“Originally, I did not plan to stay in Malta for long,” admits Helga Ellul, whose relationship with the island began in 1974.
She was sent here as Plant Manager of Brandstätter Group’s manufacturing facilities, after spending the first seven years of her career at the Group’s head office in Zirndorf, Germany – the town where she grew up.
Needless to say, things didn’t quite go according to plan, with her journey within the company in Malta going on to span 44 years, culminating in her retirement as Playmobil Malta CEO in 2012.
Looking back on her early days on the island, Helga recalls “a very exciting time” for the Group, revealing that for her, coming from a different country, one of the most important things was to understand the local culture; to know how to work with businesses in the local scene.
“I was always very enthusiastic about meeting other players in the field, so I joined the manufacturing arm of what was then called the Federation of Industry,” she explains, adding that at the time, it was a very local set-up, and the industry was very much in its infancy.
“Things changed in the ‘70s and ‘80s, as a lot of foreign companies began setting up in Malta, and the Federation changed as a result, incorporating a mix of local and foreign companies, and becoming quite powerful as a setup,” Helga recalls.
“At that time, I was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the only woman involved – but I never had a problem with that,” she continues, revealing herself as somewhat of an accidental trailblazer.
Rather than focusing on gender, Helga affirms, “I always thought it depends very much on whether you have something to say which makes sense; if you present it properly, if you listen and learn. I learnt a lot from the local people, and I needed to do that in order to be successful here in Malta.” With a background in sales and administration in Germany, Helga’s initial task when she came to Malta was the setting up of a local administration section.
And, as Playmobil was a family owned company at the time, she feels privileged to have worked very closely with the owner. “We were only some 100 employees at the time, and the founder, Horst Brandstätter, became my mentor.
“He took me under his wing and showed me how everything works on the shop floor and explained the machinery,” she recalls, adding that she’s never been a technical person, but as a leader, you don’t necessarily have to be.
“If you’re running a company, you don’t have to be – or rather you cannot be – an expert in everything. What you need to be is a good leader, bringing together the best experts in each field; listening to them and then directing the way forward,” Helga maintains.
“One of the most important things to succeed is to involve people who know more than you in their specific field, because you need their expert advice.” Describing her long career at Brandstätter Group as her “life’s work”, Helga admits that for her, the most important factor is enjoying the task at hand.
“I always told my people that you need to love what you’re doing. There has to be a certain passion, because you only have one life. If you feel good, you will do a good job.” Acknowledging the fact that some jobs, such as working on the production line, may be more strenuous than others, she affirms that, as a leader, you can make an impact on everyone’s work experience by involving them in company decisions and giving them flexibility, so they can feel a sense of belonging.
“I am very much a people person – I enjoy listening and learning from people, and I like being able to help or give advice whenever I can,” she says, revealing that as Playmobil CEO, she always had an open-door policy and made herself available for people to talk to.
“There were ups and downs, but we had a great company, and we were the frontrunners in many areas, including HR (which wasn’t even a thing back then!). We also embraced a development and training culture, which I had experienced with my own mentor when I was starting out,” she continues.
So much so, that she was also on the board of MCAST for 12 years, and was involved with vocational training, which she says is very close to her heart.
Through this approach, Playmobil gained a reputation as a company that is great to work for and offered good opportunities, which, Helga maintains, worked in the company’s favour in turn: “we had the best talent wanting to join us.”
Looking back at the island when she first arrived in 1974, Helga describes it as unrecognisable from the Malta of today. “When I came to Malta, it was very laid-back, and was still very much driven by a colonial mentality. I was a bit taken aback because I was expecting something similar to Spain or Greece, being a Mediterranean island, but when I arrived, it felt so English!”
Recalling the lack of connectivity and the insularity of the island at the time, Helga remembers having to fly to Germany on a Saturday because there was only one flight a week.
“We were very cut-off, and it reflected in the culture, which was very insular – and yet the young Maltese were so interested in what it was like in Germany, and other countries. I’ll always remember when I first arrived, I wanted a telephone at home.
“They told me that there was a waiting list of two years! You can’t even imagine that today,” she laughs.
Despite the challenges, there was a lot she loved about it too, including the sea, and the charming island life in Gozo. In fact, taking stock of the islands today, Helga laments that things have moved quickly, and Malta has grown very fast.
“I think it did very well for quite a long time, but over the last 10 or 15 years, I feel it has gone overboard, without thinking long-term,” she quips, adding that with mobiles and the internet linking us to the rest of the world, Malta now enjoys a very modern environment.
“It has also changed the way business is done – sometimes you don’t have enough time to reflect before making a decision, because competition is very tough,” she says. Referencing the slowdown of many businesses as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, she posits, “perhaps it has stopped us all to think – hopefully some lessons will be learned about what is important.
“It is of course important to make money, but in what way? It needs to be sustainable in the long-term.”
Indeed, never one to mince her words, Helga has established herself as one of Malta's foremost business leaders throughout her time on the island.
She even served as the first female President of The Malta Chamber of Commerce upon its merger with the Malta Federation of Industry in 2008.
Describing the experience as an interesting challenge, she reveals, “I think it was a bit of a shock to the Chamber – being a foreigner first of all, and also being a female. I wanted to show that ultimately, gender has nothing to do with it – you need to have the right person for the job.
“I feel that when big decisions are taken, women should be present, just as much as men. I think that sent a good message.”
The organisation would go on to face an incredibly difficult time in that period – the 2008 financial crisis – but they hit the ground running and emerged successful. “We got through the crisis extremely well, and the cooperation with Government at the time was brilliant,” Helga says, affirming that she gained a lot from the experience on a personal level, too.
“I learned to look at the economy from a much wider spectrum,” she reveals, admitting that prior to the experience, she was very manufacturing driven. It was a brilliant learning curve, and I had a great team with me.”
Over the years, the businesswoman has also received several commendations, having been awarded the Midalja għall-Qadi tar-Repubblika in 1994, and the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit on behalf of the German President by German Ambassador Bernd Braun in 2011.
Careful to point out that winning an award is not the reason one should work hard, she notes that they are certainly achievements which she is proud of, and, better yet, “it made my children and husband very proud.”
They also reflect Helga’s belief in the importance of recognition for good work. “I have always believed that if people do good, you should tell them. Being recognised and receiving a pat on the back means a lot,” she says. And, while she’s since retired from Playmobil, Helga is adamant that it’s not time to step back just yet.
Having set up her own consulting company Advise Ltd, it gives her a platform through which she can continue to be of service to family businesses – her area of expertise. “I couldn’t just stop and do nothing – that’s not me. This way I get to continue to do what I enjoy,” she smiles.
But that’s not all the former CEO has on her plate. Helga is also the President of CORE Platform, which was set up by President Emeritus Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca in 2015, to encourage businesses to embrace Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).
“CORE Platform is supported by several business institutions including The Malta Chamber, Malta Chamber of SMEs (former GRTU), Malta Employers’ Association, Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association, and Malta Business Bureau, among others. We are also members of CSR Europe, which is a very strong lobby group in Brussels,” Helga explains, hitting on a subject that she is visibly passionate about.
Finally, looking back on her illustrious career and the achievements which have come with it, Helga lists one she’s particularly proud of: having a family while running a business. “I cannot tell you how much that means to me,” she says, her eyes lighting up as she describes her two children and four grandchildren as “the blessing of my life.”
This interview was first carried in the December-January edition of the Commercial Courier
All images by Inigo Taylor