Moist, dark, constantly vibrating, subject to enormous fluctuations in temperature and under constant high mechanical stress: That is the profoundly inhospitable environment inside a car wheel, as Coroplast CEO Natalie Mekelburger describes it, waxing almost literary. Indeed, it’s within the wheel-housing where some of the most important safety technology is located, including the ultra-fine sensors which secure anti-blocking brake systems and the electrical parking brake.
Which is why Ms. Mekelburger retains a hint of pride when explaining how her company successfully builds wiring systems that can withstand such harsh conditions.“A very difficult space,” she repeats, with the knowledge that Coroplast has, to a certain extent, helped to reinvent the wheel – from the inside. Splayed across a table in massive bundles, the tangled orange and black cables might not look like much, but they are a specialty of Coroplast – and increasingly their bread and butter. Ms. Mekelburger grabs the bunches enthusiastically and holds them up, the different cable ends dangling from both hands.
Sitting on the purple sofa in her office, Ms. Mekelburger pauses occasionally from all the tech-talk to marvel at the magnificent view of the of the River Wupper cutting through the valley and bathed in sun. On the wall, a large-format painting by Bernhard Lokai, a student of the eminent German painter Gerhard Richter, matches the purple lounge furniture. By comparison, the smaller painting with muted colors of a rustic road scene in 1918 looks inconspicuous. But for Ms. Mekelburger, it is the smaller image that has greater significance. The chief executive of the Wuppertal-based adhesive tape manufacturer calls it “the original Coroplast picture.” It was painted by her great uncle Fritz Müller, an inventor who initially wanted to study art but instead made the fateful decision as to experiment with textile insulating tape for cables.
100 years ago, Wuppertal was a booming center of German industrialization, and the perfect trial ground for Fritz’s superior product. With a healthy dose of marketing moxy, he was soon tasked with insulating the electricity network for the entire German Empire. In 1928 he then founded Coroplast Fritz Müller GmbH & Co. KG, which still manufactures at its headquarters in Wuppertal. Last year, the family-owned company generated revenues of €470 million, or $539 million.
“If it had been the plan right from the beginning for me to follow in the footsteps of my father, I would probably have wanted to break out of the straitjacket.”
Insulating tape remained the classic Coroplast product well into the post-war era. It was at the end of the 1980s that Ms. Mekelburger’s father, Kurt Müller, decided to offer tailor-made cable sets to Volkswagen, putting the company on a hugely important future trajectory with the German automobile industry. But it was under Ms. Mekelburger, who joined the company in 1994 as marketing and sales manager and was promoted to the management board in 1997, Coroplast finally made the leap from family company to global player with 6,200 employees.
“To a certain extent, we ventured out into the world through the German automobile industry,” Ms. Mekelburger explained. Big-name carmakers such as Mercedes buy from Coroplast, and VW uses technical adhesive tape from Coroplast in nearly all its cars. Tesla has also recently become a customer. Indeed, the boom in electric cars, which require additional wiring and cable systems, is now opening up future business opportunities for the company.
Growing up in Wuppertal, Ms. Mekelburger worked in the production of insulating tape as a packer during high school. But that job was by no means the beginning of a streamlined career at the company. On the contrary, her father made no secret of the fact that he didn’t think a woman had what it took to run the company. Aside from his initial discouragement, Ms. Mekelburger also had other plans, initially deciding to go into advertising and studying business with a focus on marketing.
“I prefer employees who want too much, and whom I have to pull back, to those I constantly have to coax out of their shell.”
However, her father came around, and suggested she give Coroplast a shot. Ms. Mekelburger followed his call and in 2006 replaced him as chairman of the management board. While her two brothers pursued other career paths, her sister, Constanze Krieger, is now marketing boss at Coroplast. Their father, who passed away two years ago, was able to see the company flourish under his daughter’s leadership – and eventually understand that women were especially capable of understanding the delicate balance between having a family and running a company.
“If it had been the plan right from the beginning for me to follow in the footsteps of my father, I would probably have wanted to break out of the straitjacket,” said Ms. Mekelburger. “But everything developed naturally without any pressure, which was a good thing.”
Ms. Mekelburger recounts that when she initially joined the company, she and her father appeared to be an odd-couple: The patriarch who ordered his daughter to make coffee for visiting clients, and the young CEO who came up with snappy quips for her father’s dated jokes. Soon they managed to compliment each other’s leadership styles and sensibilities.
Like her father and uncle before her, Ms. Mekelburger has continued to encourage entrepreneurial thinking within the company. “I prefer employees who want too much, and whom I have to pull back, to those I constantly have to coax out of their shell,” she explained.
That said, the culture-loving entrepreneur is also shaping the company in her own way. Coroplast has become an active promoter of art, asking visual artists to use the company’s products in a creative way. Large-format paintings can also be found hanging throughout the headquarters. “The art helps employees identify with the company, and it inspires creativity,” said Ms. Mekelburger with an almost Silicon Valley-like belief in the power of creative environments.
That’s not just lip-service – Coroplast regularly wins awards for its human resources policies. Drawing from her own experience, Ms. Mekelburger attaches real importance to the compatibility of career and family, with the company providing the necessary flexibility for parents. After all, the future depends on it.