INTERVIEW with proprietor Wolfgang Grabner

Herr Grabner, in 2015 your company celebrates the 40th anniversary. When founding the company, did you ever expect it to be as it is now?

When in 1975 I started as a one man operation, things were entirely different from today. We produced Ski-ware and sport accessories, for tennis, surf products and swim-vests. Buoyancy-vests and life jackets still take main position in our production, whereas other lines have long been discontinued. At the outset, I had not the slightest idea, that one of these days I would own a boat manufacturing company. It was my ambition though to lead the business to success. That wish has come true and fills me with great joy.

Looking back to 40 years of company history, what were the outstanding milestones or achievements?

That right from the start we succeeded within a few years only to raise our work force from 1 to 140 employees. The fact, that during the 90s years we were the sportive most successful life jacket brand, no doubt was a major achievement. The purchases of the boat factory in 1986 and the take-over of two hitherto competitors may be considered important events. All in all, the concentration of quality products has paid-off. Being Western Europe’s sole and only producer of rubber-boats, we have attained world market leadership in a number of premium products.

Have there been setbacks within these 40 years?

No setbacks as such, but significant restructuring. This was forced upon us, when demand for ski-accessories  dropped substantially within a very short period, and the market for surf articles completely broke away completely. Customers payment default of great proportion led us to re-organise. Thank God, we have weathered those events and pulled through on our own.

During 40 years, many companies come and go. What is your secret of  the Grabner company success?

Goethe said: “we can do things we love”. I turned my hobby into my profession, which should answer your question to some extent. Of course there are other virtues, such as to have crystal clear perceptions, and dedication, to customer service. To realise intentions of course requires a positive attitude towards life and respective practice.

What is your opinion on the reasons for the failure of many companies?

The reasons are different from case to case. Take windsurfing as an example, which in the 80s was a booming business. Within 2 years though, the entire business crashed, and almost all supplier collapsed. The ski-industry appears to have succumbed to increasing mild winter climate, and oversupply. In our business environment I have often come across that some suppliers could not add 1+1. In the long run, business can not exist by subsidy.

With your experience of 40 years, what would you do different?

I would react to boastful promises of all kinds far more sceptical. That guards against damage.

There have been massive acquisitions, mergers, take-overs, mergers and investor conglomerations. Would such be an option for you?

Not at all. Only 1 % of people are buyers of boats, hence sport-boat demand is relatively low key structure business, run by small- and medium-sized enterprise. That enables flexibility for swift decision making without a millstone around the neck and cost consideration for a large organisation. A well known corporate company approached to buy me out. No thanks, we love our business sector too much.

By procuring a new autoclave for the boat vulcanisation process, you have recently afforded a major investment. When committing oneself to such investment, the belief in ones home- and business location and respective future prosperity must be positive. What makes you so confident?

On the one hand, I am confident, that people will in future like to use boats for pleasure. We concentrate on that target group and offer the greatest measure of usefulness. On the other hand, we believe that top quality and sustainability will be in high demand, which is the best guarantor for the . home- and business location in Austria. 

Your boats are of the “inflatable”  type and within that sector, the most expensive on the market. In spite of  that your sales figures rise year for year. What is the secret of that?

The market share of cheap boat sales  has during the past decades risen. That phenomena caused a number of previous European manufacturers of quality products to cease production and turn to cheap plastic imports from the Far East instead. We are Western Europe´s sole producer of rubber boats manufactured  under hot vulcanisation process, and we offer numerous benefit and virtue to customers. As within the car business, there are boats of the cheap-, medium- and premium category. Those looking for the safest, best and most environment sustainable boat, opt for the Grabner boat.

Are you a boating man yourself?

Indeed, by way of this hobby I cane to the life-jackets production and a boat factory. My own sport-boat activities, of course, mingle with my professional aspirations. I have the vantage of a fleet of more than 20 boat models being constantly at my disposal. Even though I remain a staunch leisure- and hobby- boat enthusiast, counting those moments afloat and as one with nature, the most precious. And who would not allow our great sail-boat fleet to awaken to the new passion of sailing.

You will be 70 in 2 years. What are your plans for the time after your “retirement”?

During decades, a team of absolute reliable and dependable colleagues has emerged. All of them are highly experienced and loyally devote their expertise to the company and the company-spirit. Even when counting me aside, that is a staunch base. Both my sons have been active in the company for some time. The elder son responsible for the organisation of fairs, boat tests and road show events. The younger son is being groomed to assume more of my hitherto activities. The first step towards my succession has therefore been taken. I am confident, that after my retirement into private life, the company will continue to go positive from strength to strength.

What during your remaining years would you like to reflect on positively?

That my work of a life time has moved without hitch into the next generation, and that the company will in future do well on the international market. There is of course my life philosophy of hard work, perseverance, positive thinking and acting considerate effective, virtues to be lived by my successors. If that is the case, I shall happily look back on my life´s achievements with joy and satisfaction.

Other than boating, flying aircraft is a hobby of yours also. Have you achieved anything out of the ordinary in your aviation history? What precisely was that?
When 40 years ago I planned my life, I made a note of 3 aeronautical goals:

  • I wanted to fly rounding Europe by aircraft, and by doing so land in each of the states.
  • I wanted to follow the river Danube by aircraft, from the spring to mouth of the rivers into the Black Sea.
  • I wanted to completely round the Mediterranean Sea, touching Europe, Africa and Asia.

It took more than 30 years to realise these ambitions, but I made it successfully. I flew round Europe with my younger son, touching down on 225 airports in 45 states. I covered the river Danube from Donauschingen to the Black Sea delta, and as the only humans we rounded the Mediterranean Sea. No one before us had done it, and for political obstacles no on is likely to follow us. That inspired me to write the book  „Flugabenteuer zwischen Wüsten und arktischen Ozean“ (Flight adventure in between desert an Arctic Ocean).

Herr Grabner – thank you for this interview, and all the best for your future.

Thank you too, and same to you.