In the Flow with Martin Herbrich

Meet Martin Herbrich, a German senior executive based in Singapore. Aside from heading his company’s SEA/Australia and APAC portfolio (with over 800 employees)
and having a busy travelling schedule, he still finds the time to stay in shape. So much so that he is probably one of only a handful of executives
based in Singapore who has qualified for the Ironman World Championship at Kona!

Let’s hear from him, a quintessential “corporate athlete”, on how he keeps mentally and physically fit – not only on the bike, but in the boardroom as

Tell us about yourself and how did you get started in long-distance racing?

I joined Jungheinrich in the mid-90s, and it is the company I have worked at for the past 22 years. While based in Barcelona, I was offered the job of Managing Director of Singapore and the APAC region in 2002 and have been here ever since. As with most things, getting into long-distance racing with running my first marathon in New York, in 2001, was neither scripted nor planned. When I was in Spain, the chairman of our company visited us and as he passed by my office he was raving about running a marathon and how he was super fit. So I said that I was also going to run a marathon and I was just as fit. So he said, “OK, let’s bet!”

He was a little bit older – I was 32 at that time and he was in his fifties. So I said, “Mr Chairman, if I beat you by an hour, you invite me for dinner in New York. And if it is less than an hour I have to invite you for dinner.” He agreed and gave me his personal number. Long story short, I beat him by an hour and we had dinner in New York. About eight months later I got a call saying that the company needed a guy to set up its business in Asia. The chairman remembered me from the marathon and he could see how disciplined I was in running a marathon. And the rest is history…

Over the last decade, what I’ve observed is that if you want to climb up the corporate ladder you have to be mentally and physically fit. In the past you had to be perhaps resilient in drinking a lot, networking and eating. But if you look around now, the business leaders are getting fitter and fitter, and it has to be about discipline. And the other aspect is that you actually do business like you prepare and run a marathon or an Ironman race.

When I started on my Ironman journey, the goal was to qualify for Kona, Hawaii. How you do this is the same as how you do your business. You have a goal and you break it into smaller goals and you make a plan for how you will achieve each of them: How will you do your swim, your bike, your run, your transition and then how you piece all of them together.

It’s the same in business – some are excellent swimmers, just as some are fantastic with numbers or in financial controlling. And yet some are lousy in people management, or lousy in running. What has become evident to me is that being strong in one discipline is not enough to get to the top. The people at the top of the corporate ladder are usually good in everything, they don’t really have a weakness, and yet they are not excellent in anything. Because if you are excellent in something, usually your career goes towards that discipline. If you are a numbers freak, you usually become a financial controller or economist. If you are an absolute people person, you will be head of HR.

To lead a complete business it is very seldom that you have someone that specialised. My advice to our younger colleagues is do not become specialised too soon in your career. People who are very happy to do financial controlling their whole life or people who think they are born for marketing or HR should go for it. But if your intention is to have a more general position – such as general manager, MD or vice president – do not specialise, be more generalised.

Back to sports, you have to look at setbacks. When I was training for my first Ironman I got a meniscus injury. The first race was planned for 2007, but in 2006 I injured my meniscus and so back to basics. Something I have learnt from injuries that is the same in business is that you cannot always start where you stopped. Sometimes you have to take 1 or 2 steps backwards. Train the basics, then move forward again. Obviously if you have not been able to run for half a year due to an injury, when you fully recover don’t start with a 20k after not doing anything for half a year.

As long as you are young, you can get away with many things – you can have poor sleep, you can drink, you can have a crappy diet and still be lean and fit. But the older I get, I need at least 7 hours of sleep. If I drink more than a glass of wine the night before, I cannot do my training. As long as you are young, do as many mistakes as you want and as early in your career as possible. If you have not made any mistakes, something is wrong and you probably haven’t tried hard enough or tried enough things. It is the same as how we say that there are only two types of cyclists: the ones who have already fallen off the bike and the ones who are going to fall off the bike. There is not even one ambitious cyclist who has not fallen off their bike before.

It is the same in business – there isn’t anyone in Jungheinrich who tells you that they have never made a mistake in their whole life. In Europe, also a bit in Asia, making mistakes has a stigma. It is not common to talk about your mistakes, deficiencies and errors. That is something I like about the American system, which is that they are very open with their mistakes. You almost do not trust someone who has never failed.

Tell us more about the importance of this ability to learn from or adapt following mistakes.

Having a meniscus surgery was a mistake. But sometimes you really need that slap in the face to keep you grounded. When I started with my training again I knew that I couldn’t run too much and I had to be careful about doing too many hard sessions. So I had to constantly review my plan and put in little milestones. Usually you have your heart rate monitor, your cadence, your speed and all these indicators. And you plan your training session as you plan your business plan and you have a milestone. For example, in three weeks my 10km run should be 42 minutes, or in three weeks our sales turnover for this product should be this.

I did my first Ironman in Busselton in 2007. Before I finished, I already knew so many things I wanted to do better the next time. My aim was to go below 10 hours and the marathon below 3 hours, but I came in at 10 hours and 12 minutes for the first one. After I finished, I immediately planned for the next one, which was in Japan.

So I came up with a new training plan, nailed it, went there and did 10 hours 40 minutes. It was more difficult, but I had a better training plan and more experience, yet I was slower than the first one. Same as in business, getting honest feedback review along the way was key. Often we have blind spots in business where we think we are right but we’re not, which is a big danger. People usually do not criticise you, so you can end up talking nonsense and still get positive feedback.

Once, I had this very competent administrator and I told her to classify our customers by a,b,c. But I somehow got it wrong and said c,b,a. I was certain she knew I was wrong. But I was the boss so she followed my “wrong” instructions and classified it c,b,a. It probably took a week or so for her to finish, but it really was not “done” in the end. That was a very good learning point for me. So reassessment, next triathlon.

The next one was Ironman China in Hainan. I said, “OK, if I train now, hit my targets, I will qualify for Kona Hawaii”. Hainan is extremely hot – hotter than Singapore in the summer. Most people that go there are from Australia, America and Europe. So I said “OK, the most important thing is not to concentrate not only on your sport, but to fight the heat”.

I had two seminars with Chris McCormack, who is a two-time Kona World Champion. He essentially told me to hold my horses on the bike. I am a very good cyclist, but often what you do very well is where you can overdo it. Same in business: you may like to focus on a particular discipline, but it is also good to concentrate on something where you are not so good.

If you are a lousy runner, you shouldn’t cycle, you should run. Once you’re 95% there, the only way to do better is to explore the other factors such as nutrition, psychology, etc. That is the same in business: the more experienced you get, the more it takes to accelerate a little bit further. So rather than focusing on this last 5%, it is better to broaden your experience.

One area I looked into was breathing as a means of mental skills training. Breathing is something we do every day, yet we really don’t pay much attention to it. I took this deep diving course and just a month ago I had a seminar with Wim Hof, the Iceman, who can sit for two hours in an ice bath and dive under the Arctic ice. For me, this work is about staying present not only with our breath, but also being mindful of what is “now and here”. I view this “now and here” state of mind as something that can be applied anywhere. When you read a book you can think about the book or you can think about how crappy your day was and how bad it will be tomorrow, or about your in-laws coming to visit in 6 months, and then you don’t enjoy your book. Coming back to breathing, because I’m 48 it is not my genetic potential to excel in sports, but there is always room for improvement and we can learn everywhere, slowly piecing the puzzle together.

The same applies in business. I have not done too much in finance, but lately we have a lot of merger and acquisition (M&A) activity. I felt a little bit insecure just by listening to these people saying, “Let’s do a discounted cash flow…” So I did a one-week financial course to get back on track with finance. M&A puts a lot of stress on people, so I also took a course on change management. Now as I am having managing directors reporting to me, I’m getting a bit into coaching. It is very different to lead a group of salesmen or technicians or managing directors because these are already mature people, some older than me, and some also have teams of over a hundred people.

I can’t think of many other hobbies that are as close to the corporate world as sports. There is also the competitive element and the corporate world is one big competition. You compete in different areas. We’re in the forklift truck business. You can have the best but most expensive product or you can have the most economical but technically not so sound product. You can invest a lot in your people to get the best team, which also costs money, or you can invest nothing in them but have a better price. You can’t really tell what is right or wrong, so it is a lot of trial and error. As I said at the beginning, make as many mistakes as you can in the beginning. Luckily, I’m becoming less and less injured because I learn my lessons.

So how did you qualify for Kona? And did you finally go under 10 hours?

Back to the triathlon, the strategy was not only to have a good swim, good run and good bike time, but also to survive the heat in Hainan. Because you can be as good as you want, but in the last 50 metres, you can still get a DNF (did not finish) by collapsing or getting injured. Same in business, you can have the best presentation to the customer, the best product and even get the deal. But then your manufacturing side can tell you that there was a problem with one of the production machines and you can’t deliver the product. It can happen at any time. So in Hainan, my swim was a terrible swim. I’m sure they removed the sign “prohibited from swimming here”. It was a murky, dirty river. Then I hit the bike. I’m usually an average swimmer but an excellent cyclist. I’m never, ever overtaken on the bike. But as Chris the pro said, “Hold your horses on the bike, stick to a 142 heartbeat”, and people were passing left and right. All these people who usually don’t pass me were passing me. I was becoming a bit nervous, but I said “OK”.

So I finished my bike and you always get a number in triathlon so you can tell how you are doing in your age group. I had to finish top three in my age group to qualify for Hawaii. Going into the final leg of running, I knew I had to overtake 16 people in my age group to finish third. The pro said, “You stick to your pace and if you still feel good you can accelerate a little bit”. So I start running. In the first few kilometres nothing happened. Then I saw the first guy on the sidewalk – he was done. I kept on running and passed another guy throwing up and a guy walking. By kilometre 20, I had already overtaken people from my age group without even running too quickly by maintaining my pace. By kilometre 32, I had overtaken 16 people. I didn’t really overtake them, they just had the wrong game plan. Many people went too hard on the swim or were not used to drinking a litre and a half an hour. Go to Europe and try to drink a litre and a half an hour. So for them, they just stuck to their half a litre and they dehydrated. At the end of the day, I came in third and I qualified for Hawaii. I didn’t even have my best time. It finished in 10:15 or something. But that’s also the point: sometimes good enough is enough. The winner is usually never the one who wins the most competitions; it is the one who is most consistent.

Racing Kona Ironman in 2010 was a very special and emotional moment for me. But I still hadn’t gone under 10 hours, so I prepared again for Busselton in 2011, which was where I did my first Ironman. A bit wiser now, everything was planned. But when I came out of the swim, my heart rate monitor was full of water – broken. When I got to the bike, I didn’t know my heartrate or my speed. So everything was by perception.

Some people advocate to train by perception and not to look at distance. In the end, I had the best bike ride ever. I did something like 37.5km per hour on average for 180km. But probably because I was so hyped, I didn’t have my best run. In fact, I had a better run in Hawaii, where I slowed a bit on the bike. But it was still good enough and I finally clocked a 9:42 – my personal best.

Thank you Martin for sharing your inspiring stories and nuggets of wisdom for both athletes and corporate athletes. I am sure we’ve not seen the last of your racing career and we wish you all the best!

While Martin has since moved on from triathlon racing, he remains active and competes regularly in Crossfit and obstacle course racing. Last we heard,
he won his age group and finished 2nd overall in an obstacle course race in Tampines in May this year. It looks like his intention is to
continue reaching the podium and proving that age is but a number by beating the younger kids in the field.

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