A Bavarian in New York

For three and a half years, Christian Liebl has been an expatriate living far away from home. The born-and-bred Bavarian, who holds a degree in industrial engineering, is now head of MediPharm’s Product Management at our Blauvelt subsidiary.
From the perspective of an editor of the Schreiner Group blog, my first impression of the challenges posed by intercontinental coordination was that it can be quite difficult to schedule a telephone conversation. It took four times to come together on the phone, but the effort proved to be worth it. Not only did our new expert for the US, Christian Liebl, inform us comprehensively about cultural opposites and specifics. He also explained to us in detail why the differences between Germans and Americans remind him of the story about The Three Little Pigs.

How did it come to your position as an expat in the US?
Gene Dul (General Manager of the Blauvelt subsidiary, editor’s note) approached me in the fall of 2010. Initially founded as a production plant in 2008, Blauvelt has become ever more important as a supplier of specialized solutions. I was asked to contribute my engineering skills and help provide our customers with the technical consulting they expect from Schreiner Group. I realized very quickly that I wanted to rise to the challenge. On March 31, 2011, my “one-way-ticket” took me to the new world.

How did your job profile look at the beginning and what developments has it undergone in the last three years?
At first I was asked to implement some kind of a product and process management “outpost” patterned after what we have in Oberschleissheim. As Blauvelt has just 10% the size of our headquarters, people here are all more or less generalists. My duties therefore also include troubleshooting and customer consulting.

How do you manage collaboration between Blauvelt and Oberschleissheim across six time zones?
The time difference is certainly an obstacle. In addition, there are the requirements of the pharmaceuticals sector we have to deal with here. In this industry it is essential to react flexibly and quickly. You never know exactly what’s at stake when the machines in a pharmaceuticals company stand still. It has happened quite a few times that I had to get up at 3 a.m. to catch my flight to Colorado where an acute problem had occurred. Luckily, I can fully rely on my coworkers in Germany. We depend on one another. It is part of the game that sometimes sleep must wait a little or that our machines also keep running on public holidays such as Thanksgiving. That is what we understand by customer proximity.

Are there differences between competitors in Germany and those in the US?
In the US, respect and mutual appreciation are paramount. “If you don’t appreciate my business, you’re dead for me,” is what the Americans say. This applies from simple credit card payments in the shop around the corner all the way up to suppliers of pharmaceutical companies, where you are rather dealing with manufacturers of cheap mass products instead of specialists with a widespread service portfolio such as Schreiner Group. In this area, we team up with the sales representatives and go from scratch. We are here to solve problems, not to create new ones. One thing is certain: The higher price for better quality always pays off. Our customers realize this as well. Usually, customer’s dispensers that apply Schreiner labels are the most efficient ones and have the least down times. We must give the very price-conscious Americans convincing arguments in favor of products which seem to be expensive by comparison.

How long do you travel from New York City to Blauvelt?
I drive about 45 minutes every day, sometimes longer when traffic is heavy. However, I gladly accept this. After all, having an apartment in Manhattan was one of the main reasons for me to come here. I love living in “the greatest city in the world.” There is always something going on here; you can run your errands all through the night. New York really is the “city that never sleeps.” Actually, it is just the streetlights that make the difference between night and day.

Was it difficult for you to adapt to the new culture?
Germans and Americans may look alike but are quite different in their thinking and acting. For instance, Americans plan on a short-time basis and do not lose time structuring their tasks down to the last detail. On the other hand, they tackle their tasks dynamically, have no doubts about what they do and are not ashamed of errors that might occur along the way. Germans are more hesitant and tend to precisely plan everything.
This reminds me of the fable of The Three Little Pigs. While the American has already built his house and is enjoying BBQ with his friends, the German is still waiting for his application form at the building authority office. However, when the big bad wolf comes after the German has finished his building project just in the nick of time, he has an advantage over the American. The American’s house will not withstand all of the wolf’s attacks due to the fact that, as usual, the American was satisfied with a trial-and-error ratio of 80/20. The American’s reaction? “That is more than I can get in Vegas!” ‒ and he immediately rebuilds his house. What I want to say is that we are facing the challenge of finding the happy medium of both work strategies.

How about the interaction with the American coworkers and the atmosphere in Blauvelt?
We are all on excellent terms. Usually, US companies do not care about things such as loyalty towards their employees or social conscience. There is no right to employment ‒ it is a privilege. “Hire and fire” are common practice in the US. But nobody gets fired in Blauvelt. You can feel that our American coworkers consider their safe jobs an unfamiliar luxury which they certainly treasure.
In addition we have relatively high ecological standards at our premises. For instance, as in Germany, we exclusively use “real” cups, plates, glasses and cutlery instead of disposable styrofoam or plastic plates and cutlery, which are usually standard at work and public places in the US.

Would you recommend that your German coworkers make the transatlantic leap?
You need to be able to deal with the relaxed mentality. This might be easy for Bavarians. You should not expect everything to work out immediately with German precision and thoroughness.
Outside of work I enjoy spending time with my expatriate colleagues Marcel Poschmann, Jasper Janzen, Fillip Wonnemann, Florian Schneider and Matthias Tuebel (see photo, editor’s note). That makes it easier to be far away from home. However, I would have preferred to celebrate Germany’s soccer world cup victory on Munich’s Leopoldstrasse instead of 5th Avenue.

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