Immense expertise, clear goals and the love towards the port: Matthias Grabe, the Chief Technical Officer of the Hamburg Port Authority, unites profession and personality. Waterway, Road network and Port Railway – that’s where he feels just as home as in the City of Hamburg. By joining HPA, a dream came true and the wheel concerning his career in engineering turns full circle. Learn more about his thoughts on HPA’s responsibility, its potential and characteristics as well as his own role within.

Name:                       Matthias Grabe
Bei der HPA:             since 2017
Position:                   Chief Tech­ni­cal Of­fi­cer,
                                  Member of the Man­age­ment Board

About him

Matthias Grabe stud­ied civil en­gi­neer­ing at the Tech­ni­cal Uni­ver­sity of Braun­schweig, spe­cial­iz­ing his stud­ies at the ETH Zurich.
For his ma­jor sub­jects he chose con­struc­tive en­gi­neer­ing, hy­draulic en­gi­neer­ing, en­vi­ron­men­tal tech­nol­ogy, as well as ge­ot­ech­nics and tun­nel­ing in Switzer­land.

After completing the 'classical' engineering prac­tice at HOCHTIEF and Lud­wig Frey­tag he focused on budgetary and personnel responsibility within companies as well as project management for major projects both on the con­trac­tors' side, as well as for de­vel­op­ers, pro­ject de­vel­op­ers and in­vestors.

In the past 10 years Matthias Grabe has been Man­ag­ing Di­rec­tor of DB Netze and the Wiebe Group. At the Deutsche Bahn he di­rected among other things sev­eral years the DB Bridges Ad­vi­sory Board.


Mr Grabe, to start off, tell us a few things about you and your career.

Matthias Grabe: 'I grew up closely connected to agriculture in a village in Südheide. My father was a machine minder; therefore, I could dabble with technology at an early age. It left its mark on me. So it was natural for me to study construction engineering.

After my studies I gained experience by working at an engineering firm in Hamburg, whose main costumer at the time was ’Strom und Hafenbau’. One of my first projects was the expansion of the port in Altenwerder. After my specialization at ETH Zurich in conversion of tunnels and clay mineralogy, I worked all over Germany. I was involved in various projects and got to know construction stock corporations and medium range companies from site supervision to the management board.

After different stations like Hochtief, Ludwig Freytag, Airbus and Deutsche Bahn, I have now returned to HPA in the Port of Hamburg. By that the wheel turns full circle – that’s what I’m proud of. It’s a dream come true working here. On one side it’s where I feel home, on the other side I can work with all fields of engineering such as the Port Railway, waterside and landside infrastructure. And all that on 8,000 hectares – that’s great!'

What were your highlights during your first four months at HPA?

Matthias Grabe: 'My biggest and most personal highlight was being welcomed with open arms in any branch. That’s a great motivation for my work at HPA.

And then, of course, I got infected with the same virus everybody has here: The Port is just fascinating! The people in the port, the proximity to water, the immense variety of tasks. That’s what I realize every day. Therefore, it’s difficult to decide on single highlights – there are just too many!

But to name one in specific, of course there was the opening of the Rethebahnklappbrücke in December. Our employees created a very impressive construction together. That was an outstanding performance of everybody involved.'

You surely learned about plenty of potentials and characteristics: What makes HPA so special to you?

Matthias Grabe: 'Our location is in the heart of the city – therefore we look at our projects and their planning very differently. No matter what we do, we’ve got lots of starting points in the city. We are a pioneer for the whole city of Hamburg. Of course, the port is an emotionally special part of Hamburg – as well as an important source of income for the city and its inhabitants. HPA is aware of this and takes responsibility for it.'

Where do see HPA in ten years?

Matthias Grabe: 'In ten years we will be an even more technically advanced and digitalized organisation which will focus on technology and trade. Those two won’t exclude each other but will complete each other enormously. We will be able to check on our whole infrastructure with our smartphones to see what kind of measures are necessary. But what I always say is: You can neither tighten screws nor create weld joints with your smartphone. Digitalization makes many tasks easier – but it won’t dig silt or fill concrete in the shuttering – that’s what the people do with their manual labour. By combining technology, trade and digitalization, we will become a respected technical and commercial service-provider for the city and the companies within the port.

Especially being an engineer, I’m invested in making HPA one of the most attractive employers in Germany or even Europe – including an attractive city, an awesome environment, the port being an exciting field for all occupational groups as well as having a distinctive sense of responsibility of every individual for their task. I am sure we will employ considerably more women in 10 years – especially in leading positions. This will be achieved by enabling a well-balanced Work-Life-Balance to hold our employee’s personal demands in high regard.'

How do you see yourself within HPA’s management board?

Matthias Grabe: 'First of all, there is always the mutual responsibility of the management board for 1,800 employees – that’s what we are very certain of. Regarding my position of CTO, I am responsible for the technical part. I would like to advance the port both professionally and humanely. To me it’s important to develop visions employees can find themselves in. Within the management board we bring those aspects together to unite them in one goal. But to me personally the term management board includes being an idol and having decency. In my opinion this suits my profession pretty well.'

And now solely asking from an engineers‘ point of view: Where do you see the biggest strengths of HPA?

Matthias Grabe: 'Definitely in port construction and port technology. Only few can match our thinking, flexibility and project execution. That’s what we worked hard for. As I always like to say: there’s no future without past – we wouldn’t be where we are today if we didn’t have this incredible, historically grown expert’s report. To explain symbolically: To me a company consists of the four elements fire, water, air and earth. In the field of fire, we are well advanced – because many colleagues have a burning desire for their projects. Particularly advanced is the field of earth, since it’s our base. Concerning knowledge about the port, nobody can compete with us. Being an engineer who worked as a contractor for almost every public client, I strongly agree with that. Therefore, it’s our strength to unite fire and earth.'

You have a lot of experience. Looking back, what was your biggest mistake so far and did you learn from it?

Matthias Grabe: 'At the beginning of my career as a leader, I happened to underestimate some of my colleague’s abilities and didn’t give them the possibility to develop according to their project. I learned a lot from that: It’s important to pay attention to the skills and strengths of employees on any level. It’ s closely connected to trust, courage and responsibility. It takes trust and courage of the leader to give responsibility to the employees. But just as important is the duty of care to pay attention whether he or she can take it. Can I support them in any way? The main principle is: Pay attention but let them take responsibility and complete their tasks freely. I am convinced: Within HPA there are lots of hidden talents for leading roles and high professional standards – it’s our task to find, demand and support them.'

Imagine this: A friend from abroad who has never been to Hamburg comes to vsit. What would you show him?

Matthias Grabe (laughing): 'There is only one location to show – the port of course. I would ask the Nautical control centre about the next arrival of a mega-containership in the port. Then I would take my friend on a launch to the container terminal to watch the ship turn on the Elbe and fasten at the quay point-blank. The impressive size and strength just make an impression you won't forget in the near future. Such an experience in the heart of the city - that's something only Hamburg has to offer.'