Our experience in life shapes who we are, and for must, something in our lives is easily visible as the reason we do what we do for a living. Join INFORM’s Matthew Wittemeier as he speaks with Swantje Finke, Terminal Development at HHLA Container Terminal Altenwerder (CTA) to better understand how from a young age she was exposed to maritime and the hurdles she overcame to find her way into our industry.
Table of Contents
MW: I find people are the best at introducing themselves. You know a whole lot more about yourself than I do and what you’ve done to get to where you are in life. So, would you mind introducing yourself?
SF: My name is Swantje Finke. I was born in Oldenburg in 1981, and I spent more or less my whole youth in Oldenburg, growing up there. It’s where I went to school, finished school, and then I went just a few kilometers north to Elsfleth, where I started at Elsfleth Nautical School to become a captain on the land side. I studied “Seeverkehrs- und Hafenwirtschaft” (in English, “maritime transport and port works”) and finished my studies there in 2004. I studied abroad in Plymouth, England, for half a year. Since it is a university of applied sciences, I had two practical semesters working at companies, which was very, very helpful. After nautical school, I went to Rotterdam, where I studied maritime economics and logistics at Erasmus University Rotterdam. I finished that program in 2005, and I was the First-in-Class that year.
SF: It isn’t relevant anymore, but at that time, it was quite hard, and it was a good reward.
In 2006, I started working in the dairy industry because it was difficult to transition from studying to working at a real job. But starting in October 2006, I’ve worked at Container Terminal Altenwerder (CTA). That’s my business experience. Apart from that, I live in Hamburg in Finkenwerder. It’s an old fishing village, which I completely enjoy, and is surrounded by apple trees. I have a lovely husband and a cute little daughter. I’m the typical Northern German person, I would say. I love to go sailing with my parents and to eat fish.
MW: We’ve covered a bit of how you got your start in maritime, but I’m interested to know if I could say you’ve always known you wanted to work in maritime? Is that an accurate statement?
SF: Yes, and no. When I was sixteen, there was a project from the university of applied sciences in my hometown in Oldenburg, called “Modellvorhaben – Motivation von Frauen und Mädchen für ein Ingenieurs- oder Naturwissenschaftliches Studium” (in English “Women and Young Women in Engineering and Science”).
I entered that program, which took place during school holidays. It was several days long, and those who joined went to the university and joined seminars where we could ask questions. There was also an excursion to Elsfleth, and that was when I first learned about the possibility of studying the nautical sciences. During the program, I was also so lucky enough to win a prize. The nautical school has a sailing vessel, over sixty meters long, where students have to make training voyages. I won such a trip. For two weeks, I got to be onboard the sailing vessel “Großherzogin Elisabeth” with all those nautical students.
At the time, those students had a practical education experience before beginning their nautical studies. The trip was a lot of fun, and afterward, I thought, “Indeed, that could be something I do.” One year before I finished school, I went to the library of work placements and searched for all kinds of job opportunities. As I looked through the options, I ran through several questions in my mind, starting with, “What would I like to do?” which left me with a lot of options. I narrowed the field by asking myself, “What could I do?” then I asked, “What would actually get me a job?” which left me with fewer options. Finally, I asked, “What is a job I could do that will pay me enough and give me a nice life?” After I went through that entire process, what was left was an engineer. What I thought might be a good idea at that time is actually where I ended up. I wrote one application to Elsfleth University, and fortunately, my grades were sufficient enough to be accepted by Elsfleth.
MW: And the rest, as they say, is history.
SF: Yes…. but when I started the process, the first question I considered was, “What is something I would have fun with?”
MW: It’s a good logical progression to go from, “What can I have fun doing?” to “What can I actually live off and have fun doing?” I didn’t go down that road. I just stuck with, “What can I have fun doing?” But it’s worked out more or less.
You’ve been with CTA pretty much your entire career, is that right?
SF: Yes. But strangely enough, since I was sixteen, I had several internships with BLG Logistics before working with CTA. When I went to Elsfleth and considered my career options, I spent my school internship at BLG for two weeks, making it my first real port work.
MW: What were the biggest challenges you saw when you did your internships?
SF: Honestly, during the internships, I never really encountered any problems because everyone saw me as a trainee. Since I was accepted as a trainee, there was nothing difficult. Also, more or less, I had the feeling that it was beneficial being female because they were always taking care of me. And when I said I would take care of certain jobs, everyone knew, “Yes, she will take care of it.” I was pampered. I was working, but I never felt it was difficult.
MW: That sounds like you were among the minority, being a female in those environments.
SF: Yes, especially in Bremen, because the only other females working there was the secretary and two women in the accounting department.
MW: Interesting. When you got to CTA, were there any challenges that you faced?
SF: The problem happened before CTA. When I graduated, I thought, “Now you have the complete package.” I was young. I was talented. I was the best in my class in Rotterdam, and I had finished two study programs. Also, with the German University of Applied Sciences and all those internships, I had the practical experience that everyone emphasized. But while I had a lot of practical experience, I was also young and female, and somehow no one wanted to hire me. It was a discouraging situation. I was lucky that my dad was working in the dairy industry. Through his connections, I had the opportunity to prove myself and show that I could organize and improve logistic processes at a dairy company.
The dairy company was quite happy with me, but it was such a small company that they couldn’t pay me for long. The good thing was that the manager told me he was so impressed by my work that he would keep me on until I found a good job, despite his budget limitations.
That was great, and it put me in a comfortable situation. But then I wrote applications and went to interviews, but nothing happened. It was really, really frustrating because I had everything. I’d gone abroad, did internships, had good qualifications, but no one wanted me. Then, I came to CTA, and I applied for the assistant management position. The former head of my current department saw my application and said, “Hmm, she might be suitable for my department, too.” I then spoke with both the management department and Gerlinde John, who thought it would be a good idea to hire me. It was difficult to get my foot in the door. I didn’t have any problems getting internships, but when it came to a serious job, it was difficult.
MW: I’m going to ask a pointed question, and you can choose not to answer it if you want. But do you feel like that was a byproduct of being a woman?
SF: At that time, no. I had thought it was only about my resume. But no, it’s not. I assume that if I were male, taller, and stronger, it would have been easier to get a job. But I only say this now, looking back at my experience over a decade ago.
MW: It’s also interesting in your story that you emphasized that it was a woman who picked you out of the application line of the position you were initially going for and saw the potential that you could bring. Do you think if a woman hadn’t been there to single you out that you would have ended up where you are today?
SF: In the end, it’s all about luck. It’s unimportant whether you’re male or female. When you start with your education, you think it’s all about hard work. You think you need a good education. And that is important, but it really comes down to luck. Those people with good careers, they’re clever, talented, and hardworking. But it’s all that plus luck. There are so many people, well-educated and talented, with no career at all. It’s not their fault. It’s just luck.
MW: I want to change tracks a little. You talked a bit about your family, a daughter and a husband. Having the pleasure of knowing you outside of this interview, I know that your daughter is quite young. I want to ask what it was like taking the time off from the company when you needed to take maternity leave? Did you take much time off? Was the organization supportive? What challenges did you face? What sort of opportunities were you given?
SF: The good thing is that HHLA is a very good employer. It was clear from the beginning that HHLA would support me in all aspects, and I, more or less, had the freedom to choose the working model, which suited my family and me. That is something special, and it’s quite unusual if you think about the logistics industry, especially smaller companies. That option isn’t usually a reality. We’re in some sort of golden age. At the time, the head of my department said, “Okay, what do you want? What is your plan?” I talked with my husband, who also works at HHLA. We met each other at nautical school.
My husband and I decided that I would stay at home for one year and completely take care of my daughter. At that time, my husband was working full-time, and when my year was up, and I was working full-time again, he stayed at home completely for half a year. After one and a half years, we enrolled our daughter in daycare, and my husband resumed work part-time. HHLA makes it possible for me to work full-time, and my husband to work part-time. With the office hours, it’s really good that HHLA is so flexible.
My husband starts work very early in the morning, and he finishes at lunchtime, leaving sufficient time to pick up our daughter even if there’s a traffic jam or some other delay. I usually take her to daycare and begin my work at eight-thirty in the morning. HHLA is very family-oriented and supportive, which is a really good thing.
MW: Two follow-up questions. First, it sounds like it’s an atypical working arrangement. We usually hear that the male goes back to work full-time, while the female either stays at home or goes part-time. How did you two come to that decision?
SF: We are both well-educated, and both earn good money, which meant we could reduce hours so we didn’t have to leave our daughter in paid care until late afternoon. My husband and me we are on the same level, so we could decide what was best for our daughter and us. Since my husband is a family person, and he’s a really loving and caring dad, we said, “Okay, that’s the best solution.” I go to work, where I earn a bit more money now since I’m working full-time, and he takes care of Hannah in the afternoon.
MW: Wonderful. There’s a lot of literature that suggests when women take the time off that they need to have a baby, that it is a significant drawback to their career. Did you feel you took a step backward in your career when you took the year off to have Hannah?
SF: No, I returned to the same place. The topics were the same, and my desk was still mine. It was like I was away on a long holiday and came back. But of course, I changed because when you have a family, your priorities change, your behavior changes, how you react on changes. Certain situations that would have probably had me in a panic didn’t panic me anymore. I am a bit more relaxed because I have become used to panic situations. That’s probably the biggest change, the fact that I’ve changed.
Industry Challenges and Opportunities
MW: Let’s change tracks a little again. What do you see as the biggest opportunities for the maritime industry in the next five years?
SF: I see three points: automatization, digitalization, and sustainability. In automatization, there is a lot of competition and a drive for cost-cutting. Also, even though cargo volumes are not rising right now, they were in earlier years. We are facing a lot of peak situations we need to deal with. Therefore, automatization is a good way of making progress in these fields. It is very important.
And with digitalization, there are so many things changing month to month and year to year. It’s amazing, and it’s important to keep pace. There are also so many potential opportunities you could grab. It’s so much easier communicating with customers thanks to digitalization, for example. Prior to nautical school, I was working at a small shipping company for some time, and the communication was via fax. It’s a lot more comfortable now, which is really helpful.
Moreover, sustainability is something you just can’t avoid since many harbors are situated in towns where people are living.
MW: Well, you’re in a unique position because CTA is the only certified climate-neutral container terminal in the world. What does it take to get there? That’s an interesting question. I haven’t had an opportunity to talk to someone from CTA. Is it a goal that was set by senior management, or is it a byproduct of just a lot of good luck decisions? How do you become the only climate-neutral terminal in the world?
SF: I would say that it’s two aspects, one of which is actually quite simple. We are always striving to reduce costs, and therefore, sometimes new technology, energy-saving technology, and emission-reducing technology is simply the most economic and clever solution. The other aspect is that it’s a political decision simply because the HHLA terminals are situated very close to the city, more so than in other harbors and ports. People walk around the beach or river near HHLA terminals. We are very visible, and you can hear us. Some people like it, others don’t. But it’s very important that we have this balanced coexistence where we keep our company running harmoniously with the city nearby.
Women in Maritime
MW: Yeah. Very interesting. I’ll change tracks again. The maritime industry, as we’ve already noted, is very male-dominated. How do you envision getting more women to be inspired to join the industry?
SF: It’s difficult because it’s not a problem exclusive to the maritime industry. It’s a concern for all types of industries. It’s important that all children, whether they are girls or boys, have rich parents or poor parents, have the ability to do anything. If you work hard, we will support you, we will see your talent, and your talent will be supported. It’s important that you don’t tell someone, “Anyway, you are from a poor home, so you will never become a doctor.” Or “You’re a girl. You will never drive a truck.” That’s stupid. One should see the ability and possibility of that kid, in every kid as a person, and try to encourage that child to develop their talent.
I think it’s focusing on children, which is a task for parents but also society. It’s really sad sometimes when you see kids that have no support. Whether you are a girl or a boy, it means lost chances. For girls, probably even more because then you end up in some poorly paid job, you have kids, your husband earns more money, and you end up being the one who has to stay at home without having the choice. But it’s also a bad feature that in society, care work isn’t respected the way it should be, and it isn’t paid the way it should be.
MW: Yeah, and I think the coronavirus has shown societies around the world that essential workers are often the least paid workers. It was quite interesting then when things shut down. The people who continued to go to work, like port operators or grocery store checkout attendants, tended to be the least paid people in the world, yet they were deemed essential. There’ll be a reckoning, I’m sure.
SF: Regarding my daughter, I bought a digger, a tractor, and a garbage truck. She plays with these because I tell her, “Hey, that’s cool.” If I didn’t tell her that, she would probably not play with them. She plays with a doll too, which also is completely acceptable. I try to give her opportunities so that she can choose what she likes and can do best.
MW: That’s interesting because in my house we’ve got a lot of diggers and typical boy toys with two young girls. With all of my prodding and encouragement, they’ve still migrated to the dolls, though.
That brings us to the end of the interview. Closing thoughts.. If you had one piece of advice for women looking to succeed in maritime, what would it be?
SF: I actually have two pieces of advice. One really important thing is networking. If you assume having a good education and working hard are the only necessary aspects to have a career, that’s not the case. It’s the luck aspect, and to encourage luck, networking is crucial. That’s my first piece of advice. The second piece is that it’s important not to spend too much time on care work. I’m not talking about private care work, but in the office, there are always a lot of tasks to do – small tasks. And very often, women end up doing the small tasks, which are important and make everyone say thank you. But those small tasks will not bring you forward. It’s important to have sufficient time for the bigger tasks, those tasks that are actually visible, and those tasks that will foster your career. Those two pieces of advice are the most important.
MW: Two golden eggs at the end. Swantje, thank you very much for your time.
SF: Thank you, Matthew.
Who is Swantje Finke?
Swantja Finke is responsible for project management as part of the Terminal Development team at HHLA Container Terminal Altenwerder (CTA). Having started her studies in maritime in 2000, she’s moved through many interesting roles within the logistics industry before settling into the team at HHLA. In her current role, she focuses on optimizing the hinterland logistic IT and processes, including for example the integration of a traingate in the rail operations at CTA.
What is Women in Maritime?
The Women in Maritime initiative is a combination of a series of interviews and conference sessions brought to you by INFORM as part of their broader diversity program. The first step in increasing the scope of diversity in any industry is highlighting the diversity that exists and creating opportunities for conversations around diversity. While it is often men we think of when we consider the mental image of most logistics’ roles, women contribute to the industry in all its facets and at all levels of seniority. The initial aim of Women in Maritime is to show that diversity and to bring the conversation around it to life.