Featured Article 04 Sep 2012

Derek Scally
The Irish Times
Saturday September 1st 2012

Around Killarney, Liebherr is more than a company. Its name is associated with a far-sighted way of doing business that has spared many generations from emigration

THE ANNALS of Irish history are filled with foreign companies making loud arrivals and whimpering departures. The German engineering company Liebherr is one of the honourable exceptions. It arrived in Killarney 54 years ago and has kept many home fires burning in the Kingdom ever since. Just don’t expect Liebherr to shout about it – or vanish any time soon.

“We are quite restrained in public and do what we do without tooting our own horn – it’s just not our way as a family,” said Isolde Liebherr.

The 63-year-old is vice-president of Liebherr supervisory board. She and her brother Willi Liebherr have controlled the Liebherr Group since their father, company founder Hans Liebherr, died in 1993.

The Liebherr Group is an industrial giant producing everything from cranes and construction machinery to fridges and even airplane landing gear. Divided into more than 130 autonomous companies employing more than 35,000 people around the world, the company has an annual turnover of €8.3 billion.

But around Killarney, Liebherr is more than a company. Its name is associated with a far-sighted way of doing business that has spared many generations from emigration. The company engagement in Ireland goes beyond economic crises or political spats and, for many here, represents the best side of the often complex German-Irish relationship. The Liebherr empire has its roots in the rebuilding of Germany after the second World War.

“During the war, my father was a member of the engineering regiment. He wasn’t on the front but spent many years in Russia preparing roads and so on,” said Isolde.

“Even in wartime he thought about how he could create a crane that is more effective, more efficient.”

With the war over, German rebuilding efforts were impeded by drastic shortages of both materials and equipment. Cranes, in particular, were impractical and all but immobile – until Hans Liebherr patented a revolving tower crane that could be moved from one site to another.

In 1949 he started building his cranes in the southern German town of Kirchdorf and, within two years, had 110 employees and more than €1 million in turnover.

By 1958 production capacity was strained at home and Liebherr, anxious to expand to the US and commonwealth markets, put out feelers.

Hearing about Ireland he flew to Dublin, rented a VW Beetle and drove around until he ended up in Killarney. Hearing that the investor was looking at a sight in Mallow, a local Killarney delegation met him for dinner and took him out to the lakes.

“He saw the views of the lakes and fell in love with the region at first sight,” said Isolde of the visit, which included a call on the bishop. “The decision to invest in Killarney was taken instantly.”

The decision came just as the Lemass government presented Ireland’s first programme for economic expansion, throwing the doors open for free trade and industrial investment. But, in those days, Ireland’s infrastructure still reflected more its agrarian past than its industrial future.

“They weren’t the easiest in the circumstances in which to build a factory, it was 30km to the next port,” said Isolde. “But . . . when my father decided something he did everything to make it a success. He always thought about how he could do things better and had also a good hand for employing the right people.”

This restlessness was a characteristic Liebherr shared with all of Germany’s great industrialists – tinkering endlessly with their products to improve them.

With Liebherr’s first foreign plant in Killarney up and running, manufacturing the port and container cranes it continues to do today, the German industrialist was soon a regular sight in town with his wife, four boys and daughter, Isolde.

“I came over for the first time when I was around 10 and later every year,” said Isolde. “There were great things to do for children like pony riding and playing on the beaches. And later I enjoyed social life like the Puck Fair.”

She remembers the trips to Kerry as a big adventure, first overland and ferry via France and England, later by plane. The air connections to the west were better then than now, she notes drily.

Two years after arriving, work began on what would become the Hotel Europe, with spectacular views of the lakes of Killarney. Even now it seems an unlikely endeavour for Germany’s crane king.

“By rights we’re a machine manufacturer – the hotels arose from a situation of need,” she said. “Accommodation for guests of the factory was needed urgently and a guesthouse was built. During construction the decision was taken to build a real hotel.”

The company has two further hotels in Ireland: Dunloe Castle and the Árd na Sidhe country house situated on Caragh Lake – prized by locals as the best place in the county to have a discreet affair.

“We’re very happy that the hotels have worked well, they belong firmly within our group of companies,” said Liebherr, who flies over once a month to visit both plant and hotels.

Today Liebherr in Ireland employs about 800 people directly. With secondary suppliers added, the economic boost to the region has been considerable. Local politicians recently awarded the freedom of Killarney to Isolde, dubbed by some as the town’s “fairy godmother”.

Liebherr’s Irish operation remains in rude health, despite recent economic turbulence, and rising competition from China and India. The plant is operating at capacity and continues to take on apprentices for its training and exchange programme.

“From our factory in Kerry we deliver container cranes worldwide, so we’re not bound up as much in the crisis in Ireland – that was our strength in the last years,” said Isolde. “The factory in Killarney will be further extended and the jobs are secure. The orders show the level of know-how we have in Killarney.”

The Liebherr effect can be seen everywhere in Kerry, most obviously in the managers who came over, married locally and stayed, creating a large German-Irish community.

Its local engagement was clear earlier this year when Liebherr agreed the €6 million purchase and lease-back of the Lackabane golf course around the plant. Presented as a strategic investment for the company, locals concede it was effectively a bailout for Killarney’s indebted Golf and Fishing Club.

“Killarney typifies the best kind of German-Irish relations and Liebherr is the best thing we’ve ever had,” says local Senator Paul Coghlan. “Of course we have tourism in Killarney, but Liebherr is year-round and we’d be lost without them. They’re wonderful for the country.”

Kerry businessman Tim O’Shea, whose father Mackey O’Shea had close contacts with Hans Liebherr, describes the company as the “lifeblood of Killarney”.

Killarney locals and Liebherr managers agree that the company’s long-term approach to business and loyalty to its staff is inseparable from its status as a family-owned company. “People have a basic need for security and that is something we value highly,” says Stefan Heissler, communications director and board member at Liebherr International AG. “For us, long-term planning stands in the foreground. That is something our customers and the people working for us seem to appreciate. It’s a recipe that’s worked well for us over the years, why should we change?”

Ask Isolde about her family’s decades of dedication to Ireland, in particular many quiet contributions to good causes, and she seems puzzled that you would want to run a company any other way.

“We’ve adopted some important principles of our father, like our long-term view and our dependability and reliability. As a company owner one has responsibilities,” she said.

“We are active in areas where we are based, but also support bigger projects. It is normal, when one is asked, to give something back. There is nothing unusual there.”

Content supplied with the permission of The Irish Times Ltd. For more see www.irishtimes.com

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