same as the outside. When you have an executive position, the normal everyday working life sometimes can include difficult phases. You must then endure them on your own. There is no advantage to share them with the employees and to make them insecure.
Mister Meier, which qualities did you appreciate in your predecessor?
MM: Thomas Furtwängler has an open ear for everybody and for every issue, any time. I know nobody else that would be so open, neither professionally nor privately. This is an exceptional quality of Thomas, which I really appreciate. Looking back at the transition year, the deep relationship of trust I have with Thomas, which arose during countless open discussions, party also behind closed doors, makes me humble. His way of being made the handover interesting, instructive, but also pleasant, and I want to thank him warmly for this.
Mister Meier, is there something special you would like to “take over” from Thomas Furtwängler?
MM: Basically, we cannot take over thinking and behavior patterns from other persons, even if they are positive or excellent. And this surely would not be good, as the matter is finally to remain authentic and make our own way. But this question reminds me a soft spot of Thomas Furtwängler that I also have come to like. Beautiful mechanical watches as the symbol of highest technical artistry now really appeal to me (both laugh). Of course, not in Thomas’ extent, but my collection is growing.
The conclusion is yours, Mister Furtwängler. What would be the good advice you would like to give Matthias Meier for the future?
TF: I will be pleased to. It is not an advice for your business life, but a personal one, for you personally. Matthias, never let anybody deform you as a human being and keep the courage to change.
Mister Furtwängler, Mister Meier, many thanks for this interview, the insights in your company and your open-mindedness in answering our questions.
The interview will be published in shortened form in a special edition "Unternehmen im Blick" on Friday, January 14, 2022, in the Badische Zeitung and on Sunday, January 16, 2022, in the newspaper "Der Sonntag".