Stephan May has been working with edgebands for 35 years. Stephan joined REHAU in 1982 as an apprentice toolmaker. His path within the company included various roles around the world, and he also studied in parallel for a degree in economics, before he became Plant Manager and then Director Operations & SCM of the Furniture & Industrial Solutions divisions. We spoke to Stephan about his impressive career and his special passion for edgebands.
People behind RAUKANTEX
Stephan May – a career dedicated to edgebands
Stephan, you have two anniversaries coming up soon: 40 years of the Visbek plant and also 50 years of RAUKANTEX. How and where will they be celebrated?
Both of these occasions must indeed be celebrated. We just need to approach things creatively during the coronavirus pandemic. We are delighted about the new edgeband magazine that will shine a spotlight on our product, but also about the many articles on the web and on Daily that make us proud of this success story. If the infection rates allow it, we will celebrate with our employees at the Visbek plant. We are currently considering various scenarios.
The edgeband is a common thread running through your career. What makes it so exciting that you have remained loyal to it for so long?
In a nutshell, it’s the people and the shared successes. Right from the start, I was fascinated by the enthusiasm of the FS team around the globe as it worked to overcome challenges, and also the respect that people have for each other here. Technically, it was mainly the different materials, from PVC to ABS and PP, that pushed me to keep breaking new ground – tinkering, trying things out, using initial failure as motivation... Then there are the unbelievable evolutionary steps in decorative designs, textures, gloss levels or processing methods, right through to the laser-welded edgeband. And – despite all of the modern measurement techniques and quality standards – ultimately, it still needs a ‘trained eye’ to get the final decorative design settings exactly right.
Which project has particularly fascinated you along the way?
The material polypropylene, without a doubt. I was able to be involved in its entire development and can now see what a huge evolution has taken place in terms of the process. What was unthinkable 20 years ago is now standard. When we first started PP production with our pilot customer Waldner Labormöbel, it was certainly no walk in the park. To begin with, what came out of the extruder had very little to do with edgebands. Even so, we ‘tamed’ the material and forced it into the correct shape to form a product ready for serial production. These days, the PP edgeband is the standard in the kitchen market and it is now going through the next stages of its evolution in view of the requirements of sustainability.
Did you have a mentor who shaped and encouraged you in the early years?
Yes, two highly respected colleagues believed in me and encouraged me. The first was Thomas Schaller, who had just returned from Canada in 1986 and became Plant Manager of Plant 3 at Rehau. He taught me to put my trust in people, to talk to them, respect them and to find out what their strengths and potential are. My second mentor was Dr Ulrich Günther, who was manager of the production department at the end of the 90s. To me, they were both discoverers and visionaries, and they were my mentors for many years, driving me to keep reflecting on myself, developing and (setting an example by) putting my values into practice.
It will be five years in December since you took over as manager of the Visbek plant, the most important hub for edgebands in Europe. In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges?
There are now approximately 650 people working at Visbek. We are therefore a big family and we need to take everyone with us on our edgeband journey, motivating them and training them. Only those who are well trained will be able to withstand the current pressure to perform in production and logistics. We all have to make decisions every day, frequently and quickly. This dynamic has increased massively since the introduction of the internet. It means that everyone needs to keep a clear head. Expertise is the basis of everything we DO and, ultimately, employees need to make their own independent decisions and trust in them. Developing this mutual trust and delegating responsibility was important to me right from the start when I became the new Plant Manager at Visbek. That is my management style.
How have customer requirements changed over the years?
Every customer always wants a perfect product, but the quality requirements and the associated professionalism and reliability of the product and process have now reached a whole new level, especially in industrial production. Customers are driving the use of highly automated processes at furniture plants. Reliable partners are therefore needed, with transparent processes and professional quality management, to ensure that production doesn’t come to a standstill. REHAU is able to perform at precisely this level. Digitalisation processes now make it possible for me to see from my workstation exactly which edgeband is being produced on which machine. We are able to track every roll, every batch precisely, which is important if there are complaints and then for finding a solution together with the customer. We can also send the required processing parameters to our customer’s machine with every roll.
You are currently managing the next chapter for Visbek – the expansion of the logistics centre. What are your expectations for this milestone?
I was delighted that the decision about where to locate the new logistics centre went in Visbek’s favour. This is a personal milestone for me, one where I can really leave my mark. I am convinced that it is the right way to further expand our service concept across Europe. With our concept of ‘any quantity, any length’, we can supply the carpentry sector with edgebands of one metre and more from a pool of more than 100,000 variants and decorative design, colour, finish and processing options.
What tip would you give to young technicians or engineers who are just starting their careers?
Make your own decisions, trust in people, be brave and get something done – success has two letters: ‘DO’.
Thank you for the interview, Stephan!