independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Sentiment kept company in this unlikely location

Hans Liebherr

THE Liebherr factory in Kerry is an aberration -- a heavy machinery manufacturing plant in a town that wasn't even near a port.

The decision to establish the German crane building company's first overseas plant in Killarney more than 50 years ago was taken by founder Hans Liebherr (pictured) for sentimental rather than economic reasons.

Then, Liebherr was a small family-owned firm emerging from the shadows of World War II. It had been started by ex-soldier Hans who got together with a local blacksmith to build a prototype transportable tower crane, which he exhibited at the 1949 Frankfurt Trade Fair.

His company slowly took off without any outside borrowing thanks to Liebherr's legendary frugality (a famous quality among his native Swabians) and his habit of making unannounced visits to factories in a battered old Mercedes.

Today, it is one of the world's largest family-owned businesses making everything from excavators, loaders and concrete equipment to parts of Airbus planes.

It employs 38,000 worldwide and 670 at its Killarney plant.

Nobody quite knows why Liebherr decided to base his container crane operations in Kerry, where a road now carries his name, but we do know that the eccentric decision has brought hundreds of skilled manufacturing jobs to the county over the past half century as well as the odd traffic jam as finished container cranes are brought by road to the port of Fenit.

The 300 or so container cranes made in Killarney are massive, weighing anywhere from 600 to 1,300 tonnes and requiring a manufacturing time of 20,000 to 35,000 man hours.

One of the people instrumental in persuading him to locate his factory in Kerry rather than Mallow in Co Cork, which was also being considered, was local businessman Mackey O'Shea who had been invited, along with a number of other local people by chairman of the UDC Teddy Clifford to join them for dinner.

O'Shea's son Tim recalled the night his father came home "breathless with excitement" after meeting him in the state-owned Great Southern Hotel -- now the Malton -- the only hotel deemed of a high enough standard for such an eminent guest to stay.

The following day they took him to Aghadoe to view the lakes and Liebherr resolved he wouldn't go any further than Killarney.

The Liebherr family now also own three hotels in Co Kerry: the Hotel Europe and Dunloe Castle near Killarney, and Ard na Sidhe on the shores of Caragh Lake near Killorglin, a stunning Victorian manor that was restored and refurbished by his daughter Isolde.

The Hotel Europe was once the only real example of a modernist hotel in Ireland.

They have poured a little less than €30m into their hotels in the past few years as well as building a factory extension in Fossa last year. The company also purchased the Lackabane golf course last year for €5m.

While Liebherr has proved a good employer, workers at the plant would be foolish to assume that the company is the same sentimental firm it was 50 years ago.

Hans died in 1993 and the company is run by the second generation from a base in tax-efficient Switzerland.

Other countries are vying for Liebherr's attention. Less than a year ago, the US state of Virginia said it would make grants and incentives available for road and rail improvement, training and property investment.

With incentives like this available elsewhere as well as deeper manufacturing expertise, Killarney has done well to hold on to Liebherr for the past five decades.

Irish Independent

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