From ordinary seaman to head of HR

As an ordinary seaman, Christian Müller sailed to South and North America in the 1950s, witnessed the emergence of container shipping, and experienced the merger that created Hapag-Lloyd at first hand. He worked as an operator in London and San Francisco before discovering a passion for cruise shipping – and eventually becoming a personnel manager. In what follows, the captain talks about his beginnings, the opportunities that arose for navigators in the 1970s, and why he is proud that experienced seafarers still call the shots in the HR Department today.

Habenhausen is an idyllic, almost rural district of the Hanseatic city of Bremen. The Werdersee lake lies to its north, and the Weser River flows along its eastern side. Its quiet streets are lined with cosy, single-family homes, and the recreational area just around the corner is a perfect place to take long walks.

In 1957, a then 17-year-old Christian Müller ventured out from here into the wider world. “My father worked as a general practitioner after the Second World War,” Müller recounts. “He was the only one around for miles, ran a huge practice, and had me in mind as his successor. But the high school he sent me to, where we learned ancient languages, wasn’t for me – and I luckily failed out! I met my future wife at the next school in April 1956.”

The eyes of the now 81-year-old shine. Sitting at his side at the well-laid garden table is his wife, Marianne, who mockingly but affectionately rolls her eyes before saying: “Come on! You’re supposed to talk about seafaring!” But Müller thinks that the beginnings of his voyages would have only been half as romantic without his wife.

“In 1960, Marianne went to the United States for a year to work as an au pair,” he says. “I had just started working as an ordinary seaman for North German Lloyd. I got on my bike, rode to the seamen’s employment office in the overseas harbour, and asked if I could get a ship to the northern part of the West Coast of the Americas.” A few weeks later, Marianne “happened” to be waiting for him at the pier in Long Beach. Mother and grandmother had arranged the encounter. The casual flirtation turned into a steady relationship. And even though the captain of the “Bartenstein” frowned upon it, Marianne boarded the ship for its return voyage and sailed back home together with her future husband. In separate cabins, of course.

Mail from Chile, voyages with coffee and cotton, chief mate after the merger

Over 60 years later, Müller still remembers all of this – and the many stages of his career with Hapag-Lloyd – as if it were yesterday. Just recently, the captain stuck his prominent nose into the past once again. Countless letters and audiotapes that he, his wife and his three sons mailed each other over the years are stored in the cellar. “I found a letter from Chile in which I described in detail to the children my visit to a Catholic church in Antofagasta – but I was never Catholic,” the captain notes with a laugh.

He says that the first years, when the boys were small, were hard. Nodding, his wife adds: “Whenever Christian set sail, I would first clean the entire house from top to bottom. But then a profound emptiness would set in. Although I had plenty to do with the boys, I missed my husband a lot. And that only got better later, when I accompanied him on voyages.”

Müller sailed on many different vessels – including the “Liebenstein”, the “Buntenstein” and the “Moselstein” – as a fourth, third and second officer. “Most of my voyages were to Central America,” he recalls. “We loaded coffee and cotton, still crawling through the holds ourselves. That was tough physical labour,” he says.

The emergence of container shipping and Hapag’s merger with North German Lloyd in 1970 led to changes in working methods and areas of operation. What’s more, Müller was the first former employee of North German Lloyd to be promoted to chief mate. “I had just returned from a three-month voyage when the call came asking if I could fill in on a ship departing for Brazil the next day,” he recounts. “My wife wasn’t exactly thrilled, and there were some tears. But after we negotiated that she could come along on the next voyage, I accepted the offer.”

Working as an operator in London and San Francisco

The merger of the Hamburg- and Bremen-based shipping lines to form Hapag-Lloyd resulted in changes for many seafarers – but it also created a lot of fresh opportunities for navigators. “The new container ships meant that fewer staff were need at sea,” Müller explains. “But the demand for shore-based employees grew worldwide. Miami, Hong Kong, Singapore, Manila – you could work as an operator all over the world.”

Of course, he loved his years at sea, which included long layovers in Sydney with visits to the operahouse and excursions in a white Chevrolet in San Francisco. But that didn’t keep him from embracing new challenges and opportunities. “In 1979, when I was asked to go to London for three years to organise the chartering of our ships, I didn’t have to think twice,” he says. “We packed all our belongings and moved to the Thames!”

Working in the consortium with colleagues from other shipping companies was new and interesting, and life in the British metropolis was family-friendly. “Our children could cycle to the German school and to tennis. And my wife, who already spoke good English anyways, got even better at it with evening classes, and then studied art history at a university,” Müller recalls.

After three years, in 1983, Hapag-Lloyd assigned him to work at sea again. “But already on the second voyage with the ‘Sierra Express’ heading to South America, I received a call,” he says, noting that it was one of the first ships with a telephone. “They wanted to know if I could imagine going to San Francisco, as there was supposed to be a deal with the American shipping company SeaLand. So, in 1985, we moved with our youngest son to the West Coast for a year.”

Right after returning to Bremen, Müller was about to start painting the living room walls. The moving containers hadn’t even arrived yet. But then he received a call from the HR Department, which was offering him a chance to move back to London. “We had 24 hours to make up our minds,” he says. “So, without any further ado, we moved again in 1986. Working with colleagues from around the world provided a lot of variety, and I personally enjoyed it at least as much as seafaring.”

Shifting to cruise ships – and a captain at last

“Then, one day, the personnel manager called and said: ‘Müller, we want you on the ‘Europa’!’” Müller recounts with a laugh. “I was puzzled, as my colleagues who had sailed on that ship so far had always had at least one ‘von’ in their last name,” he adds, indicating that they came from families with ties to Germany’s nobility. But with the prospect of sailing the seas as a captain, the “Europa” was a good option.

“I was first named captain on the ‘Leverkusen Express’ in Vancouver in 1989,” Müller proudly recalls. “I sailed there as chief officer, and then the captain pressed my promotion letter into my hand. His camper van was already waiting for him outside, and then he started off on a trip to Alaska.”

Being the staff captain – or second in command – on the “Europa” was another new challenge. “I was already very familiar with the chartering of our ships and navigation, but now I was also responsible for all matters related to the crew,” he says. “Whether it was disputes among seafarers that had to be settled quietly, negotiations with the works council, or getting new mattresses for the crew – all of that ended up being my job to handle.”

Eventful years at the corporate headquarters and some stubborn back issues

Müller sailed on the “Europa” for a total of three years, though he switched back to container shipping a few times during this period. But then a new shore-based job popped up: to be head of Hapag-Lloyd’s Maritime HR Department, based at the company’s headquarters on the Ballindamm in Hamburg.

This was the job in which he was able to bring together his very broad range of experiences. Müller assisted with the “Ship of the Future” project, organised the recruiting of Filipino seafarers in the mid-1990s, and – together with his team – arranged additional training and courses for the colleagues who found new jobs with Hapag-Lloyd after German reunification.

He describes them as “eight years in which I got to know seafaring again from a completely new perspective”. And he made every effort whenever something unforeseen happened somewhere on the high seas. “I was on my way to Bremen to buy a bicycle when I received a distress call from a chief mate,” he recalls. “In rough weather, the captain had been seriously injured. While taking a round of the ship, he had been thrown against the anchor winch by high swell. I only said, ‘You must insist that a helicopter comes, or the captain will die!’ A helicopter eventually did pick up the casualty, but I wasn’t able to get in touch with the hospital somewhere in southern Ireland.” Without delay, Müller called one of his sons, who was now working as a doctor in Mainz, and asked him for some help. “Though his channels, he was able to figure out that the senior physician at the clinic was out fishing – and he made sure that he returned immediately,” Müller says. “The captain was then flown to the nearest hospital, in Cork. Later, we had him transferred to Bremen, where I then went to visit him.”

In his last few years on the job, the head of HR also had to struggle with his own pains. “My back was no longer cooperating, and even an operation didn’t lead to any improvement,” he says. “So, in 2001, after many wonderful years with Hapag-Lloyd, I submitted my resignation.”

Today, the sporty 81-year-old is doing better, and happily says he “can even play tennis again”. Though no longer working for Hapag-Lloyd, he keeps close track of current events, including Hapag-Lloyd’s recent investment in JadeWeserPort Wilhelmshaven. “As I see it, there a lot of good reason to follow this path: larger container ships in terms of length, breadth and draught; short pilotage waters compared to Hamburg and Bremerhaven; and competitiveness with Rotterdam and Antwerp,” he says.

Müller also finds it absolutely necessary to have experienced seafarers still call the shots in the HR Department. “It is incredibly important for our men and women on the ships to have people working in the Ballindamm offices who know what life is like on board,” he stresses. “That is one of great strengths of Hapag-Lloyd!”

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