By Sandy Baumgart, Kion Group
It can be quite difficult to meet Andreas Fäth in person. Having only just returned from Pune in western India, where Kion India is based, he is about to set off for Xiamen, home to Linde Material Handling's headquarters in China. Yet he shows no signs of tiredness. Even after traveling thousands of miles, his love for his work and for Asia in general still shine through. "China has changed in recent years - many young Chinese left their homeland for a few years and are now returning. This creates many new and exciting management situations," says Fäth, who as Senior Director of Industrial Engineering for APAC Projects travels throughout Asia and the Pacific region.
But it was all very different on his first visit to China. Back in 1993, he flew to China to see his brother and to visit a trade fair in Beijing attended by German engineering companies. He grabbed a handful of Chinese brochures of the German companies as a souvenir, little knowing that these brochures would bring him back to China before long.
Visit of Chinese delegation somehow shaped Fäth's future
During this period, Germany and China were deepening their economic ties, with German companies investing more heavily in China and entering into joint ventures with local businesses. It was against this backdrop that a Chinese delegation visited Linde in Aschaffenburg in June 1993. During a tour of the site they passed by Andreas Fäth's desk. "The head of the delegation suddenly stopped next to me and started studying the brochures," he recalls.
A few weeks later, Linde's CEO called Fäth into his office and presented a large sack, usually used to transport rice, full of dozens of plans for Chinese factories and other investments. Linde was to enter into a joint venture with Xiamen Forklift Trucks to build a production facility in Xiamen - quite a bold project at the time. And Fäth was to be involved as an expert in capital investment and factory layout. Together with a civil engineer, a facilities management specialist, and a production engineer, he flew to Xiamen to get a better understanding of the task. The assignment itself came as a surprise. "We had never met before. None of us spoke Chinese or had any experience of large-scale projects in Asia," he says. It was only some time later that he discovered that the Chinese delegation wanted him on the project team as a specialist in machine tools and production planning due to those brochures on his desk.
Foundations for Linde in Xiamen laid
On the way to Xiamen, the project team stopped off at Linde Gas in Beijing, where they were provided with some information on the country and an interpreter. With her help, the arrangements with the Chinese partners and the decisions on the final layout and the production planning were made. In March 1994, everything was ready - the joint venture was established and the foundations were laid for Linde in Xiamen. The CEO of the joint venture was none other than the head of the Chinese delegation. On September 1, 1996, the first Linde truck 'made in China' rolled off the assembly line.
Introduction of dual vocational training
It had been a challenge to get to that point. Countless times the German team had to fly out to assist their Chinese colleagues with decisions on the procurement of tools and materials and the hiring of 700 employees. One factor remained important throughout: "The goal of the project was not to build the plant as quickly as possible and at the lowest cost. We wanted to build a solid foundation that would enable us to meet the very same quality standards as those at the main Linde plant for material handling products," Fäth recalls. Key to this was his introduction of dual vocational training based on the German model. This type of education was unknown in China at the time, so the Chinese workforce either had practical experience or theoretical expertise - but not both. That was about to change with the construction of the first dual vocational training center, which was to become a role model for the region.
To help the team pass on their specific expertise, each member was assigned an assistant to help with tasks, act as an interpreter, and manage the project in their absence. Fäth is still in touch with his assistant Zhu Lin, with whom he worked closely for four years. "I'm more or less a member of the family now," he says with a smile.
Did Fäth have any bad experiences in all those years? Not at all. Sure, mistakes were made in the beginning. It soon became clear, for example, that the very detailed plans he was used to from Germany could not be implemented like for like in China. But he has always had a positive outlook, he says, and over the years he realized how important dialog was - the constant exchange between German and Chinese partners, even if the Europeans sometimes struggled with Chinese habits and passions, such as karaoke. "We Germans were always wary of not being able to sing; but that was no obstacle for the Chinese," he recalls.
"Never stop learning"
Despite his obvious passion for travel and projects, it is collaboration that is the key for him. All the successes achieved so far have been down to teamwork. He is also very keen to pass on his experience to younger colleagues. It is no surprise, therefore, that the construction of the training center in Xiamen was a particular highlight for him, especially due to its role in establishing dual vocational training in the region. So, what advice does he have for his younger colleagues? "Never stop learning. Get to know other cultures, and learn to appreciate what we have in our own culture and in Germany in general."