German crane firm Liebherr has lifted Kerry economy for years
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.