The pathfinder

As early as during his studies, Björn Bundschuh was bitten by the travel bug that drew him to Spain and Portugal. Later on, he worked professionally in South Africa, among other places, travelling across all six continents on his way – frequently by motorcycle. In the meantime, the mechanical engineer and MBA, is not only resident in his place of birth, Groß-Umstadt, he also works there. As our interview with the 46 year clearly demonstrates: his curiosity is by no means quenched.

We reach Björn Bundschuh early in the evening – have you got a few moments? “Sure, I’m sitting down here on the carpet playing Lego with my son.” He moves over to his office at home in Groß-Umstadt to continue talking about his career etc. Bundschuh has been ‘Manager Projects & Lean Manufacturing European Operations’ for the past four years at the highly traditional, local building materials manufacturer Resopal, which is now part of the US laminate manufacturer Wilsonart. As he explains, “I look after production optimisation in the European plants”. He commutes the short distance by bike, although his career path to date has taken so many exciting twists and turns, the story really needs to be told right from the beginning.

Björn Bundschuh began studying mechanical engineering in 1996, at what was formerly the ‘Fachhochschule Darmstadt’. As he relates, “decisive factors included the application-oriented approach and the levels of personal supervision we enjoyed”. He expanded into construction technology, and tutored in the faculties of architecture and computer science, along with conveyor technology and at a logistics lab. As if this wasn’t enough, he also moonlighted as a part-time tour guide in Spain, on the side – and concluded five months practical training in Madrid. All of this brought him to the attention of Professor Dr Rudolf Vetter, who has retired in the meantime, who told him, in no uncertain terms, as is his way: “a good friend of mine in Portugal needs some assistance, so go on down and help him out.” As Bundschuh recalls with a grin “I really didn’t feel like pointing out that Spanish and Portuguese are two entirely different ball games”. So feeling blindsided and flattered in equal portions, he did as he was told. “I ended up handing in a Diploma thesis on devising a production-logistics concept for machine manufacturer MBO Binder in Portugal.“

Hit the ground running during studies

As Bundschuh tells it: “I was average at school, things only really took-off when I hit university. As a technology nerd I just simply followed my instincts and what interested me – it all felt so brilliant!” His whole life seemed to revolve around his studies at the time. “My father was a farmer and agricultural engineer, which meant it felt perfectly normal to me for the entire day to consist of work.” As a child he wanted to become a farmer himself, and take over the family farm one day. Later he realized that tractors and the technology involved fascinated him to a much greater degree than grain and livestock did. As he says “it was so right for me to be studying at the h_da, and I was able to put to use around three-quarters of what we’d been taught right afterwards.” In 2000 he graduated as one of the best of his year.

Bundschuh began his professional career in March 2000, at plant manufacturer Mannesmann Dematic in Heusenstamm, which was taken over by Siemens shortly afterwards. He became group supervisor, planning and constructing logistics systems. However, he soon felt tempted at the thought of doing a second degree in economics. “My employer would have financed a study course in Germany, but I really wanted to go abroad – so I resigned and paid for it all out of my own pocket.” Starting in 2003, Bundschuh studied General Management at the IESE Business School in Barcelona. He points out that “this bilingual MBA degree course was the missing jigsaw piece to join together mechanical engineering with management. We had people from 43 nations at the campus, which truly enhanced my understanding of other cultures, making me more open in the process.” During a practical training programme in Honduras, he drew up a business plan for a development aid project.

Spain, Honduras, Wedding, South Africa

His former employer was impressed by Bundschuh’s determination, sufficently for Siemens to re-employ him once he’d graduated from his second degree in the summer of 2005. His second foreign deployment followed forthwith as he was posted to South Africa. In preparation he proposed to his Ines during a motorcycle trip across Spain. They met whilst both were studying in Darmstadt and immediately recognised their shared passion for travel and adventure, forming an additional connecting link between them. Ines says “yes” and six weeks’ later they are married. As Björn Bundschuh tells it: “we got married on the Saturday, the container was loaded and shipped by Monday, and by Friday we were standing in South Africa”, like a life lived in fast motion.

As Bundschuh explains, his time as Key Account Manager for Automotive and Assembly Systems at Siemens Ltd., in Port Elizabeth, coincided with a re-structuring phase that preceeded the sale of the business division. “There were no prizes to be won for me.” Not quite counting some unique adventures on-the-road, for the Bundschuhs determined to explore South Africa by motorbike. Upon their return to Germany in 2006, Bundschuh became a project manager for the glassware and ceramics manufacturer Schott in Mainz. Yet within him stirred a vision borne in South Africa – of traversing an entire continent by motorbike. By 2008, the Bundschuhs had agreed that, now, the time was ripe for this, their objective: Latin America. “Our employers were either unable or unwilling to facilitate sabbaticals for us, so we both resigned.” Nothing is impossible!

… and right along the spine of Latin America

The Bundschuhs, who had already set up the travel blog, plan their adventure meticulously. They discover sponsors for some of their equipment, give notice on their flat, put all their furniture in storage and fly across to the USA, accompanied by plenty of gear. “We’d purchased two off-road motorbikes in advance, from a dealership near to Los Angeles. We re-jigged them in situ – and off we go!” They set off for Mexico at the start of December 2008, and their adventure ends seven months, and 26,000 kilometres across 16 countries, later. Whereupon they sold their trusty life-phase companions and flew back to Germany. They managed to digest and process their fantastic experiences of natural wonders, personal encounters and hair-raising incidents within a travel-based novel given the revealing title of ’No Papers – No Problems’. The jacket blurb could be applied to Björn Bundschuh’s life as a whole: “many things can be achieved with creativity and courage that had once seemed impossible.”

Back in Germany, a door he’d once believed closed, opens for Bundschuh when Schott takes him back on as Senior Project Manager for Lean Transformation. In 2012 he rises to ‘Lean Expert’, and deputy department head of Lean Transformation. Bundschuh points out that “the combination of mechanical engineering with management opened up many options for me”. He begins to focus on Lean Management, the ‘Six Sigma’ management system and structured problem-solving. “Many branches would profit from Lean Processes, not only the manufacturing sector.” This enables him to put his knowledge to good use in a variety of contexts.

Four to a Camper, and a different way to sell a house

In 2010 and 2012 the Bundschuhs become the proud parents of two sons, meaning their trips become more frequently undertaken by camper van. However, the four of them still conspire to travel well beyond Europe’s borders, with their travel blog documenting the many adventures and projects the whole family undertakes together. For example, the sale of the prefabricated house built on their property via Ebay (as cash’n’carry). Or the construction of a wooden house on the self-same plot of land, including plenty of family contributions, to finish both in time and on budget – natch. Well-trodden paths hole little appeal for Björn Bundschuh – who much prefers to go his own way. “Paths arise from people treading them”, a Franz Kafka quote which Bundschuh feels is one of his guiding maxims.

“There were some things I just felt like trying out” says Bundschuh: “bungee-jumps, living abroad for a change, being the leader for a while.” Once he’s tried one thing out, something new can take its place. As a result he set himself a new challenge towards the end of 2013, by becoming managing director at Mettler Toledo in Zwingenberg (near Darmstadt), a manufacturer of optical inspection systems. Although the results and feedback were both good: “the responsibility for personnel led to me dealing with a lot of administrative work and personal issues. It wasn’t quite right for me.”

Set your sights lower – and your contentedness will rise

What do I feel is important to me in life? Does his job, with its salary, make me happy? Bundschuh asks himself these questions more and more often – soon, he’s repaid with a remedy. Following a good three years as managing director, at the beginning of 2017 he swaps over to take on his current position. As he explains: “I prefer it when my sights aren’t set quite so high – for then the impact I’m having on and with the organisation seems to feel larger.” He had positions with more resonding titles, drove cars that were more luxurious, but today he gets far more from being able to ride to work on his bike. “But I absolutely love the fact that I experienced this as well, that I tried it out!” He’s also more content in his current job, back near to where the production action takes place.

Now what has been the craziest, the most fantastic adventure in his life to date? Bundschuh considers, briefly, then he fails to mention bungee jumps, motorbike rallys or camping out in crisis regions, but rather: “the births of our two sons”, and then, “that I resigned from two jobs in order to fulfil my dreams.” At the time, he often had to put up with people saying: “this’ll be the career-killer if you go through with it!”. Of course he sometimes felt hesitent in these situations, but his inner compass always pointed out the true path. “I never had a masterplan for my life or career, meaning fate and luck both played a role, however, to date – it’s all worked out well.”

Life and work are no longer roughly the same thing for Björn Bundschuh: “It was very much a gradual, subtle process, primarily, naturally, by dint of having your own family.” Then there’s all the hobbies, for only recently he built his own desk, plus the ‘Lego’ project, which you can read about on the Bundschuh-Blog – inbetween the entries on Latin America and rallys. “I felt quite underwhelmed by the Lego-Robotics Books available, so I wrote one myself.” He helped to build two robots for Prof. Dr. Vetter a while back, after all. “I’m busy preparing the second book.” But for now, he re-joins his junior crawling around the carpet. To play. Naturally.


Author & translation

Daniel Timme
Februar 2021

Paul Comley