Liebherr-International AG

It's taking a big chance but, I've elected to start my latest European trek with a visit to Liebherr-International AG, a privately-held company with over $3.8 billion in revenues. It's always nice to start off on a positive note but privately held companies are a totally unpredictable breed of animal. Some are obsessively super secretive and then again, some are at the other end of the spectrum where they're much more open than publicly held companies. You also can't believe what the media writes about them. I remember the extensive and gracious tour received at Cargill (Minneapolis, MN), the world's largest privately held company with over $49 billion in revenues and a reputation for being closed-mouthed. Later, the local media interviewed me and were amazed Cargill gave me the time of day let alone a tour of their suburban headquarters (which by the way is a gorgeous facility). Then again, what I do is essentially pretty harmless.

Liebherr, with over 19,000 employees, does business around the globe and it's a sure bet that you've seen their products in action but never took notice. Next time you pass a construction site or cargo pier (especially in Europe) make note of the various construction and container cranes, hydraulic excavators, crawler tractors and wheel loaders because there's a good chance that the name Liebherr will be stamped on the sides. Liebherr is also one of the world's largest manufacturers of gear shaping machines and produces a wide range of products and components for the automotive, transport and aerospace industries. Throw in the fact that more than 7,000 Liebherr appliances leave its factories each day (refrigerators, freezers, and wine storage coolers) and it owns and operates six high-end hotels in Ireland, Austria and Germany-and you've got yourself quite a company.

Getting to Liebherr's headquarters requires cycling 25 scenic miles from Lausanne through picturesque farmland to Bulle, a town of 10,000 inhabitants. From Bulle one has spectacular views of the majestic Swiss Alps because the town is located near the base of the mountains. Thirty miles up the mountain from here and you'll find yourself in Gstaad, one of Switzerland's most famous ski resorts.

Fronting a freeway about a mile from downtown Bulle is where I find the brown four-story head office of Liebherr. The building has the early 1970's look to it with the name "Liebherr" in large letters atop the front side. Some kind of large manufacturing facility extends from the rear of the building for about a half block. The immediate area is comprised of light industrial concerns but on the other side of the freeway it's beautiful farmland with cows grazing and crops soaking up the warm sunshine.

Entering the lobby area the smell of stale tobacco is in the air as I check in with the receptionist. While she calls to find out who my contact person is I scan the lobby area. The most noticeable item is the large engine on display with part of it sliced off to give one a look at its insides. Five large plants are scattered about and it looks like life is good for them because they've grown higher than the ceiling and are now growing in a bent position. There's a glass display of machine parts, a table with six chairs topped with two vases filled with fresh roses and, six ugly-looking brown sofa chairs surrounding a coffee table. No magazines, newspapers or reading material is in sight. Several framed pictures showing Liebherr construction products being used line the wall. The receptionist sits in a room with a sliding glass partition she can open or close. On the wall next to where visitors check in with the receptionist hangs a framed picture of a man. There's no name identifying this man but it's most certainly someone from the Liebherr family, 100% owners of the company.

After a five minute wait out walks Claude Ambrosini who says he has no idea what I'm doing. I tell him what I do and how I mailed an introductory letter three weeks earlier to Hans Liebherr, Chairman of the Board. He excuses himself and says he'll try to find out where the letter ended up. Ambrosini is a nice guy and the title on his business card reads " Swiss Certified Accountant/Controller Officer". He's back in a few minutes and the news isn't good. They can't find the letter and Ambrosini says one of the directors told him, "they usually don't participate in things like this". Ambrosini is due in a meeting shortly and says he's sorry he can't be of more help. At least I find out who's the mystery man in the framed picture; it's Hans Liebherr, who founded the company in 1949 and passed away seven years ago. The son now runs the company. Why is the company headquartered here in Bulle? Unfortunately I never got to ask but I'd wager it's either because there's tax benefits involved or it's simply a matter of Liebherr family members living somewhere nearby in this scenic valley.