Helga Ellul’s relationship with Malta dates back to 1974, when Geobra Brandstäetter, the company she had been working with for five years in her native Germany, seconded her here. Today, Helga cites that move as the most important of her life.
“The company was founded by Horst Brandstäetter,” she explains. “It went from making metal toys in its early years to the world-famous hula-hoop rings in the 1960s, and many other plastic toys after that. I was lucky enough to work very closely with Horst and he was my mentor.”
At the end of the 1960s, Helga explains that the company was under a lot of pressure from competitors in former East Germany and former Yugoslavia, as organisations operating under communist regimes were given a lot of help by their governments, especially when it came to product export. Germany was also experiencing full employment at the time, so it was difficult to source good employees, while wages were only going up and up. “That’s when the company started to look for production sites outside Germany,” Helga shares. “And, in 1971, we opened a small set-up in Malta – with all of the materials sourced from Germany, sent to Malta for production, and then sent back to our head office to be sold.”
By 1974, the operation on the island was going well, with 50 employees and plenty of opportunities for growth. “That’s when I came into the picture,” Helga smiles. “I planned to be here for a year to organise the administration function for the Malta factory, right around the same time we introduced our new product – Playmobil figures – to the trade. Back then no one could foresee what a success those figures would be.”
The small figure parts all had to be assembled by hand, and in Malta there was an endless supply of people looking for jobs. “Malta was the ideal place for us to be because wages were lower than in Germany, and the island had plenty of well-educated English-speaking people eager to work, especially as the unemployment rate was at 20 per cent back then.”
So, as the factory grew, Helga’s one-year stay quickly extended to two, then three… “I had met my husband a couple of months after moving here,” she says. “We got married in 1977 and it was then that I pretty much decided to stay in Malta indefinitely and to take on full charge of the Malta factory and its growth.”
Of course, it was very unusual for a woman to head a business back then, especially one in the manufacturing sector. “Wherever I went – Malta or otherwise – I only ever dealt with men,” Helga recalls. “But I have to confess that wasn’t a problem for me. I live by the rule that, if what you say and do makes sense, you quickly earn respect – whether from a man or a woman. My approach was always to encourage others to share their views and ideas. Every single person in the company was important to me, no matter the level. They all helped me build the organisation and had a hand in its success.”
That said, Helga stresses she wasn’t an ‘easy’ or ‘soft’ leader; she always expected a lot from her people but was willing to give and take too. “As a boss you should never ask somebody to do something you’re not prepared to do yourself. Respect has to be earned, and you must always gain the trust of your employees.” “I was also very lucky,” she adds, “that my own boss in Germany really let me run the Malta plant the way I wanted and didn’t interfere or control too much. As long as the bottom line was achieved, he let me do and develop the company the way I wanted to. And, believe me, he always got excellent results and a strong bottom line.”
Clearly it worked, as Helga went on to spend 40 years as CEO of the company here in Malta, growing it from a team of 50 to 1,200. “We were pioneers in many areas,” she explains. “Whether it was human resource development and management, achieving ISO quality standards, or embracing the very latest technology, you name it. We always wanted to do things better, smarter and to stay in touch with the younger generation.”
Today she looks back on those years and says she loved every moment. “I walked the talk every morning and evening in the factory but I also felt, especially as I was in a foreign country, that I had to get to know the society and community around me in order to be able to understand the people I was working with. That led me to join the Chamber of Commerce way back in 1975, and then to take on a variety of related roles, including President of the National Council of Women, President for the Foundation of Human Resources Development, President of Rotary and, of course, President of the Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise and Industry. All of those engagements helped me to understand the business community, and to create a network of business friends I could learn from.”
And now – having left Playmobil in 2012 – Helga runs Advise, her own successful consultancy firm, while making time for more of the things she loves. “Work has been wonderful but my most important achievement in my life is that I also managed to have a family – my husband, my two children and now my three grandchildren. It wasn’t always easy to combine both, but my husband was a very strong and supportive partner, while I was also very disciplined. I never took work home. My home was my family. If I had work pressure, I would go back to my office after the kids were asleep and work until late at night. To this day, weekends are completely dedicated to family. To be honest, that is exactly the way I want it to be,” she adds with a smile.
MaltaChamber.org.mt is proud to be serialising MaltaCEOs 2019, a high-profile publication consisting of 50 in-depth interviews with leading CEOs in Malta. Celebrating the most influential business minds in the country, two different interviews will be featured on this business news portal week by week. MaltaCEOs was created by Content House Group in collaboration with the Malta Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise & Industry.