Career

holistic thinking – focused acting

„Though I was originally compelled to study physics, I later discovered my more pragmatic interests and decided to study engineering sciences. Having been trained as a molder in an art and metal foundry, casting and materials were the obvious choice for me when it came time to specialize.

 

In addition to my enthusiasm for free shaping (acquired as a molder working with artistic castings), after completing my studies it was my fascination with Aluminum as a light weight construction material that moved me to explore the possibilities of this combination.


Applied research at a leading company in this market segment was the next logical step, although I first acquired some exceptional leadership experience at an iron foundry. Unfortunately at this time research centers in the so-called ‘ivory tower’ were not very well respected in the real world – that is, in operations.

 

For this reason, after a few years I decided to re-enter the ‘lion’s den’. This was one of the most productive phases of my career, as I began to test in the real world all the knowledge I had acquired in the ‘ivory tower’.

 

Most of my inventions soon came to be seen as real innovations. When I walk through foundries today, I am excited to witness practices that originated from my own initiative in those early years:
Degassing of molten Aluminum by means of inert gases, gassing liquid metals by means of Hydrogen-Nitrogen-gas-mixtures, grain refinement and permanent modification directly in foundry operations by means of master-alloys. Electronic pressure control in low-pressure casting facilities. And, last but not least, the most recent initiative for the use of inorganic binders in the aluminum casting industry.


It was these very successes as I made the switch from research to manufacturing that pushed me to look for even greater challenges.

 

It was quite opportune when a client for cast light metal wheels decided to cast these wheels in his own foundry in France and to use the counter pressure casting process that was invented in Bulgaria. It should be noted that this was in 1980, when Eastern Europe was still closed behind the Iron Curtain and the importation of any technology to this country was adversely affected by various embargos imposed by the United States.

 

Yet the most serious problems were solved step by step and the first successful counter pressure foundry outside of the Eastern Block eventually began operations. After this success the idea aroused of creating forging quality from the “first heat” by means of this innovative new casting process.

 

As is seldom the case, the industry was apparently not ready for such advancements as chassis components cast in aluminum, and it is only now – some 25 years later – that this idea has begun to re-establish itself.

 

For me these successes were the starting point for more demanding leadership challenges at the level of top management. Here too it was my creativity in combination with my extremely structured manner of working that helped me at the young age of 36 to convince an entrenched, traditional company to undergo massive change and thus to create the decisive basis for this company’s turnaround. For me the years of this turn-around were crucial in firming up my conviction of the importance of the individual and of his or her contribution to overall success.

 

At that time I received the offer of becoming the person in charge of the most innovative (and at the same time the most riskiest) investment project in the European Aluminum Casting Industry – the construction of a factory for the production of engine blocks and cylinder heads made of aluminum by the means of the core package process that until then had only been used for low-volume production.


I began the project in 1991, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, by looking for the right location. Subsequently a new factory was built in a new location (Dillingen/D) where a new, innovative product was to be produced by means of a new, half-baked casting method and with a new, completely inexperienced work-force. More skeptic people than me called this the perfect description of a total disaster. And yet somehow my structured process focus that had previously proved so dependable allowed me to perfectly master this complex challenge as well!

 

As a result I was placed in charge of a group of companies, where I was now repeatedly confronted with the task of handling additional green-field investments, all of which I successfully concluded and was able to leverage for healthy company growth.


In total I was awarded responsibility of a group of up to 11 companies; in 2006 in the course of the sale of this business unit, its internationally outstanding and even leading positioning and performance was attested by well-known, independent consulting firms.


The product portfolio and footprint were continually improved so that the group came to focus primarily on the manufacturing of engine blocks and cylinder heads at the leading edge of performance cast of the light weight construction material aluminum.

 

In the process of this focused restructuring, additional state of the art capacity had to be created continually, thus setting the standard for the industry. In addition, outdated operations had either to be closed or fully modernized. These measures included restructuring of the entire product portfolio in the direction of high-quality and high-performance components. Finally, thanks to the combination of outstanding production and carefully coordinated market segmentation, Hydro Aluminum’s Castings Business emerged as the industry leader.


Hence products which were not under the price-pressure of commodities could be acquired. Dependable product quality made it possible to provide stable, inter-continental delivery to the global automobile industry and so led to scale effects in the group’s cost structure. Crucial for this success were the consensus within management regarding a targeted strategy and the market presence that was completely unique.

 

Nevertheless, in a global, intercultural setting it is important not only to create consensus at the management level, but also to integrate motivated employees into the process as well.


As an engineer one quickly acquires the reputation of a technocrat, perhaps because it is a common trait of our profession always to expect an appropriate reaction to any impulse, like a ball that always moves in the same direction when struck. I have often attempted to improve the performance of companies by means of ambitious goals. Of course company staff and leadership are only able to achieve these goals if the individuals involved see themselves as a unified group.

 

Once I was able to create the right group dynamics by evaluating the company culture and the behavior of individuals in the group, teams almost always achieved these ambitious goals thanks to their motivated effort.


Yet these goals should be defined by those in the group who are to make significant contributions.  Goals defined together are perceived far differently by employees. I attribute this very clear shift to a phenomenon known as ‘alignment.’ The accuracy of forecasts as well as the commitment to fulfill these forecasts increased considerably.


Also, the synergies created lead to extraordinary economic results. From my point of view the “buy-in” of employees to all essential measures is always worth having, even if it takes some time to obtain it. In fact all of my success is a result of having been able to generate enthusiasm among my employees for my goals.

 

Let us do so together.“


Herbert Smetan



 Curriculum Vitae Herbert Smetan (short version)

 Curriculum Vitae Herbert Smetan (extended version)

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