Boiling iron and smokestacks – until the 1970s, the district of Peine was characterised by the mining and steel industry. Since then, the region has undergone major changes and, in addition to numerous promising companies, industry champions such as IT supplier Christmann and automotive supplier Faurecia have emerged. We asked the two top players about the secret behind their power for innovation.
Between discarded tipper lorries, an old water tower and the rusty skeleton of a cooling tower lies Starterhof, an industrial centre shrouded a hint of industrial loft romanticism. It is also home to the premises of Christmann Informationstechnik, where Wolfgang Christmann, the company’s founder and managing director, meets us together with his team leader Fabian Martin. A large black-and-white photograph in the entrance area depicts the industrial history of the company’s headquarters, but graffiti depicting a superhero on the first floor signals that we are about to enter the natural habitat of the region’s superprogrammers.
Mr Christmann, your company provides efficient IT solutions. What exactly does that mean?
Wolfgang Christmann: One of the main areas in which we provide solutions is cloud data migration for small and medium-sized enterprises. They place their full trust in us in this field because it isn’t something we do on a large scale, but rather something we implement on a customer-by-customer basis.
Fabian Martin: When the customer chooses to make the move to the cloud, we try to relocate their system so that it continues to run smoothly. It might be the case that the customer is still working on their legacy system on Friday, comes back to work on Monday and everything is already in the cloud.
Does the customer notice a difference?
Fabian Martin: You can move the workplace into the cloud on a one-to-one basis; that is, it looks exactly the same on the outside. However, the systems are much faster and more energy-efficient, because the computer only launches one program, the one with which it connects to the cloud.
Are you active in other business fields?
Wolfgang Christmann: Our second area of solutions is software development, or more specifically, process mapping with mobile devices, which is becoming increasingly important.
Fabian Martin: Customers come to us with very different requirements. For example, the boss of a shipping company wanted to know more about what his drivers were currently doing: were they stuck in traffic, refuelling, taking a break or just preparing the truck? So he bought a tablet for every driver. It comes with an application that the employee can use to indicate that they’re currently stuck in a traffic jam. Whatever the requirements, we implement them.
Does that mean you supply tailored rather than ready-made solutions?
Wolfgang Christmann: Precisely, but that’s what we always do, including in our third line of business, which is hardware. We started relying on energy-efficient technology early on in this area and developed our own small PC series that uses little power. But this area has become less significant, as devices are becoming increasingly interchangeable as a result of developments such as the cloud.
Mr Christmann, you and your company have received over ten awards in recent years. Which ones are you especially proud of?
Wolfgang Christmann: For me, it’s definitely ‘Best Practice Green IT’. We worked on energy-efficient supercomputers for a competition as part of the International Supercomputing Conference, during which we worked with students from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. It was a lot of fun, and we then entered the project in the Green IT Award in 2012, where we won in two categories.
Fabian Martin: My favourite project was the ‘skimpy cloud’. This is a kind of mobile mini-data centre, which is completely pre-installed in an air-transport box on wheels. It can be used, for example, by trade fair exhibitors, for film productions or crisis units, but can also be operated as stationary equipment. We were awarded the INNOVATION AWARD IT 2015 in the ‘Green IT’ category by Initiative Mittelstand (SME Initiative) for this project.
The awards demonstrate that your company of 30 employees has great potential to produce innovations. How do you manage to keep pace with the times?
Fabian Martin: It’s down to our corporate culture, I think. Many larger companies have various departments. And the other departments tend to be considered a kind of enemy, because they could drain resources, for example. We don’t have that. We all work together. If we have an issue where can’t make any headway, we just go and knock on the next door. And you can also achieve the best results for the customer this way.
Wolfgang Christmann: We are a ‘team of teams’. That is crucial. And we have great employees, who feel comfortable here and enjoy their work.
How do you manage to find such good employees as a small and medium-sized company in a rather rural region?
Wolfgang Christmann: It actually hasn’t been a problem for us at all. We always receive a lot of applications. It could be that we benefit from being in the catchment area of Braunschweig, Wolfenbüttel and Salzgitter which naturally increases the choice available to us.
Fabian Martin: Plus, we train the next generation ourselves – IT specialists, system electronics specialists, media designers and our administrative staff – and almost exclusively employ people we have trained ourselves. That makes a big difference.
What does it take to be employed by Christmann?
Wolfgang Christmann: If you are a university graduate, you should have a very good master’s degree in computer science or business informatics. If you apply for a training position, an extra bit of commitment, and you should be prepared to tackle even tricky tasks independently. We have also had good experiences with school leavers. You don’t need to be a university graduate to be assigned interesting tasks here.
Where do you see your company ten years from now?
Wolfgang Christmann: Definitely with a team of over 50 employees, even if our aim isn’t to grow as big as we can as fast as we can. We’ll be doing things that I can’t describe to you because they don’t exist today. Whether we will be using mobile devices in the future or have a chip implanted in our thumbs – we don’t know. But what will definitely stay the same is the quality of our employees and our team, which will continue to be our strength in the future.
Following the interview, the company’s founder shows us through the premises and enthuses about the great conditions that Starterhaus offers: fully equipped office space for 5.50 euros per square metre – and a connection to a broadband network with an Internet performance of one gigabit per second is in the pipeline. Rather than boiling hot iron, it’s a touch of Silicon Valley – courage goes into shaping the future here.
Rewarding work with high-quality products – these are the expectations that the highly competitive Generation Y places on its future workplace. The award-winning Faurecia plant in Peine proves that innovative work is being done away from large urban centres. Plant manager Tobias Schöppe and foaming specialist Adam Kapsa explain how companies and employees benefit from this corporate culture.
Mr Schöppe, you are the plant manager here in Peine. What products are manufactured here?
We produce plastic parts for vehicle interiors at our plant. Currently, this primarily involves instrument panels, interior door panels and centre consoles using the ‘just-in-sequence’ method. We deliver around 2,500 units to our customers each day.
In 2015, your plant was named Factory of the Year in the category ‘Outstanding Mass Production’. What do you do better here in Peine than other companies?
We attach great importance to transparency in the process flows and consistently implement the lean manufacturing approach in all of our process steps. Streamlined decision-making processes enable us to respond quickly, and we also have short delivery routes.
Mr Kapsa, you are the ‘foaming specialist’ here at the plant. What do you do exactly?
I am responsible for processes and working models in the foaming and assembly production areas. I regularly hold workshops with colleagues to optimise their workstations and, for example, reduce waiting times.
What does ‘outstanding mass production’ really look like in your daily work?
Our plant delivers its products in a prompt and cost-effective manner, and in outstanding quality. We are a reliable partner for our customers, able to react flexibly to fluctuating demand and can continuously improve our processes.
And how does production impact employee motivation?
Our employees are familiar with the process as a whole and their contribution to the success of the plant. Every individual is responsible for responding to process deviations and ensuring that we deliver flawless products of outstanding quality every day.
Faurecia has been certified as a ‘Top Employer’ for the seventh time this year. What is the secret of your success?
Every manager works in production on a daily basis and exchanges information with their team members. We use daily briefings in all areas to we ensure that information is passed on from the worker to the plant manager and vice versa within a few hours. In addition, every department has an annual training plan for employees and managers. The ‘autonomous working groups’ are the heart and soul of production. The stability and sustainability of our plant depend on their continued further development to a large degree.
Mr Kapsa, how do you yourself know that Faurecia is a pioneer in human resources development?
Dedicated production workers have an opportunity to take responsibility. The appointed heads of the autonomous working groups, for example, have a key function within production. They have a chance to advance: from production staff to team leader, from team leader to production supervisor.