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“Always the first on the beach”

Guben, Germany

Henrik Wende is Operational Readiness Manager and the first Guben native in the German City of Guben.

Henrik Wende is the first Guben native at Rock Tech. He left Lusatia early on and has lived around the world. But now he’s been drawn back home.

Sembten in Brandenburg. Not even 300 residents. But it’s only a stone’s throw to the town of Guben on the German-Polish border. This is where Henrik Wende was born in 1979 and grew up. He eventually left home to see the world. He worked in Asia, Africa and America. He made a career in a global company. And now he’s back home…But let’s take this one step at a time.

It’s 1999. With his high school diploma in hand, Henrik asks himself the all-important question: So now what? At the time, Lower Lusatia is economically underdeveloped. High unemployment, meagre job prospects. Especially for young people in the region. Whoever can leave, does. So, it’s time to fill out some applications. Studying with a bit of hands-on experience would be nice.

„`Heading west with his girlfriend„

Three companies make the shortlist. In the end, the Hanover-based tire giant Continental wins out. Henrik feels welcome here right from the get-go. So, time to pack up and head to Lower Saxony. The big day arrives in September 2000. A dual work-study programme: three days at work and three days cramming at university. A six-day week. After two years, he has a new feather in his cap: a qualification as a process mechanic. Next comes two more years of full-time studies to earn an engineering degree. “That was a lot of hard work,” he says. “I’m glad that my then-girlfriend came with me to Hanover. She’s been a huge support and has often motivated me to stick things out.” The two get married in 2006.

„`Tough cookies wanted„`

As a freshly minted engineer, Henrik starts out in the tyre R&D department at Continental. His job: to make tyres better. This means tinkering, testing and testing again. To optimise the tyre design to make it go faster, hold better and wear less. From Hanover, it’s off into the wider world. To Mexico, the United States and South Africa – everywhere to drive innovation forward. After work, Henrik takes things up a notch – and earns a second degree as an industrial engineer. Can’t hurt.

And it definitely doesn’t. After all, to meet its ambitious targets, Continental needs real experts. The big goal is to eventually become the world’s No. 3 tyre maker. Right behind Bridgestone and

Michelin. So the management at the time is looking for colleagues who’ve already earned their spurs. People who can push ahead in uncharted territory. People who know how the business works.

Real tough cookies. People like Henrik.

„`Efficient in action: dive in and make it happen„`

Fresh start in Kaluga, Russia. A new factory is to be built. And Henrik is on the set-up team. He uses the opportunity to come up with a blueprint for investment planning for comparable greenfield projects around the world. So the next stop is China. A factory is to be expanded in Hefei, 500 kilometres west of Shanghai. New buildings and infrastructure, machines, equipment, IT and security for it all – the full package. “The project was the first time that I really felt like I was leaving my comfort zone,” Henrik says looking back. “The combination of the requirements from headquarters back in Germany and the local realities – it was really quite a challenge!”

But everything goes smoothly. The factory is built in record time – and several million under the planned budget to boot. The ingredients for success: teamwork, courage and passion. “At the time, we would joke on the team that we were like Navy Seals. Always the first on the beach. Off into the unknown, build something up from scratch, and get it going. And always with your heart and soul,” Henrik fondly recalls.

„`From construction noise and the smell of tyres back to his roots„`

The first tyres are just coming off the production line in Hefei – and the next challenge is already calling. Clinton, in the US state of Mississippi. That means: two burdens at once. Coordinating from two continents plus a seven-hour time difference. Henrik’s wife pulls the emergency brake. Something has to change. It’s a good thing that ContiTech is currently looking for reinforcements at its central plant engineering department in Hanover. Later, it’s back to the Tyre Division, where Henrik is in charge of the machine technology in 21 factories.

Late 2022. Henrik has over two decades with Conti under his belt – his entire working life to date. He has already been back in his hometown of Sembten since 2011. But does he also work from home – and in Lusatia? There’s never been a perfect fit. So he prefers to commute: to Hanover as well as to Russia, China and the US as well as in Europe. But it’s exhausting.

An acquaintance tells Henrik about Rock Tech. They plan to build a converter for lithium hydroxide. In Guben. When his boss then asks him why he wants to quit after all this time, Henrik replies:

“Remember what we used to say back then? ‘We’re like the Navy Seals. Always the first on the beach.’ I can do that again. But at home.”

His boss understands immediately. No more questions.

„`Giving his all for operability„`

After that, everything quickly falls into place. Today, Henrik is the Operation Readiness Manager at Rock Tech. His job is to make sure that the converter is operational. He is the man on the spot and the first point of contact for companies, service providers, officials and city representatives. For him, the job means coordinating industrial service providers, commissioning, organising and marshalling smaller local tradespeople, recruiting qualified personnel and setting up IT systems. Or, in short, getting Rock Tech up and running in Guben. Along with everything this entails.

In principle, it’s the same as always: precisely orchestrating all the tradespeople. And, of course, within the set schedule and within budget. “I haven’t regretted the move to Rock Tech, and I’m looking forward to everything that lies ahead now,” Henrik says. “It’s nice to be passionate again about building something up and putting my heart and soul into it.”

Picture by Andreas Franke