Tradition and modernity are not mutually exclusive

Gerald Hirt, Managing Director of the Hamburg Vessel Coordination Center (HVCC), was unable to become a captain. Nevertheless, he is still in charge of ships.

They could, of course, have taken a photo in the great hall. Heavy beams, a formidably long conference table and, on the wall, an imposing historical painting of the surrounding Speicherstadt historical warehouse district. To the beholder, the photo would have said: “look, here resides a venerable company, an institution of the Hamburg economy.”

This setting, however, would not have been an accurate reflection of how HHLA – Hamburger Hafen und Logistik AG – sees itself. Nor would it have been right for Hirt, the Managing Director of its subsidiary HVCC and the subject of the photograph. With his career, he epitomises the company’s human resources philosophy. And that’s why he isn’t posing in the elegant conference room. “HHLA is, of course, a group with a long history of which we are very proud,” remarks Hirt. “But tradition and modernity need not be mutually exclusive.”

Indeed, HHLA has evolved considerably – as has the rest of the increasingly global port sector. On an international level, a battle is raging for young talents and the top professionals. After all, employees play a crucial role in ensuring a company’s success. “The battle for young talents, experts and managers is now one of our most enjoyable challenges,” explains Arno Schirmacher, Head of HR Management at HHLA, which employs some 3,500 people in Hamburg – and more than 6,300 worldwide. “In addition to attractive jobs, we also boast a certain advantage in terms of our location: everyone has positive associations with ships.”

The battle for young talents, experts and executives

The competition is also evident on another level: in the search for employees. After all, it is they who make a company successful. "The competition for young talents, experts and managers is one of our most beautiful challenges today," explains Arno Schirmacher, Director of HR Management at HHLA. "In addition to attractive jobs, we also have a certain start advantage: everyone actually connects something positive with ships."

Just as a visit to the imposing container terminals is the highlight of any harbour cruise, these terminals also exert a magnetic effect on applicants. The Port of Hamburg – Germany’s “gateway to the world” – automatically conjures a longing for faraway places and adventure.

HVCC Managing Director Hirt also fell under this spell, with childhood ferry journeys to Scandinavia sparking his passion for the maritime world. And if his eyesight had been just 0.2 dioptres sharper, he would probably have obtained his captain’s licence after earning his Abitur (school leaving quation) and spending two years in the navy. Originally from Göttingen, he nonetheless found a route into the shipping industry. He enrolled on a course in seaborne transport and port management at the Oldenburg University of Applied Sciences.

Following a period of training at the shipping company P&O Nedlloyd, he joined the HHLA subsidiary HPC Hamburg Port Consulting in 2003. During his time at this company, which advises clients around the world on port management, Hirt mainly worked on market analysis. Just two years later, he moved on to his next role within the Group – sales manager at HHLA’s container terminals.

For HR manager Schirmacher, these rapid switches to different parts of the company illustrate the lack of barriers at HHLA. “We offer our employees great opportunities,” he says. “When they develop and grow, so does the company.” The ability to unlock your potential at HHLA is, in Hirt’s view, one of the great strengths of the Group. But the initial impetus has to come from the employees themselves: “Ultimately, everyone is responsible for their own career path. If you show initiative, your line managers will listen.”

“When they develop and grow, so does the company.”

Arno Schirmacher, Head of HR Management at HHLA

His was a case in point: back in 2007, he approached his bosses with the idea of signing up for a part-time MBA in Shipping & Logistics at the Copenhagen Business School. The course ran for two years, with one-week periods of attendance every two months. HHLA responded positively, even paying a large portion of the tuition fees.

At the time, his line managers were, on the one hand, won over by the added value for the company on account of better-qualified personnel. On the other, Hirt’s MBA paid off in a more specific sense, as his thesis explored questions that were relevant to HHLA.

Having completed his degree, Hirt soon started taking on roles that involved HR responsibility, with HHLA preparing him specifically for these positions with seminars held by external coaches. “In my opinion, it’s important that these training sessions are not held in-house,” points out Hirt. He argues that personal matters are discussed and that participants have more freedom when they know that their words won’t be recorded in their personnel file.

He now leads a team comprising 17 employees. Since July 2017, Hirt has been the Managing Director of the Hamburg Vessel Coordination Center (HVCC), a joint venture initiated by HHLA in conjunction with EUROGATE, the city’s second-largest terminal operator. As a central, neutral and industry-wide coordination point, the HVCC ensures mega-ship, feeder and inland waterway vessel traffic runs smoothly for arrivals in the Port of Hamburg, routes around the port and departure after handling.

When asked about his HR philosophy, Hirt responds: “I try to give employees the same opportunities that were given to me.”