Karl John becomes a manager - Christian Munger - ebook

Karl John becomes a manager ebook

Christian Munger



Karl is now 85 years old; from his memory, pictures of the past appear. Here you can read first-hand about his life. The memories recorded here contain a wealth of experience. What were Karl´s motives? If you want to learn about managment, here you can read how it could be done. Such a life takes a good deal of courage, knowledge of human nature, a readiness to adapt and a positive attitude towards fellow human beings.

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Translated from German


Lynne Constable

CH-6983 Magliaso / TI



The beginning, shaping character

Nigeria, bite through

Liberia, experienced

Canada, position of trust

Finland, new areas

Switzerland, good connections and retirement

In a nutshell, wisdom


Karl is 85 years old; from his memory, pictures of the past appear. Here you can read first-hand about his life. The memories recorded here contain a wealth of experience. What were Karl’s motives? If you want to become a manager, you can look for happiness abroad. Here you can read how it is done. Such a life takes a good deal of courage, knowledge of human nature, a readiness to adapt and a positive attitude towards fellow human beings. It is also important to have a talent for leading oneself and others. In this book, the reader will learn about good management in difficult circumstances.

1. The beginning, shaping character


Karl’s father was a technician in a textile dye factory. Shortly before WW2, production was transferred from the Swiss shore of Lake Constance to Germany, where the Wehrmacht needed a plethora of colours for uniforms, vehicles and weapons. About 300 employees lost their jobs in Switzerland. Very few wanted to leave home or go to North Rhine Westphalia. A hard time began on Lake Constance, a period of crisis and disappointment. Some of the younger unemployed were happy to be drafted into the Swiss army, as the border guard against the powerful German Reich was mobilised. Older unemployed people had to look for a new job, including Karl’s father. After some time of anxiety and insecurity, he found a job at a cider factory. The canton of Thurgau is known popularly as ‘Mostindien’. Apples, pears and other fruits thrive well and are processed in large quantities.

During and after the war, food was scarce and wages were low in Switzerland. The once prosperous economy had come to a standstill, production had to be reduced or even stopped due to lack of labour in many places. Women worked bravely at the workbench and in the yard, but many hands were missing. The light of the fires from the bombing of industrial areas in Friedrichshafen, beyond Lake Constance, and the long guard at the border was a tormenting memory.

For the young Karl, just 14 years old in 1945, the nearby Lake Constance offered great opportunities for all sorts of games and adventures. He was proud to bring fresh fish home to his mother. Fishing was done from the shore or by boat out on the lake. But what would become of the boy when he left school?

Hunting for food after WW2

In Arbon, about 7 km from Egnach, there was the highly respected Saurer truck factory. With reliable, high quality vehicles and diesel engines, Saurer had earned a good reputation beyond its borders. During the war it delivered to the Swiss army and the Wehrmacht. Many a Saurer truck went through its service in the vastness of the East to the very end. Later, in the economic miracle, they were in use at many civilian transport companies. The trucks from Arbon, with the brand `Berna´ and `Saurer´, achieved a market share of 50% in Switzerland.

Karl had been in the same class as the son of the director Ruprecht. His parents enrolled him at Saurer for an apprenticeship. It had to be something right that could be used later in life. A four-year apprenticeship as a machinist began. At the beginning, precise manual grinding of metals was practised for weeks. Accuracy and stamina were taught, and a suitably safe and strong hand developed. Welding by different methods and with different metals was also taught. After that, the real teaching began in the production departments. Karl was particularly fascinated by the technology of the diesel engine and the diesel injection pump. Soon, he was transferred to the repairs department, which was a privilege during apprenticeship. After four years at Saurer, Karl was for a while responsible for the transport vehicles at a textile factory.

At that time, young people from German-speaking Switzerland were taken to the French-speaking part of the country for a year, away from their parents. It was mostly a hard time for the young people. In Porrentruy, in the Jura, Karl went to a master baker. At first he felt lonely, but he picked himself up and went out to meet people. He learned to adapt to the new circumstances. He used a bicycle to deliver baked goods in the city and tipping was a welcome addition to the tight financial conditions. At peak times, on weekends and holidays, he volunteered early in the bakery at 4 am. He also attended French language lessons, which brought him great benefits later in life.

At the age of 19, he moved to the army recruiting school – naturally in a unit for engine mechanics. After the drills for military discipline, he joined a unit with heavy motorcars. North-eastern Switzerland is blessed with a military-friendly population – almost every second house in the villages is used. At the farms, there is certainly first a schnapps (usually ‘Träsch’: a condensate of apple and pear). The farmers are allowed to distil one litre per cow tax-free.

Karl completed his time in the army with a transport unit. At that time, the real cavalry (riding troops) was converted from horses to ATVs. The units, which consisted primarily of peasants’ sons, had to leave their horses at home, followed by retraining on off-road vehicles. Karl remembers how he had to stand in front of the new ‘motor-riders’ to explain the new vehicle technology. Courage and a certain showmanship were necessary. The character of the young man was shaped: the ability to convince and a confident presentation.

At the end of an instruction period in the military, his uncle offered him an internship for diesel engines at Mercedes Benz in Stuttgart-Sindelfingen. He was trained as a specialist in diesel engines and injection pumps.

With a German diploma, it was not easy to find a job after the war in Switzerland. Diesel specialists with domestic training and experience had the advantage. Karl kept searching. One day he saw an advertisement in Handelsman Zentralblatt: Societe de l’Afrique d'Ouest (SCAO) was looking for a specialist for its vehicle operations in West Africa.

Karl sent off his application with CV, in French of course. Soon after came the answer from Paris: an invitation for a job interview, including train ticket and hotel voucher. They wanted to do psychological and practical tests.

He travelled to Paris via Basel by train. On foot, with the help of a city map, he found his hotel. Paris had no luxuries after the war, and the accommodation was basic. In addition, in the same hotel were 20 young French men, who had all applied for the same place. Karl was close to giving up, but again he pulled himself together and faced up to the competition.

The next day, the candidates were welcomed by SCAO. First, everyone had to complete a complicated test form, intensive discussions followed. The applicants were also tested practically. Karl was able to demonstrate his specialist knowledge, with an explanation of the functions of the diesel injection pump. In addition to French, he also spoke English, which he had learned at secondary school in Egnach. The language skills were ultimately to his decisive advantage, since the SCAO had branches in French West Africa and an office in English-speaking Nigeria.

After a month of anxious waiting, Karl, back home in Egnach, received a written undertaking. He had to travel to Lagos, Nigeria, and get in touch with SCAO: “We need you in Nigeria.” So, on to Africa!

But first to the headquarters in Paris, where he introduced himself to the company – an opportunity to build a pleasant relationship in advance with the relevant people at the headquarters. Then off with Air France from Paris to Lagos. The flight in a Constellation propeller aircraft took 14 hours, with stop-overs in Lyon and Tunis.

2. Nigeria, bite through


“Don´t worry, God is responsible”

This philosophical attitude makes life easier for Africans – exhausting heat, poverty and difficult hygienic and sanitary conditions are better tolerated. Not only did the Islamic tribes in northern Nigeria have the same lifestyle, but also the various, partly Christian tribes in the south of the country. Karl liked that, but he could not and did not want to indulge himself completely in this attitude. His education and training would not allow this.

At Lagos airport, Hansi Leibundgut, also a Swiss, was waiting for him. He was the head of SCAO in Nigeria and the headquarters in Paris had told him about a new Superman who was arriving. Karl was uncertain for the time being, everything was new and he felt lost. He expected an introduction to the company after arrival. But on the first day, a group of 20 Africans were assigned to him to carry out repairs and maintenance on customers’ cars. The customers were almost exclusively ‘expats’ (temporarily resident foreigners). Few Africans were financially able to buy a car during this time. Karl adapted and quickly established good relations with the workers. He still has good memories of this time. He was called the new ‘Engineer’. Soon he was accepted by the people and time flew by.

In 1954, after Karl had settled in, become accustomed to the life and had a good relationship with the Africans, a new order arrived from the Paris headquarters: transfer to Apapa, about 100 km north of Lagos. The head of the workshop there, a Frenchman, had been dismissed as he had hired people who had stolen parts. SCAO assembled trucks for the British brand Austin. Still a greenhorn, Karl now had to take over a plant department with 120 workers. He became head of production with the title of ‘Master Engineer’. From the beginning, he felt that the employees were well educated, with a positive attitude. They came from various provinces of Nigeria; there were natives of the Ibo tribes (Catholic, Irish missionaries), the Yoruba (Protestant, Basler missionaries) the Hausas (Muslim) and a few other tribes. Outside in the jungle, there was often war between the different tribes.

At one of the first plant meetings, Karl told the Africans that they no longer needed to address him as ‘master’ (which was common in the British colonies then), that he had a name like everyone else. Soon he was accepted as a supervisor and felt that his control work was understood.

Every week, six trucks and three small vans had to be assembled. The parts came in wooden boxes from England, were unpacked and assembled. The UK was a major industrial power and Nigeria belonged to the British Empire. The British had tried to give structure and administrative order to the various ethnic groups. The order was upheld by chiefs, magicians, the police and a small army of Africans. This was not bad; the stability and certainty attracted investors and allowed a cautious economic development. Prosperity rose slowly. Some risk-taking businessmen came into the country. European adventurers and the well-educated upper classes in England tried to do business with the raw materials and forest wood.

The new companies knew that young and skilled Nigerians would later take on managerial posts in the factories. Training and preparation for higher positions was important to the country. With much consideration for the local conditions, they devoted themselves to this task. It was a demanding and often disappointing activity. The native people were surprisingly impulsive and very emotional, often with outbursts of temper. This was scary for the Europeans, anything could happen.

Karl’s natural authority and his friendly way of dealing with his black ‘friends’ soon brought a good atmosphere to the company. A longer training period was conducted for the more difficult work and the process reorganised. At the assembly sites, teams were set up with their own foreman. Difficult work, such as the assembly of a rear axle, made even Karl sweat. In the vicinity of the equator, the temperature is constantly above 35 degrees, even at night. Karl lived in an air-conditioned house with private garden. He began holding parties of grilled meat for everyone. The workers showed their best side after the barbecue evenings and the assembly work began to run smoothly. Of course, there were always problems, but with they were solved within the team.

With the work well organised, Karl began to enjoy himself. He was also a guest at the British officers’ club, where he received important information about politics and potential customers for his vehicles. The Africans played their own music in Apapa’s bars; it felt relatively safe, there was little crime. Nigeria was worth living in at that time.

One day the cook came to Karl with trembling hands, lurching unsteadily from one leg to the other and saying in dialect: “The big lemon tree in the garden once had many lemons, now only a few are left. The market women who pass by in the morning always take some with them.” Maybe a wall around the property, an electric fence or a hedge? Finally, Karl agreed to the proposal to get a voodoo doctor. No sooner said than done: with incantations, the doctor hung some chicken leg bones and feathers on the tree, and from that day no more lemons disappeared.

In addition to the assembly of trucks, Karl was also responsible for the transport of new vehicles to the province. Loading on to other trucks did not exist them, as the loading areas were too small. The vehicles were moved as a convoy over many hundreds of miles; for example, to Kano 800 km north or to Port Harcourt 500 km east. Much could happen on the way, deep potholes in the jungle roads had to be avoided. Weapons had to be at hand, since there were robbers in the jungle. Gangs made trouble, drilling holes in oil pipelines and carrying out raids.

As the gangs ventured out only at night, the convoy was driven from sunrise to sunset. Guards stood around the camp at night. The trucks had no driver’s cabs; the drivers sat on makeshift wooden boxes at the wheel, without protection from rain or wind. In the jungle zone, it rains often and heavily; the shallow areas are flooded after a short time and turn into insurmountable swamps. At such times, the convoy could move neither forward nor back and had to wait until the water had drained again. Once they had to wait 14 days until the water was gone and the road was passable again.

The drivers meanwhile slept under planks on the truck bridges. At a nearby village, the women were given money to prepare food for the crews on their fires. Drinking water and food had to be carried on the truck. With long waiting times, sometimes one or two drivers disappeared, but the vast majority depended on the money that was paid only on delivery at the destination. However, due to missing drivers and possible diseases, several replacement drivers had to be taken.

On the way defects were repaired on vehicles or if that was not possible, they were dragged along. Winches pulled vehicles out of the mud. Trees were felled to fix the softened road with the trunks. And sometimes the roads were soaked in crude oil and almost impassable.

Karl accompanied the convoy of vehicles as a person of authority, he supervised the entire transport and gave the necessary orders (important: good acceptance). He drove a small Austin that was not too heavy. Several strong men could carry the vehicle on smaller tree trunks with bare hands over road obstacles if necessary.

In the Niger Delta, the UN launched a major rice-planting project. All of West Africa could have been supplied with rice, but more tractors were needed, so Karl went to Rome several times to discuss deliveries of Ford tractors. Africans were trained to continue the project. But when Karl revisited after two years, there was no rice to be seen far and wide, and all the machinery and tractors had disappeared.

Oil was discovered in the Niger Delta, bringing changes to the country. Prosperity increased, mainly in urban areas. Cars were bought and in Paris SCAO wanted to expand. What was the result? A new order for Karl in 1956. After two years of successful work in Ibadan, he was to build a new automobile centre in the town of Onitsha, 450 km to the east. At that time, SCAO was the leading representative of Peugeot, Austin and Chrysler in Nigeria.

The architect of the new garage was Mr Straubhaar, a Swiss citizen who had his offices in Paris at SCAO. He arrived with the plans. With the help of regional chiefs from the Ibo tribe, the change of ownership of the property was carried out. As there is no land register, the chiefs do everything. Another chief inaugurated the construction site with a big party and huge fanfare. An Italian construction company received the contract for the construction work. Karl supervised the work and demanded an additional floor above the halls. He needed space for classrooms: to adjust the valves, assemble the rear axle, adjust the carburettor, check the electrical system, etc.

The operation in Onitsha had to be organised from the ground up: car mechanics, locksmiths, car fenders, automakers, car electricians, service personnel and cleaning staff were needed. The administration, the sales organisation and the sales staff had to be hired and trained. As there were no really qualified professionals, a knowledge of human nature and the interview decided on the assignment. For the first time, Karl found it difficult to coordinate all these tasks. The Ibo tribe living in Onitsha had a different dialect from the Lagos Yoruba. Another world, different values and habits. It required translators, and the Yoruba foreman first had to learn the language of the Ibos.