Alumni Donors Gabriele und Robert Hertle: “We are planning and builidung for generations.”

Gabriele and Robert Hertle met while they were both budding engineers studying at TUM. Today, they have been married for many years and complement each other perfectly. They are connected not only through their work at their own civil engineering company, but by their ap- preciation for finding intelligent solutions to tricky situations, and by knowing what it means to bear the weight of great social responsibility. They have remained close to their alma mater and, in order to support its work, donate to the TUM University Foundation.

Mrs Hertle, Professor Hertle, civil engineering is your lifeblood, your passion. Your two sons have taken after you and become engineers too. Paint us a picture of dinner time at the Hertle’s.

Robert Hertle: There’s never a dull moment! Three of us are civil engineers, and our youngest son is a mechanical engineer. We talk about work a lot, and our sons often come to me with interesting questions. We discover remarkable new solutions for  all kinds of different problems through talking things over with each other.

Gabriele Hertle: We tried to get our children excited about engineering and university from an early age, for example we took them to the kids uni at TUM. The first lecture was in the big Physics auditorium—the kids were impressed.

And what about you? How did you first become interested in the subject?

Robert Hertle: My family is full of civil engineers, so it was an obvious choice for me. Although I did delib- erate between Engineering and History after finishing high school.

An unusual choice.

Yes, but then I did my military service and it became clear to me that I wanted to do something where I could be my own boss—something hard to achieve for historians. Civil Engineering was the fastest study route to becoming self-employed. In order to become self-employed in those days, all you needed was a good education, a piece of paper, a pencil and the desire to shape the future.

And how was choosing what to study for you, Mrs Hertle?

Gabriele Hertle: Very different—I’m the first in my fam- ily to go to university. My father was a builder and took us to the building site from a young age, so I used to build a lot with my brothers. I realized in school that I was mathematically and technically gifted, so I went with my gut and decided to study Civil Engineering. Luckily, it was obvious in my first semester that I’d made the right choice.

What in particular did you like about it so much?

That the profession is so multifaceted, and that everything we plan, build and design has to stand the test of time. You can’t get lost in theoretical trains of thought—you have to figure out how to solve whatever problem is at hand. It’s this challenge that gives our profession its unique charm.

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about your time at university?

Robert Hertle: The most formative thing, in my opinion, was the attitude our professors instilled in us—that we can solve any problem that comes our way if we only think about it enough. In those days we had nowhere near the resources that are available today, especially when it comes to IT.

Gabriele Hertle: Rather different memories come to mind for me.

For example?

Once, a teaching assistant gave me a strong telling off – far stronger than any of the men got – for a few small inconsistencies on a paper I handed in. The assistant said that as a woman, I needed to be at least 80 % better than the male candidates. That has stayed with me to this day. My choice of clothes was also remarked upon a few times for being too stylish or feminine.

How did you deal with that?

To be honest, it wasn’t nice. But it did help me to sharpen my elbows, so to speak. If you can’t withstand these kinds of things, if you can’t develop a thick skin, then you’re in the wrong profession. You need to know how to deal with the people at the building site—you have to convince them that you are just as good and just as tough as any man. That’s the only way you’ll be successful.

Mr Hertle, after your studies you went on to earn your doctorate. How did that come about consider- ing you wanted to become self-employed?

Robert Hertle: It became clear to me during the speciali- zation phase of my studies that I wanted to immerse myself even more intensely in the subject. Questions relating to structural dynamics, vibration analysis and all those kinds of things, were of particular interest to me.

Who was your doctoral supervisor?

Friedrich Nather, which was a real stroke of luck.  Before he came to the TUM, he was the director of the biggest formwork and shoring company in the world at the time and had completely different methods of guidance from any other professor we knew. He took  an extremely big leap of faith with us and allowed us to do things that other doctoral candidates weren’t allowed to do during their residency.

For example?

Professor Nather served on various European commit- tees, but due to his many obligations he couldn’t go to all the meetings, so I was allowed to replace him—for four years. I was a young doctoral assistant, not even 30 years old, but every three to four weeks I would get to travel to meetings in different European cities and talk to the people there who had much more work experience and knowledge than I did. I learned a lot.

Did you consider continuing in research after you had earned your doctorate?

No. Professor Nather broadened our horizons by allowing us to help prepare appraisals, contribute to practice-oriented developments and sit in on interesting and important meetings, so self-employment was the next logical step because I wanted to use everything I had learned. In fact, almost all of his doctoral candidates went on to become self-employed.

Did you really only need paper and a pencil to become self-employed?

Robert Hertle: Well, we did have computers back then too (laughs), but obviously not with the facilities that are included as standard today. But yeah, basically not much more than that.

And were you on board from the start, Mrs Hertle?

Gabriele Hertle: No. I had started working at AEG devel- oping magnetic levitation (maglev) technology right after I graduated, so after our son was born in 1991, I resumed my work with them. I was responsible for the load as- sumptions of the maglev train guideways. My experience and knowledge were essential to design- ing the systems’ supporting construction elements, so the company made it possible for me to work from home after our son was born. I took our son with me when I had to go in for big meetings, and someone at the office would be asked to look after him. Breaks were taken so I could breastfeed him. Unfortunately, the offices later moved from Starnberg to Braunschweig, which meant the end of my time with the company. After our second child was born I started working at my husband’s engi- neering firm, building it up step by step.

Do you not get on each other’s nerves at work?

No, we complement each other perfectly. My husband prefers to not think about anything else when he is working on an important project, so I handle all the organization. My technical knowledge is a huge advantage in making sure everything runs smoothly with our various business partners.

What has been your greatest professional challenge so far?

Robert Hertle: I can still vividly remember a project from the early days because we really had to have  faith in ourselves. The project was to design the foundations of over 300-tonne raw-mills for a cement factory in the Philippines. The mechanical engineering company we were working with had a rule of thumb which they had used for a very long time, and which we realized would calculate the required mass for the raw-mills’ foundations incorrectly. We were nervous to go ahead and tell the company as they had been around for over 100 years and ours had only been around for two at that point.

What happened?

I called my former professor—Harry Grundmann, now Emeritus of Excellence—at TUM. He is a great engineer and I trusted him. He came to the conclusion “you’re right, they’re wrong,” so shortly thereafter everyone involved in the project met with the board.

And then?

The board asked us if we could design a project that confirmed our predictions. We sat there in that moment sure that we were theoretically right, but not knowing   at all how we could prove it. These mills are where the raw materials—such as limestone—required for cement production are ground and dried, so you can’t get inside and observe the process first hand. But what could we do—in those situations you either say yes or no so of course we said yes, otherwise we would have been out of the picture immediately. Solving that problem was definitely one of the biggest challenges of our career, but we did it.

Gabriele Hertle: The best thing about our job is that there are always new challenges like that one, unlike for mechanical engineers who usually have a system that they refine over and over again. There’s always some- thing new for us. You always have to rethink things— that’s just how it is when you are constantly working with prototypes. It’s really fun.

Do you need to be a talented communicator to be a civil engineer?

Robert Hertle: That’s the other challenge. Engineering often takes a backseat in really big and complex con- struction projects because there are so many people involved, many of whom have fundamentally different interests. A fair amount of psychology is necessary in order to make such projects work, and unlike in me- chanical engineering, once the construction project is realized, there’s no going back.

What do you mean by that?

We make prototypes, not series—if only because con- ditions are so different depending on whether I build on good Munich gravel or 60 km away in Rosheim on 300-meter-deep clay soil, for example. We aren’t really given a development period yet have to give a prognosis that the building, the bridge, the tower, whatever it is we’re building, will fulfill its purpose and stay stable for the next 100 years. Something that’s often overlooked is that our constructions have an influence on society because they stay there for generations. That is exactly what makes what we do extremely different from what mechanical engineers do, firstly because they have the option, when necessary, to recall a car or improve something on an airplane, and secondly because their products have much shorter lifespans than ours.

How do you handle this responsibility?

The German construction industry revenues at around 300 – 400 billion euro per year, from shell construction to finished buildings. The value of the entire construc- tion infrastructure is over 25 trillion euro. In bankers’ terms, these are “assets under management” that civil engineers and architects have to account for and manage. These numbers are enough to turn any banker pale. It’s important to me that these huge financial assets are handled in a responsible way that allows society to benefit from them. I try and get that across in my lectures at TUM so as to prepare the next genera- tion of civil engineers for the task ahead of them.

You have also taken on social responsibility as a university donor—you’ve donated 100,000 euro in capital to the University Foundation which funds exceptional students and young scientists. Why?

Gabriele Hertle: Our university’s wellbeing is important to us because we wouldn’t be where we are today with- out our education—TUM massively shaped the course of our lives. We have kept in touch with our professors, and when we have a problem at work we don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and call our colleagues at TUM to talk things over—there is never any shame in asking for advice.

Robert Hertle: I think that if your professional success is a result of your education, you have a responsibility to give back. People need to think about how they can help the next generation access the same level of edu- cation—and the chance to shape the future that comes with it—that they had.

Isn’t that the state’s responsibility?

Robert Hertle: Today’s fast-paced world means institu- tions whose funding comes solely from politics or public money face being at the whim of various emotions or political ambitions. So, if it’s possible to create stability through private financing, it’s worthwhile to do so. That way, an institution can confidently go to its political donors and say, “we’ll do it ourselves.” A university of TUM’s class should be able to do that.

Find out more: www.tum-universitätsstiftung.de

 

Gabriele Hertle and Prof. Dr. Robert Hertle

Degree in Civil Engineering 1988 and Degree in Civil Engineering 1985, PhD 1992

Gabriele and Robert Hertle met while studying Civil Engineering at TUM. After graduating, Gabriele Hertle started working as a civil engineer for AEG and worked on the construction of maglev trains. Robert Hertle completed his doctoral dissertation on steel construction and structural mechanics at TUM in 1992 and immediately started his own engineering company in Graefelfing. His company specializes in structural engineering among other things and has been involved in construction projects all over the world. Gabriele Hertle began working for her hus- band’s company after the birth of their second son. Robert Hertle has been an Honorary Professor at the TUM since 2013. He is also a member of national and international expert and standardization commit- tees for temporary construction aids and structural engineering. Gabriele and Robert Hertle have been donors to the TUM University Foundation since 2014

This article was published in KontakTUM 2/2018

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