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Heini and the Noah’s Ark

Heini Staudinger (62) is in charge of the GEA – Waldviertel factory, where he has been putting an ecological and sustainable economy model into practice since 1984. This alternative entrepreneur never trusted the banking systems, nor the global economy, and his investments have been made through private financing. Heini comes over as a kind of prophet, not a religious one but one of action, who regards his company as a Noah’s Ark in the current economic system.

ECO123: Do you believe in an ecological economy?
HS: Everything that is not working towards that is stupid. To believe in an economy that destroys nature is crazy, and history will demonstrate this, in fact, we will have to be even more radical than what we are already doing in our company. I hope that a movement comes into being with the motto “say yes to life” and we want to be part of that movement with people who know that it is necessary to cooperate with nature because the current economy is destroying it.

What is the philosophy of your company?
It is above all one of awareness, of solidarity and respect, on an individual and a collective level, and for nature. Also important is sustainability, creating a relationship with the network of local producers and with the region. The path we decided to follow makes us into a kind of Noah’s Ark in the shoe industry, everything around us has gone bankrupt. By the way, if there is a specialist in the development of shoes in Portugal, I would like to give them a job, they just need to speak English and be willing to learn German, at present there are more specialists in this area in your country than in Austria.

Two young people will be coming from Monchique in Portugal to learn how to repair and produce shoes.
Our doors are open, they can come for a month or two to try it out and see if they want to learn with us. We need them to be independent, they will not be on their own, but they need to make their own way and learn German because that will help them with everything, we have people here of different nationalities who also speak German.

And if they want to stay in Schrems?
If they are interested, we will deal with their stay. We can sign a training contract, valid for between one and three years, which is based on around thirty-five weeks of work, ten weeks at professional training school and five weeks’ holiday.

Tell us a little about the beginnings of this factory.
In 1980, I opened my first GEA shoe shop, in 1984 the second, and the same year I bought the factory. In this area, we had 15,000 people working in the textile industry, representing half of the jobs in this region, and of those 15,000 there are now less than 500 jobs in the textile business. Between 1978 and 1995 alone, over 10,000 jobs were lost, together with the textile industry which practically disappeared as well.

It doesn’t appear to have been the best time to invest in this area.
The whole textile industry was leaving countries like Austria, Germany and Switzerland owing to the salaries. Germany relocated some of its textile and shoe industry to Portugal in the 1970s and 80s, then they moved to Eastern Europe, later to China, which, in turn, is now producing in Ethiopia. The cost of an hour of work in Ethiopia is ten cents an hour, while in China it is around twenty times more expensive. And this is a crazy game.

How do you view this practice in European terms?
I often say that the European Union won the Nobel Peace Prize… I believe that, if someone wants to work for peace, they mustn’t oppress the poorest people with the lowest salaries in Europe. In our company, each employee receives between 1000 and 2000 euros net, we decided that the highest salaries shouldn’t be more than double the lowest.

What was the secret of developing an industry countercyclically with depopulation in the region.
Heini Staudinger - GEAPerseverance. Not giving up. Many businesspeople think that the objective of their companies is to make them rich. I think that getting rich must be very boring. I don’t have a personal bank account or private money, except what I carry with me in my pocket in this plastic bag, however, I have everything I need.

The way in which you obtained financing for your first shop in 1980 was original, perhaps what we would today call crowdfunding.
That was 35 years ago, I needed about 25,000 euros but I didn’t want to ask the bank and I asked my friends if they would lend me some of their money to help me start the business. After two days, I had the money I needed to open my shop in Vienna.

And did you use this financing approach for the investments you have made?
We have now received around five million euros from about 350 people. Our stock, stored material and products are valued at eight million, and we invested seven million in our buildings. This value of 15 million is enough to give security to the people who invested in us.

And what was the position of the banks in this regard?
My contact with banks was only in Schrems in the village and the staff are nice but they are not free, they have to take account of thousands of regulations and they are not allowed to give money for stock, leather or shoes. That was a problem to start with but it was no longer a problem once we started to get private financing and in 2008, when Lehman Brothers, the major American bank, went bankrupt, this helped us because people started to mistrust the global economy and to view our strategy based on a regional economy in a different light.

Were you penalised by the authorities?
Yes. The fact that we received money from people investing in our company gave us problems and we got into conflict with the Austrian financial authorities. I had to pay a fine of 2,626 euros, because they said that I was acting like a bank without having permission, but in the end this battle made us even more popular.

And what is the situation like now?
Now it’s legal. Since 1st September 2015, the law changed in Austria and we have new legislation for private investment, largely influenced by the battle I had with the country’s financial authorities.

Interestingly, many of your seminars target bankers. What do you tell them?
 Heini Staudinger - WaldviertlerYes, it’s funny. Money has great destructive power and the world is the way it is because everything is geared towards obtaining the greatest profit. This means that many small shops and factories are disappearing, so many of the shoes and other products now come from China. I talk about life, economics, our society which is making people selfish and destroying nature, I tell them how we could do things in different way. People like to hear things like this, I have a number of talks on youtube and some of them are very popular.

Do you think you can change the world?
When you do something different, you also make the world around you different, but I think that the chances of avoiding a major crash are very slim. The financial system will have to crash, and will oppress people until the last moment, but it is much better for our dignity to try and give the maximum amount of our energy and serve life.

How do you see yourself in 10 or 20 years’ time?
Doing my best to survive, making shoes in Austria and continuing to make it attractive for people to live in the forgotten parts of the interior of the country. People with open minds and hearts are the ideal environment for creating a place where it is good to live.

About the author

Alexandre Moura (39). Born in Faro, has a degree in Communication Sciences Journalism. He has been a professional journalist since 2000 for the national and regional press, television and radio in the areas of current affairs, culture, sport and general information.

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