She had a successful career in industry but Helga Ellul says she will make a hopeless politician. She speaks to Kurt Sansone after retiring as CEO of Playmobil.
You’ve had quite an illustrious career with Brandstatter and your retirement did catch some people by surprise. Does this mean that you are not a busy woman anymore?
I would like to see more women involved on boards. But to have this imposed is degrading for women
I always made it very clear that at a certain age I would stop and in typical German fashion it was planned. I had the designate CEO with me for the last three years. He was the chief operating officer already and it should be a smooth handover with no major changes. I hope I will still keep busy. I don’t want to be involved in management but more on boards, in an advisory role. I have set up a small consultancy company and I am already on a number of company boards.
You might find some difficulty there with most companies being family owned, with little input from outside and definitely not with a German way of planning succession.
Succession is one of the major problems with Maltese companies. But many firms have now seen the benefit of getting non-executive directors from outside the family on their boards. In many Maltese companies family members occupy the different roles of shareholder, director and manager. It is very similar to Germany. This is not very easy for them and like all families emotion also comes into play. Being an outsider helps them focus on the business strategy.
What legacy do you leave behind at Playmobil?
I do hope I leave behind a highly motivated and skilled workforce. I always believed, and still do, in the strength of our workforce. Playmobil would not be the success it is today without the people that worked there.
You have been involved in Maltese industry since 1974. How does this country treat investors?
When Brandstatter came here in 1971 it was a time when Malta was trying to attract foreign investors. There were quite a number of German medium-sized companies that found Malta very attractive. The attractiveness was based on a whole package including tax incentives, Malta’s closeness to Europe, the English language, a good education system and a disciplined workforce.
You think of Malta as a Mediterranean country the likes of Greece, Italy and Spain but here we found very much an Anglo-Saxon behaviour that included gentleman’s agreements and timeliness.
Today, I don’t think things have changed that much. One of the biggest advantages for an investor is the people and their yearning to learn. Another advantage is the relatively fast decision-making process as a result of easy access to the top people. This is an aspect where the country’s smallness works as an advantage.
Some industrialists complain about not being able to find enough workers with the right set of skills. How has the educational sector responded to industry’s needs?
It is always very difficult and this has always been an issue. If you ask industry what skills they will need in the next five years they won’t be able to tell you that much a ahead because things change so fast. On the other hand, in education you need to plan ahead. What Malta did and does is keep a certain level of flexibility.
What has helped tremendously, and I am proud to be part of it, is the Malta College for Arts, Science and Technology.
It was something industry had long been crying out for. Since 2000 when MCAST was set up it has filled the gap that we had. We need a pyramid in education: the university graduates, the researchers but you also need the technicians who can apply the knowledge.
Last year you were among three top CEOs who complained of high government-induced costs that threatened industry’s competitiveness. The high cost of energy was one of the issues. How serious a concern was this?
It was a very serious concern. As business people we understood the Government’s argument, including the difficulties of Malta’s dependence on oil. But we were unhappy with the overnight approach that was adopted. As businesses we have to plan one to two years ahead and all of a sudden we were faced with a steep rise in energy costs.
We could have identified ways to save on energy costs and design the right support measures. This was done later with schemes to encourage use of alternative energy sources and it helped smoothen out the steep rise but the shock treatment was unnecessary.
You have often harped on the importance of maintaining Malta’s competitiveness. It is a heavy word that is often linked to wages. People on the ground feel their wage does not take them far and yet industrialists keep warning against raising wages. How can the two conflicting messages be reconciled?
They are not conflicting. Industrialists are not clamouring for low wages. Wages are not low but what has to be done is link increases to more productivity. You cannot pay for something unless you get something more in return such as working faster, smarter or better skills. To get an increase in income you have to be ready to adopt new practices. This is what we have always told unions: do not be inflexible. It has to be a win-win situation for both sides. People sometimes do not realise what a good standard of living we have.
There will always be a part of the population on social needs and one has to help them. But we have to make a difference between those who need help and those who can help themselves and have to work. They have to work smarter not harder, be on time and do it properly and then we can both do well – companies and employees.
The Government has signed a collective agreement for civil servants. It will add €12 million more every year to the Government wage bill. How will this impact the private sector?
It will obviously come out of taxpayer money. With the civil service it should work like a large company. We had a big change when we joined the EU and a brilliant job was done in the civil service. There was a need for more training and better technology. It is not just about paying more but about what new efficiencies can be acquired for the extra remuneration.
The summer half days, an issue with businesses, have not been touched.
In some cases they have already been touched. In certain cases you can go later. It is unfortunate because it is so rigidly set. I know of places where they work in the afternoon in summer but it will not be open to the public. And the public will not go on a summer afternoon. There has to be flexibility because we might need more time in winter instead.
How would you describe the role of unions in Malta’s industrial relations landscape? Do they play a constructive role?
They do. We always had good relations. Unions have to attract members but they know that businesses need flexibility and it is not easy transmitting this down to their membership. Unions are our partners and stakeholders. A strong union is not the one that waves placards but one that gets a good deal for you.
The EU Commission wants mandatory women quotas for boards of listed companies. Is this a necessary evil?
I am not very much in favour. I would like to see more women involved on boards. But to have this imposed is degrading for women. Some say if nothing is done it will not happen so fast. I think one needs to understand why women would not go for it or why women are not represented.
More women than men graduate from university. Where is the problem?
After university comes family planning and most want to shift to part-time or flexible hours. This is not easily available, although this is changing and employers are seeing the benefits of allowing more flexibility and teleworking. But we only think of women of a certain age bracket.
Maybe we should also look at women at an age when their children are at O or A level stage. We have to encourage them to go back by providing training to make them confident again. At this stage they will have time and they can return to work, politics, boardrooms, wherever they belong. We cannot expect them to do this in their late 20s and 30s when they are raising a young family because they cannot do everything or else they need a husband who is willing to share responsibilities.
There is a culture issue on how a family manages its internal dynamics but there is also a question of how much support is available out there in the form of childcare facilities and their affordability.
More needs to be done. Childcare centres have to be encouraged and we have to look at the fee structure but for professional women that is not the issue.
It is more a question of time and we need to support them by looking at school closing times. We need schools to be open for longer, possibly day schools or boarding schools where children live and return to their family over the weekend. We need to look at different possibilities. For low-wage earners we need childcare facilities that are affordable and with opening times that are aligned with their parents’ working times.
Coalitions would encourage parties to look at the overall picture and adjust accordingly
But you are against the idea of quotas.
Yes, I am against quotas. I never had a problem.
All my life I have been on boards with men.
The only problem I feel is women need to understand what it means to get onto a board.
Men also have to have those skills?
Men have the network and they all help each other. There has to be a bit of training and knowledge even for young men. I have often found on boards there is little knowledge of what it means to be a board member.
If I were to ask you to look at your circle of friends and compile a list of board-ready women, would it be a long one?
It will be a short list. Women may not be interested – they may have a family, the children, a lifestyle they enjoy.
Not everybody wants to be a board member. I never stopped working but I had a husband who supported me and we structured our whole family life around two working parents. Not everybody is ready for that and there isn’t a culture for that.
Youngsters will change. My two children who are both married would not dream of not having both parents work. They grew up in this environment and for them it is very natural. It will take time. But what I don’t understand is why young professional women do not open up their own businesses. They can make their own flexible work arrangements.
It is quite a tall order to achieve and some would argue that quotas could help bridge the gap in a shorter time span.
A lot of women argue that quotas will help stimulate a drive to having more women on boards. They see this as a faster route.
If there are quotas in place they should be linked to their profile. The worst part for women is if they are on boards and give women a bad name.
There are men on boards who give their ilk a bad name.
But that is the old establishment. With more capable women on boards that will change. Until now this issue never cropped up because it was such a male network. In the future, professionalism, irrespective of gender will become more necessary not by choice.
Have you been approached by any political party to be a candidate for the general election or the European Parliament election?
I don’t think I would be a very good politician.
Does politics appeal to you?
Only from the outside: It is not something that is in me.
Why wouldn’t you be a good politician?
I would be too straightforward, not diplomatic enough. I am very outspoken and to a certain extent think it would be a problem for me to depend always on doing what is seen as the right thing and not what I think is the right thing.
Are you trying to be diplomatic here.
I’m trying but as you see I am not very good. I have my strategy, my vision, I know that it is right and would like to go for it and that might not always be possible in politics.
How did the uncertainty on the election and the slim majority in Parliament impact business?
The problem is that in Malta with just two political parties it is always a close run and this makes it very difficult for whoever wins to govern.
Whereas in other countries we have more parties and coalition governments and different constellations, in Malta it is so close knit that if it is not a clear majority than it will be very difficult to govern.
The perception is that coalition governments will bring more instability.
In Germany we do have that (instability) but it is not all negative because a party has to come out with a proper programme and then change according to the coalition, which may not be the worst of it. Coalitions would encourage parties to look at the overall picture and adjust accordingly.