The USA Series | Gary Chatell, President Liebherr Gear and Automation Technologies, Inc.

After completing his physics degree, Gary Chatell gained many years of experience working for Japanese companies. He spent more than 30 years with them in total - and even lived in Japan for some time. Mechanical engineer, Engineering Manager, Head of Market Sales, and President are just a few of the positions he held before becoming President of Liebherr Gear and Automation Technologies, Inc. in Saline, Michigan in 2017.

In our interview, he gives us a little behind-the-scenes insight into Saline, talks about the challenges of the American market, and about his experiences with German corporate culture.

What are your main tasks as President of our site in Saline?

As President, my most important task is to ensure that we can achieve our goals. That means sorting out capacities and personnel issues, checking that employees have the information, tools, and materials they need to perform their tasks, and, of course, keeping an open door for anyone with questions or uncertainties.

How is the Saline site set up?

We have about 60 employees in Saline, working in sales, project management, service and spare parts for gear cutting machines, and automation systems. We look after customers in the USA, Canada, and Mexico.

What topics are customers from your market currently dealing with?

Of course, everyone’s talking about E-mobility here too. However, unlike in Europe, the combustion engine still plays a major part, especially among truck manufacturers. That’s because of the infrastructure in the United States: we’re a big country and the rail infrastructure isn’t quite as developed, so we rely very heavily on trucks. That has only been exacerbated by COVID, as consumers increasingly order their products online and have them delivered.

There will certainly be alternative powertrains for trucks in the future, but until they become widespread, the demand for diesel engine production systems – such as gantry robots – will still be there.

Another issue, as in many markets, is the shortage of skilled workers. The American labor market is very dynamic, and finding and retaining qualified personnel over the long term is extremely difficult. To make sure that investment in machines pays off, smaller companies in particular want to keep their machines running as continuously as possible, which is hard to do with a lack of personnel. This means a high degree of automation is required – both in the machine itself and around it.

What has been the biggest highlight of your time at Liebherr?

We recently analyzed our challenges in Saline in detail and worked out a mission statement together. Our actions are based of course on the Liebherr Group's core values. Building on these and with the specific situation at our site in mind, we introduced three focus topics that guide our day-to-day business and our dealings with each other.

The first topic is customer focus. This point is self-explanatory, but is perhaps even more important in the USA than in other markets. Customers here demand a lot from their suppliers and expect complete focus and quick response times.

In addition to customer focus, we also want to strengthen growth-oriented thinking. We urge our employees to think outside the box. It’s especially important to accept new ideas and stop doing things a certain way just because “that’s how we’ve always done it”. We also encourage our employees to take further training, and some of them are now even doing an MBA while working.

The third topic is diversity and inclusion. The USA is a melting pot of many different cultural backgrounds, religions, and ways of thinking. Diverse teams are proven to be more innovative and successful, but it’s not enough simply to have a diverse workforce. Employees also need to be properly integrated so that they feel comfortable and free to exhibit their diversity so that we can benefit from it. Of course, something like this doesn’t happen overnight. We’re taking the first steps and hopefully, I can set off a change that the next generations will continue.

What is the biggest challenge facing your site?

Like our customers, we’re also struggling with the shortage of skilled workers. It’s particularly difficult to find employees in control technology. We’re trying to counteract this by making future engineers aware of our company at an early age. For example, we sponsor the robotics team at a local high school. We also have a good relationship with the University of Michigan, where we’ve been involved in a program where future engineers take part in a practical project at a local company.

Tell us about your experience as an employee at a German company? What makes Liebherr special to you?

In the past, I had always worked for Japanese corporations. Moving to a family-owned German company was a big change, but one with lots of advantages. We have the luxury of being able to make long-term decisions that aren’t based on keeping shareholders happy in the short term.

Another thing that has struck me as extremely positive is the system of support. For example, if we have trouble achieving a set target, we aren’t immediately threatened with consequences. Instead, we’re asked what we need to achieve the goal and then levers are set in motion to make sure we get the necessary support.

What I’d particularly like to mention is that the Liebherr family really care about their employees, and it shows. For example, during lockdown, when many employees couldn’t come to work, Liebherr continued to pay a significant portion of the employees’ wages and we didn’t have to lay anyone off. That’s not a given in the USA – many companies had to significantly downsize their workforces. When I met Willi Liebherr this year, I personally thanked him for his help during this time – his response was typical: “No, I have to thank you, and please thank your employees for their efforts.”