do the German army, a French coffee factory and a Finnish airship company have
in common? The answer is Frederick Wassermann.
“These guys are totally bonkers,” thinks Frederick Wassermann while listening to
the founders of airship company Kelluu Jouni
Lintu and Jiri Jormakka and the
company CEO Janne Hietala. It is
early 2023 and the trio are trying to explain all the things that can still be
achieved with hydrogen-powered, unmanned airships. From the torrent of words,
Fred can make out words like space, revolution, data and commercial flights
that are hundreds of hours long. And that everything started in a shed.
“It was great!” exclaims Fred (as he is
known to his colleagues) now, six months later. In the wake of that meeting, he
was made Airfleet Operations Manager at Kelluu.
“I felt like I fit in right away,” he says,
He was certainly slightly sceptical at
first. After the first telephone interview, he wanted to see for himself what
the factory and the product were all about. So, he made the trip from
Montpellier in southern France, where he was living at the time, to Joensuu.
“Within a couple of days, I was convinced
that the idea is good and feasible. But what impressed me the most was the
international, multidisciplinary team that was clearly dedicated to developing
airship operations into a commercial service,” says Fred.
“I don't understand how they’ve managed to gather
all these extremely talented professionals here,” he says, shaking his head in
Fred himself had zero experience with
airships. His background is in something completely different: The German army.
And the coffee industry. Yes, that's right.
How on earth did a Munich-born,
half-French, half-German professional in war and coffee end up coming to
Reijola, Joensuu, to operate airships? That’s a long story, and you’re about to
hear part of it.
army gave me a chance to screw up”
Frederick Wassermann was born in Munich,
the “most Italian” city in Germany, in 1985 to a German father and a French
mother. Ever since he was a child, Fred has been used to living
between cultures – after all, Munich is located
near the border and is a mix of Germany, France, and Italy.
Fred went to a French primary school, and
completed his secondary education at a Swiss boarding school.
Fred was certain that he did not want to go
straight from school to university, but take a gap year instead and do
something completely different. Such an opportunity presented itself in the
form of military service, where he went as a volunteer.
“The army gave me a chance to screw up and
correct my mistakes. It taught me a lot about being a person and an adult,” he
says and encourages all young people to take a gap year, or even several, after
their secondary studies.
“Few people under 20 know what they want to
be when they grow up. I for sure didn't.”
are trained to build, doctors to cure and I to win”
After the army,
Fred moved to Bristol, pursuing a bachelor's degree in international relations.
He started studying for a master’s degree at King's College in London, but was
disappointed by the quality of teaching and transferred to Aberystwyth
University in Wales, having heard a lot of positive things about it.
“I read they offered a master’s in
intelligence and strategic studies, meaning the theory of war and intelligence operations.
I thought that was the coolest name for a master’s degree,” he says with a
At Aberystwyth, Fred learned how to turn rivalry
into victory. He believed this skill would come in handy, no matter where he
“Engineers are trained to build and doctors
to cure; I’m trained to win,” he says. “Strategy is ultimately on how to win
and there can’t be any harm in learning that.”
man with a van on the road
With this degree in hand, he knew he’d have
to consider a return to the military and with global recession around the time
of his graduation, Fred decided to go back to the army, this time as an officer.
“I knew that my educational background
would be useful there and my languages might help me get a position in the
And so he did. Fred conducted operations
across Africa. During his operations, he’d often operate alone with only cash
and his Toyota Hilux.
“I would drive around meeting and chatting
with people. My task was to find out who we should know, who can be trusted or
not and why,” says Fred.
“I liked the fact that my job gave me so
much freedom. That’s not always the case in the army,” he says with a grin.
However, assignments abroad meant that Fred
was away from home a lot. He reckons he spent altogether a year in four overseas,
during which time he and his wife also had their first child.
“Although I liked my job, I also have
responsibility for my family.”
In 2017 Fred resigned from the German army
after a career of almost a decade.
The next year, Fred took advantage of his
army sabbatical and stayed home with their second child, completing another
degree in IT-Business Economics. But then it was time to start thinking about
what to do next. Fred wanted a job where there would be a link between thinking
and doing. To him, this was – perhaps somewhat surprisingly – the manufacturing
“I had a horror vision of a service
industry job where you disappear in some office building with nothing but
furniture, computers, and stationery. I’m interested in value creation and
waste reduction, and that inevitably drove me to Toyota’s production system
which inspired me a lot because I could also see the similarities between it
and successful military organisations”
Without any experience, and with a somewhat
unusual CV, he started looking for a job as a management consultant in
“I was an officer who had studied
international relations and intelligence and strategy. I would not have been
the first choice in a lot of recruitments, but I decided to trust myself and my
Fred was eventually offered a job in
Stuttgart at the operations management consulting company Staufen, which
specializes in among other things on lean methodologies. This was a jackpot for
his career, because the award-winning company is a leader in its industry in
Germany and its customers include some of the biggest brands in the world, such
as Mercedes-Benz, Lufthansa and Coca-Cola. So essentially, the best possible place
to learn about consulting in manufacturing.
According to Fred, his time at Staufen
taught him much of what he needed to know about manufacturing and consulting.
Fred’s department had its own customers and turnover. His position was similar
to that of an entrepreneur, without actually being an entrepreneur.
“One thing I learned was that we can learn
a lot from the Japanese when it comes to manufacturing and management innovations.
Operational excellence is not just some budget target there. It is a matter of
aesthetical responsibility. Whoever says that we can't learn from them is
either vain or ignorant or both.”
Fred believes that enough in life and
success depend on the individual and the decisions they make.
“You can get a long way by avoiding doing what
we clearly know to be bad. So, becoming excellent is first and foremost not so
much about doing what is good but avoiding what is bad,” he says.
and Finland calling
After a couple of years, Fred's customer
wanted to hire him as a production manager at their coffee factory in Lavérune,
southern France. Fred decided to give it a try, because he was already familiar
with the customer's processes and business.
However, the French management culture turned
out to be a bit of a culture shock.
“Production and management methods must be
consistent with the level of ambition conveyed in the company’s targets. When management
believes that better performance can be achieved by changing nothing more than
the sense of urgency, you should be on your guard. That can be frustrating. But
it would have been presumptuous of me to believe that I could somehow change
After a year and a half, Fred looked to his
wife, thanked her for her support and looking after the family with their two
children, and suggested to move somewhere that would make it easier for her to
resume her personal development and give birth to their third child, due end of
“I told her that we can go to Finland too,
and I’d find my place there.”
Fred applied for production manager positions
in several large factories and had interesting conversations with various
Finnish industry giants, such as Valmet and UPM.
One day, he noticed that a small airship
startup was looking for a production manager.
“I was interested and wanted to find out
more about the job, so I met with the management team, Jouni, Jiri and Janne. I
didn’t make the decision with Excel, but took a conscious risk.”
high (even in the middle of the night)!
So now Fred is working as Airfleet
Operations Manager at Kelluu. He is also a shareholder in the company.
“I think it's great that we’re a small
organization where the culture is still taking shape and where we can try new
things with an open mind,” he says.
Fred also values the opportunity to have a
say in the direction the company will take in the future.
In practice, Fred’s work begins when an
airship is commissioned. Once the technicians are done building an airship, he
takes over and starts preparing a plan of action with his team.
“My job is to bring together the personnel,
the airships and the customers. I look at who works on which project, what data
is needed and how we can get this to the customer.”
Together with founder Jouni and technician Valtteri,
Fred often gets carried away planning long commercial flights. They monitor the
weather and when they notice a good slot, they can start a flight even in the
middle of the night.
“Just because we can! It’s great,” says
“When I step inside the doors of our
factory in Joensuu, the other employees are probably thinking, uh-oh, now he
wants to fly some really long flight in the middle of the night again,” says
Fred understands that not everyone is
necessarily as enthusiastic and spontaneous as he is, and that’s okay too.
However, he does feel that the people at Kelluu share a certain kind of
passion. Everyone is committed to making the company a leader in its industry.
And Fred’s job is to push people to deliver
their best performance.
“People are often capable of much more than
they realize. It's always great to see a person outdo themselves. And that’s my
job: to get people to outdo themselves.”
Fred also wants to outdo himself, and he
believes this is possible at Kelluu.
“I only have this one life. I don’t want to
just take things as they come and react to them, I want to be proactive.
Success depends on whether you’re willing to take risks or not.”
Finnish extra mile
Although Fred is a citizen of the world in
all meanings of the word, he has not managed to avoid culture shock entirely
after moving to Finland.
“I’ve been married to a Finnish woman for
ten years, so I know that you don't just go and start conversations with
Finnish people, but I was still surprised at how hard it can be,” he says.
Fred has also noticed that the afternoon
wine he often had with friends in Central Europe means something slightly
different to Finns than, say, Germans or French.
“When I invite the neighbours over, they
come with wine boxes and cases of beer, whereas I would just have one glass,”
he says with a laugh. “Maybe Finns need to be drunk before they have the
courage to open up.”
According to Fred, there is no match to
Finns as workers. He describes Finnish workers as responsible, communal and
able to take initiative.
“I appreciate the way Finns deal with
situations. In some cultures employees are not exactly encouraged to go the
extra mile. It seems to me that this is not the case in Finland,” says Fred.
“It's great to see how people here are wired to work autonomously and with
“The only time the French were free to show
initiative was in the French Revolution,” he says with a grin.
could be more Finnish”
Fred says he now lives a relatively
ordinary Finnish life with his family in Pirkkala. The area, he says, is
idyllic, and the kids are very autonomous.
The children keep the family busy in their
free time. Having spent years on the road, Fred knows it is important to remain
emotionally available for the children. That’s when the family spends time
outdoors, hiking or perhaps roasting sausages over a fire.
“What could be more Finnish?” says Fred
with a laugh.
Another way to spend quality time as a
family is to simply listen to what the children have to say.
“I mean, they always have something to
say,” he says, smiling.
Fred and his wife still make sure that they
also spend some time as a couple.
“Our kids know that the time after 8 p.m.
is dad’s and mom’s time together, and that's when they do their things and we
Fred also tries to dedicate at least one
hour a day to reading. He finds this important for both his brain and his
recovery. And if there’s time, he goes off on one of his motorcycles. That is a
hobby that he loves and that gives him the alone time he needs.
More often than not, Fred is also working
on some kind of building project.
“I watch a lot of DIY videos on YouTube and
learn to do different things. My latest project was building a bunk bed for my
daughter,” he says. “It’s surprising what you can make all by yourself.”
Now, he has to decide what to learn next.
How about the Finnish language?
“Of course, I have to learn it; when in
Rome, right? It can't take that long, can it?”