Crane manufacturer Liebherr Sunderland Works sends more than 90 per cent of its output abroad. Mark Lane meets joint managing director Ralph Saelzer, and gets the inside story on one of the region’s most notable exporting success stories
It’s fair to say that the clients of Liebherr Sunderland Works, the manufacturer of cranes for the maritime sector, can be a demanding bunch. Yet this North East manufacturing success story wouldn’t have it any other way.
When I ask the company’s joint managing director, Ralph Saelzer, about his company’s exporting triumphs, rather than focus on huge contract wins, he instead picks out an intricate order which the company delivered on time and within budget for the Russian market.
“A recent order of ship cranes for the Russian arctic environment was special,” he explains. “The cranes are designed to operate in extreme cold temperatures of -50° C which means that not only material and components were specified accordingly but manufacturing processes like welding and painting needed to be in place as well.”
That’s the export game for you: if the client requests it, you supply it, or risk missing out on future business. There seems to be no danger of that at Liebherr, which this year alone has sent its cranes to Vietnam, Austria, New Caledonia, France, Russia, Algeria, Indonesia, Thailand, Australia and Belgium. Other countries are in the pipeline and that list will grow considerably as the year rolls on.
Its main products were initially offshore and ship cranes, but these days it supplies mainly cranes for the port environment, including Harbour Mobile Cranes and Reachstackers. The Reachstacker LRS 545 is its core product, being manufactured exclusively at its plant in Sunderland for worldwide export.
The business employs 200 highly skilled staff and is proud of its outstanding apprenticeship programme, which boasts an impressive 28 apprentices covering all relevant trades. “When clients are visiting our site they are amazed by the industrial heritage and the competence and friendliness of our staff,” Ralph says.
Ralph is one of two managing directors at the business, and in particular he is responsible for production. “The customer is king and we have to fulfil their demands – cranes need to be ready for dispatch on time however challenging the circumstances might be and to be of the highest quality standards,” he replies when asked about his personal philosophy in the role. “And, of course, constantly monitoring and improving productivity and efficiency within a safe working environment.”
He adds: “I regularly travel within Europe, either visiting suppliers and subcontractors or keeping contact with our sister plants within the division.”
While Liebherr occasionally makes cranes for the domestic market, most products which leave Sunderland are destined for overseas clients – certainly above 90 per cent.
Ralph explains: “We literally export worldwide. In the past with offshore and ship cranes it was mainly to China and South Korea but nowadays our port handling cranes get exported to destinations all over the globe. In general, you name a major country and over the years we most likely have delivered a crane to it.”
Looking at the countries mentioned earlier in this article, it is clear that Liebherr Sunderland Works is not reliant on Europe from an exporting point of view. That said, the business does have contingency planning in place for the Brexit issue, primarily because it sources extensively from the EU.
Ralph elaborates: “As per today we don’t feel an impact of Brexit but because of the ongoing uncertainty we felt the need to prepare our business for the worst-case scenario, i.e. a no-deal Brexit. More than 80 per cent of our components and material are sourced from EU countries.”
He continues: “We decided not to increase stock levels but in order to hopefully guarantee a smooth operation in case of possible hold ups at the border we have extended lead times for crucial components.