‘In the Hot Seat’
An Interview with Martin Altenbokum
The respected HVAC industry journal, ACR News dedicated its ‘In The Hot Seat’ feature to an in depth interview with Dr Martin Altenbokum – Petra’s Business Development Director for the UK and Europe. You can see the feature in the magazine by clicking here, or read the article in full below.
How did you get into the industry?
After university in Germany, I spent some time in America on a research grant at the University of Illinois and then joined MBB, a military aircraft company in Munich. MBB was in partnership with British Aerospace for the development of the Tornado and the Eurofighter, but I found that the industry doesn’t offer any prospects. As we say in Germany, peace broke out in the industry.
I happened to meet the president o GEA Refrigeration and as we chatted he asked if I’d like to work for him. I was happy to join an industry which was completely new to me. It was a great experience and very challenging.
What is your biggest achievement to date?
I think that I was able to lead the three companies that I had sole responsibility for into a secure future.
Apart from that, I am somewhat proud of having made refrigeration machines with oil-free compressors ready for the market and of having advanced many product developments. One highlight was certainly the development of prototypes in the field of cryocoolers as well as a chiller using water as a refrigerant.
What is the best aspect of the industry generally?
Our industry is certainly of manageable size, but serves very large markets around the globe. In most cases, our industry is not particularly noticed by the people. We have already become too accustomed to living and working in comfortably air conditioned buildings.
It’s something that you only notice when it’s not there, isn’t it? You never hear people praising their air conditioning in their car or their fridge freezer or whatever, but you certainl hear them complaining when it’s not there.
I see the greatest strength of our industry in the fact that it makes a significant contribution to creating pleasant air conditioning and enables many processes in the production sector by adding cold.
What is the worst aspect of the industry generally?
When people started to deal with the production of cooling power, the main aim was to learn the technology without paying attention to our environment. There is certainly a lot we didn’t know, but what stuck with me was that for a long time the handling of refrigerants was mainly based on economic criteria. If our industry had been more careful to ensure that refrigeration equipment was really leak-proof, then we would probably not have an F-Gas regulation today.
What do you think is the biggest challenge ahead for the industry?
In these turbulent times and the many paradigm shifts that are pending and to be expected, our industry is certainly well placed to make quick and substantial contributions to avoid negative impacts on our environment.
Product development geared to true sustainability certainly plays a decisive role in this. Many refrigerants with a low environmental impact require new properties for chillers, for example when R290 is introduced as a new refrigerant.
What do you think is the biggest opportunity ahead for the industry?
In recent years I have ofter perceived our industry as not very innovative. There have not really been many radical innovations. The introduction of oil-free compressors was an innovation, but some companies have been resisting new technology. The arrival of frequency converters was also a major step. Good, safe products with low energy consumption should be – or become – the vision and aspiration of our industry.
Does legislation help or hinder the industry?
I think it is a good leverage to provoke innovation, but some people are perhaps too busy trying to make things that already exist comply and then don’t have the time and resources to truly innovate, but that’s a question of priorities. Innovation is a step forward for both the industry and the planet, and I think we should go for out.
Sometimes though, I wish that legislation would be less opportunistic and more oriented towards sustainable values.
When you look at, for example, the future of energy production in Britain and the EU, you see a colourful and indecisive picture. I believe that we should be looking at the future of energy supply less in terms of fears and concerns and more in terms of sustainability and security of supply. Legislation can make a major contribution to this.
How do you think Britain leaving the EU will affect your business?
As you know, I am from ‘overseas’ and have learned and appreciated a lot of new things about the UK over the past years. As I have no prophetic abilities, I nevertheless think that the fact that the UK has left the EU will not have a negative impact on our business. Our industry is too interconnected with each other for our business model to be damaged. It will certainly be a new experience of similarities and diferences, but I am very optimistic that we will all be guided by the welfare of our societies.
What could we do better in terms of climate action?
Of course we must do everything in our power to keep our environment livable and lovable and we must deal with many sins of the past. I only remind you of the handling of plastic waste. However, the current handling of a climate change that brings us dangers is too hectic, not very reflective and oriented towards ‘firing from the hip’. It is too easy to just listen to ‘science’. which acts with great force in one direction, and there’s also conflict between economics and technical progress.
Tackling climate change requires thought and realistic action. We should implement any urgently needed corrections in a well considered manner and not allow people to circumvent the issue, I think we could do this if we wanted to.
How can we best encourage new people into the industry?
I have noticed in the UK that there is apparently a considerable problem when it comes to engaging with young people. How do we motivate young people to work in our industry? By creating credible prospects that should not be bought with high salaries, but by offering an interesting future, for example in the area of product development. It is a special responsibility of the older generation to formulate and implement incentives for this.
It is different in Germany where we have a different scheme of educating and training people – we have big schools where we educate and train apprentices, 10% of employees in companies I was involved with were apprentices and we never had any problem with engaging the next generation. We had them for two or three years and gave most of them a contract to work for us – this way we had an automatic mix of young and old.
Are there any issues with other companies poaching them?
Always. But I learned that even if somebody leaves you after their apprenticeship, in most cases, you can get them back and it’s good for young people to go out and come back with different experiences. The key is to keep in touch with them, Also, for example, when you find somebody that you really want to keep, you don’t just let the competition take them after their education; you give them a long term contract straight away.
What advice would you give to people about entering into engineering as a career?
Join us – you can not only work in a technically demanding environment, but learn a lot for life. Dealing with a future key industry offers endless new challenges.
Football. In the UK I’m a fan of Liverpool of course, and in Germany – Dortmund, as I live near there.
Unfortunately I was not able to become a professional player myself, but I played for a long time until age took its toll. What remained after that? Running around lakes and thinking about how to improve every day. Sometimes it’s a somewhat lonely exercise, but always full of surprises.
You can contact Martin by email at: