There are few women in the engineering sector and fewer still in its top jobs. One of those high achievers is Grundfos Pumps' Heidi Berger. She began her career as a secretary and is now the company's business director, Dosing & Disinfection.
With an annual production of over 16 million pumps, Grundfos is one of the world's leading manufacturers. Its many products include circulator and centrifugal pumps for industry, plus water supply, sewage and dosing and disinfection product for water treatment. The company claims to be the world's largest manufacturer of circulators, covering about 50% of the global market.
By any standards, Grundfos is an important company in the pumps world, so it is noteworthy that the UK arm of its Dosing & Disinfection Division is now being run by Heidi Berger. It is still relatively rare for a woman to achieve a senior position in a large engineering company, and World Pumps met her to discover some of the secrets of her success.
Heidi Berger, currently business director Dosing & Disinfection at Grundfos Pumps Limited: “Being a woman has sometimes felt a hindrance, yet it has never held me back.” Ms Berger holds the position of business director Dosing & Disinfection, Grundfos Pumps Limited. Previously she was sales director Dosing & Disinfection at the company, a position she had held from July 2010 to January 2013. Prior to that, Ms Berger was sales director with Alldos Limited from 1996 to July 2010.
Over coffee and biscuits, we asked her to provide details of her background, including her education and career. So, what about her education? Did she have a youthful drive to succeed?
“I left school in 1983,” she says, “and I'm not sure I was that concerned about a career to start with, as my love then was for art and creativity. However, art foundation degree courses were very popular, so many graduates were unable to find jobs.
“Whilst at school I had done morning and evening paper rounds and worked on Saturdays in Birmingham's Rag Market. Once I'd left school, it was assumed I was going to college to study art but after some deliberation, and against my parents wishes, I went to college to learn secretarial skills. I decided a year out wouldn't hurt. It was a desire to work more than anything else.
“I've always liked to work and I have the drive and determination to succeed in anything that I'm challenged with, and my father influenced this. He's in his 79th year now and he still won't get anybody to help him with anything. He's a nightmare! But he taught me from an early age to do the same. This is probably why I work so hard. His work ethic is not to rely on other people. He is self-sufficient; I am now too.”
But as she had a creative mindset, how easy was it for her to move into a sector like engineering?
“My first day job was incredibly boring”, she says, “but my newly acquired secretarial skills resulted in a work placement as an office junior at the age of seventeen for an engineering company specialising in industrial waste water treatment. I often took memos at meetings, and I started to think, ‘why is what they are doing so much more interesting than what I'm doing’? And my interest helped me on my career path I think.
“Being a young woman in a predominantly male environment, I was certainly an oddity as a teenager. I was challenged on several different levels, mainly because of my young age and because I was female, and I soon learned I had something to prove.
“At the time, in 1985, very few women were involved in engineering and I wasn't always taken seriously. There was plenty of sexual innuendo too. That was commonplace then.”
So what interested her about water treatment to begin with?
“I was fascinated from day one by the different chemical processes, and the products that were used, applications and company structures, and by all the seemingly clever people with their chemical engineering backgrounds.
“It was really not what I was used to and so much more interesting than being an office junior. So not so long in my new role, I applied for the position of sales coordinator for the chemical dosing team at the company. In truth, from there I have never looked back.
“I had to deal with a great many frontline sales enquiries, which was a good experience. And then I became involved in training graduate engineers. I also had to attend exhibitions. I was not regularly out on the road at this time, though I did go out occasionally with the sales reps on some visits. One early memory is of visiting an open day for North West Water, which I remember as being fascinating. I was only about eighteen or nineteen at the time.
“I also got to see some on-site installations. Once at a site, I didn't just want to see pumps; I wanted to see them in use, to see the entire process. Luckily for my interest, chemical dosing pumps are used everywhere. I've been lucky to see many types of chemical process and different industries. All this was invaluable experience.”
Over the next decade, Ms Berger continued in her role, training graduate chemical engineers, putting together technical quotations and providing customer support. With experience and age now on her side, she says she had built up a good reputation. However, she had originally aimed to be at the company for a few years. Instead, she has worked there ten years, and at times she had the feeling that she was ‘practically running the operation’.
However, her career was about to change significantly…
In 1996, Alldos, a German manufacturer of dosing pumps and disinfection systems (now a Grundfos company), was looking to establish an office in the UK. “I was still quite young and very ambitious,” she says, “and I really felt that I could run this new venture.
“With my former colleague, Tosh Singh, we worked hard on our business plan and we had several meetings before being rewarded with the positions of sales director and marketing director.”
Ms Berger handed in her notice and started work on establishing the new company office in Birmingham in the UK. These were exciting times for her, as she related to World Pumps about the start of the business.
“We were given a sizable budget by Alldos to establish the brand name. It was brilliant and we were so full of ideas. Tosh and I shared the responsibilities and for the first time I felt I had full control with virtually a free hand. My time was spent on the road, doing technical training, site visits, sales meetings in Germany, in the office putting quotations together and processing orders. We did a lot of advertising, marketing and attending exhibitions. I loved it!
“It was an interesting time. One day I could be visiting a senior process engineer at a water treatment consultant, or the next day having coffee with many of the nationwide pump distributors, which could be very different in terms of me being treated differently because I was a woman – although I was never offended. It was pretty much how things were at that time. Alldos Limited was a success. We continually exceeded our targets both in turnover and profit.”
Heidi at IWEX 2007. She attended many exhibitions with both Alldos and Grundfos. At this exhibition, the company displayed its water disinfection ranges – in particular for chlorine dioxide generators and electrochlorination.
But more changes were on the way….
“Around 2000 to 2001, we learned that the company was up for sale. It was not what we wanted, but eventually Alldos was sold to Grundfos, which was looking to move into the dosing market. I was appointed sales director for Dosing & Disinfection.”
But as so often the case, following a takeover, things initially were not easy.
“Early on, it was difficult. I was now heading-up the UK operation. The company culture was very different from what I was used to and I was expected to pick up the reins and get on with it. I only had a few people I could approach for advice, so it was quite hard to start with. My role at Grundfos was very different from the role that I was used to, and proving myself in this new company seemed to be my biggest challenge initially. To start with, sales dipped for the first time ever. Also, I had come in at quite a senior level at Grundfos; I did feel quite uncomfortable in those early days.
“The biggest cultural shift”, she says, “was mainly focused around the fact that Grundfos is seen as a company that sells pumps. Although I had been involved with selling dosing pumps, at Alldos we produced disinfection systems, powder handling flocculation equipment and instrumentation, so had seen ourselves more as being a water treatment business solutions provider.
“I learned quickly what was expected of me, to calm down, get out on the road and meet customers. It was, for me, less ‘hands-on’ and being ‘hands-on’ was what I was used to. I had to learn to delegate. which I'm still not good at it but I'm still learning.
“It was not an easy time. I had to balance work and home life, and work was certainly taking over.
“In my opinion, the integration period was an awkward time, but after eighteen difficult months had gone by I realised that Grundfos was a brilliant company to work for. Since the latest reorganisation, I'm able to focus more on business development. More recently, the restructure has seen my team integrated into the newly formed Water Utilities Group.”
Then, in January 2013, she was appointed business director Dosing & Disinfection at Grundfos, leading a dedicated technical team responsible for the product range and supporting sales across the whole of Grundfos' UK business. “Our focus now”, she says, “is to be a total solutions provider.”
We asked Ms Berger how she met the challenges she faced? And what were male attitudes to her during this period?
“Being a young woman in a mainly male environment did mean I had something to prove. My first real challenge came when a water engineer visited with a problem. I asked him whether I could help. He replied: ‘Darling, get a man to phone me when you're back in your office’. I was angered by that.”
Has being a woman helped, we wondered? “I'm not sure. Sometimes it felt like a hindrance, yet it has never held me back – look where I am now. And I've been head-hunted many times. I think it's my personality that's got me through, being a woman has nothing to do with it really. However, I did have issues. I used to like to make myself be heard, but I was quite young and being a woman in this position, I was under the impression that often I was not taken seriously.
“I had to ensure that people realised I was not there in a clerical capacity or to add glamour to the sales team, and I wanted to be known in a technical capacity as a chemical dosing expert.”
Finally, we asked, would she encourage more women to get involved in engineering? She replies: “Yes, definitely. My daughter's going to be an engineer; she's fascinated to see how things work. So, yes, I would!”
2017 Pump Industry Awards
World Pumps is keen to encourage nominations for young engineers at the 2017 Pump Industry Awards.
Please contact Editor Alan Burrows for further information.
Elsevier: Celebrating Women in Engineering
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