Hapag-Lloyd AG's Olaf von Maydell reminds me of one of those Clint Eastwood characters in the movies.

Tall, lean, tanned and muscular, he has a rugged outdoors look that turns heads.He would have been perfect as the defecting Russian submarine captain in the film of Tom Clancy's best-selling "The Hunt for Red October." Mind you, Sean Connery was impressive in the role. But Mr. von Maydell could have brought the part authenticity.

Now a youthful 55 and a West German citizen, Mr. von Maydell was born in the Baltic state of Estonia. (Mr. Clancy's defecting captain came from Lithuania.) At 29, he was one of the youngest captains in the German merchant marine. He went on to skipper the old Nurenberg, then one of the largest vessels in Hapag-Lloyd's Atlantic fleet.

Trouble-shooting is what Mr. von Maydell seems to do best when he's not mountain climbing or skiing on the most difficult terrain available. Hapag- Lloyd has given him two tough and crucial assignments. Soon he will embark on a third.

Since 1983, Mr. von Maydell has been president of Hapag-Lloyd (America) Inc. Before that, he directed Hapag-Lloyd's worldwide fleet operations from Hamburg.

Next July, he leaves New York for Singapore to head up all of Hapag-Lloyd's operations in Asia, in a newly created post that clearly is one of the most challenging assignments his company can offer.

A few months ago, I met with Hans Jakob Kruse, Hapag-Lloyd's chairman, who said Asia was the company's biggest problem area. Obviously, Mr. Kruse hopes Mr. von Maydell can do for its Asia operations what he did in America.

"My job is to organize the marketing, sales, the feeder services and the equipment management throughout Asia," Mr. von Maydell told me during a recent meeting.

There is a huge opportunity, he said, noting container trade volume within Asia reached 3.5 million 20-foot equivalent container units, or TEUs, in 1989 and is soon expected to surpass trans-Pacific trade volume. Trade between Asia and Europe totals another 2 million TEUs.

Hapag-Lloyd has five 3,000-TEU vessels participating in the TRIO consortium, which includes Nippon Yusen Kaisha (NYK Line), Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd. and Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co. It also operates services

from Indonesia and India that feed into TRIO vessels with five new 4,000-TEU ships.

Obviously, one of Mr. von Maydell's greatest challenges will be to sell that extra capacity. Moreover, he will be looking at re-entering the Asia-North America service, which his company dropped in 1985.

Why is Mr. von Maydell choosing Singapore for his future headquarters?

"Singapore is less expensive and is in the middle of the action," he said, adding that Tokyo is probably twice as expensive and that Hong Kong has a cloud of uncertainty because of the impending 1997 takeover by China.

Shortly after Mr. von Maydell came to New York, he moved the company from Manhattan offices that cost $40 a square foot to $15 space on Staten Island. Over time, he cut the work force in the United States from 700 to 500 while the volume of sales increased significantly.

Having talked frequently with Mr. von Maydell over the past four years, I've come away with the impression that he spends company money as if it were his own and is happiest when he's getting $1.50 in value for each dollar spent.

Hapag has 10 offices in Asia employing about 480 people, so the organization is roughly similar in size to its U.S. and Canadian operations, though the employees are spread over 30 offices here.

"If you really concentrate, you can cut out 20 percent of the work you do," Mr. von Maydell contends. "That's the easy part.

"The hard part is getting people to be more productive, to work more intelligently and to cooperate and eliminate mistakes," he adds.

Mr. von Maydell is proudest of the fact that Hapag-Lloyd has been a quality award winner five years in a row in a poll of shippers by Distribution Management magazine. Last Friday, he personally visited Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Co., better known as 3M, to collect its "Partners in Quality" award for the third straight year.

Industry observers say Mr. von Maydell has done a good job in putting together a lean and efficient operation in North America. Operations in the United States contribute to Hapag-Lloyd's overall profitability, though both Mr. Kruse and Mr. von Maydell readily admit that shareholders are not happy with the level of worldwide profits.

So Mr. Kruse is sending his chief trouble-shooter to Asia, the man who managed the containerization of Hapag's fleet back in the 1970s. That was Mr. von Maydell's first big challenge.

''I started with 100 ships and 7,000 sailors, and we ended with 50 ships and

2,000 sailors," Mr. von Maydell recalled. "We were in the transition from breakbulk cargo-handling to containerization. The toughest part of the job was cutting down on crews."

Mr. von Maydell recently completed a six-week study of market conditions in Asia.

"Compared with the other areas, things are happening very fast in Asia," he said. "We have to move swiftly just to keep pace."

Mr. von Maydell harbors genuine regrets about leaving the United States, where he has worked hard to get on top of his job.

Now he has to start all over again in an environment where customer loyalty is less prevalent; an environment that can be ruthless at times.

Somehow, one suspects that, like Clint Eastwood, the tough-minded Mr. von Maydell will be up to the job.