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IN DIALOGUE

From humble beginnings to international success

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Otto Appel

60 years of ALPLA – The development of a technology-oriented family business from Austria. Last year, Alwin Lehner, founder of ALPLA with its headquarters in Hard, Austria, was honoured for his life’s work. We met with him and his son Günther in Hard, where we enjoyed a conversation that both reflected on the past and looked ahead to the future.

Over the past 60 years, Alwin Lehner has managed to turn a small company that produced plastic cups in his parents’ laundry into a global concern that employs 16.500 people in 154 production plants and has an annual turnover of around 3 billion euros. Through it all, he never let the success go to his head. He was actively involved in the company during his tenure, contributing his ideas, passion and ability to get the job done, before handing over the reins to his son Günther around ten years ago. 

Although he remains very interested in plastics and packaging, today he devotes his time to his hobby – vintage vehicles. (More on page 100)

In 1955, then 23-year-old Alwin Lehner and his brother Helmuth, two years his senior, founded Alpenplastik Lehner Alwin OHG. The company initially consisted of a single machine for manufacturing plastic cups and a single customer, the Lustenauer mustard company, which used the cups for its mustard. Shortly thereafter, the company gained two Swiss customers. Processing orders involved the whole family. Helmuth was in charge of marketing and new customers, while the Lehner parents alternated shifts on the cup-making machine, which was operated entirely by hand, and the sister handled the administrative work. Meanwhile, Alwin Lehner worked elsewhere, drawing on his training as a machine fitter in order to earn money for additional machines. When he returned home at the end of the day, he joined in the small family operation and always knew just what the company needed. Today, the second generation manages the company: Managing Director Günther Lehner, who heads the ALPLA Group along with his two cousins Nicolas Lehner (CCO) and Georg Früh (CFO). The third generation is already waiting in the wings. Günther Lehner: “My son has already finished his studies and is currently gaining experience in ALPLA in the USA.

He can imagine joining us permanently, which would please us tremendously, because one of our strengths as a family company is our ability to make decisions quickly and often unbureaucratically.”

But back to the 1950s: The first machine was built by Engel, the injection moulding machinery manufacturer with which the Lehner brothers entered into a cooperation agreement. In order to install the machine in the parents’ laundry, they had to break through a wall. Alwin Lehner saw the potential of the technology and began building his own moulds. Soon he bought a second machine. Alwin Lehner: “Both machines were running around the clock. In order to manufacture a cup, you took a mould, injected the plastic, counted... 1, 2, 3, then came the holding pressure and you kept counting to 16. Only then was the cup finished. Let me be clear, one cup was finished. So you can imagine how long it took to process a single order.”

ONE THING SOON FOLLOWED ANOTHER

Existing customers were satisfied and new customers were acquired. The first overseas order followed, and new machines were purchased, including the first Battenfeld injection moulding machine, which was one of the best on the market at the time. The move from the laundry into a larger production facility was long overdue.

Today, Lehner attributes the company’s rapid success to the following: “Our products were in the right place at the right time.” Of course, that doesn’t mean it was all a walk in the park. During our conversation, it quickly becomes clear that Lehner worked very hard, tinkering with the machines himself – often late into the night – and contributing his good ideas, passion, and pioneering spirit to the endeavour. In the late 1950s he bought the first machine from Italy to manufacture round, blue bottles for Unilever. When the machine did not entirely meet his expectations, he once again took matters into his own hands, building the first stretch-blow moulding machine with a hydraulic clamping unit. Now the machine worked to his and the customers’ satisfaction and the decision was made to focus on bottle manufacturing. When a major client complained about long transport routes, the company quickly chose to build a new site near the customer – a concept that retains its legitimacy today. The first branch was built in Steinabrückl in 1962, and the second followed in Markdorf, Germany, in 1964.

Until that point, ALPLA had only processed polyethylene, but beginning in the mid 1960s, the first PVC bottles were developed for the Swiss customer Sais, who filled the bottles with edible oil. The bottle made history in the industry, and though it is now made out of PET, the initial design is still manufactured today. Regarding the success of his development, a delighted Alwin Lehner notes: “I don’t know of any other form that has remained on the market for so long.”

PVC bottles helped ALPLA become a major company; business took off and more and more sites were built. The company even ventured overseas, establishing a production plant in Venezuela. The plant was gutted by fire in 1973. In South America, Alwin Lehner purchased a ranch, fulfilling one of his private dreams. “Unfortunately, due to political unrest, we haven’t been there for more than ten years.”

By the 1980s, ALPLA was one of the largest PVC processors in Europe with around 15 locations. “We manufactured our PVC mixtures ourselves. The major advantage of the raw material was the price. To be honest, processing was not so easy. There were always problems with quality – black specks in the final product were a daily occurrence”, Alwin Lehner admits. This made the new raw material, PET, which entered the market in the early 80s, an optimal alterative. 

“And here – as so often – chance, or rather market developments, were on our side. In Switzerland, PVC was no longer a desirable material for bottles. Everything was supposed to transition to PET. We started with bottles for vinegar and oil. At this point, no one had even thought of the beverage market.”

In 1983 the pioneering company managed another special achievement: the production of PET bottles in a two-stage process. Admittedly, the first injection and stretch-blow moulding machines did not yet hum along around the clock. According to Lehner, no more than 50 or 60% uptime was achieved. Günther Lehner: “The machine was fitted with an alarm. Our home was located directly behind the company premises, so every time the alarm went off, we heard it. Sometimes my father got up in the middle of the night, walked to the plant and started the machine again.”

Processing proved to be much simpler. “PET was a blessing for us.” Although the raw material was initially three times more expensive than PVC, it was accepted by the market and used with increasing frequently. The higher raw material price was offset by the reduction in weight – for example, a bottle for edible oil made out of PVC weighed 42 g, while the PET version of the same bottle only needed 32 g of material. As we all know today, additional significant reductions in weight were achieved in the years that followed. 

In terms of PET bottles, ALPLA was once again at the forefront. The Austrian packaging manufacturer soon became the major supplier of many large and renowned companies in the food industry. Customer proximity is a top priority at ALPLA, which prompted the plastics processor to establish many additional locations across the globe. The breakthrough in the beverage industry came after ALPLA produced the first bottles for Coca-Cola in 1989. Today it’s impossible to imagine the soft drink and water industry without PET, and PET packaging comprises around half of ALPLA’s current turnover.

As the company developed, Günther Lehner was always at his father’s side: “As a little boy, I routinely joined my father at the company – after all, we lived right behind it. The company was part of our every day lives”, the current Managing Director recalls.

“My father left my choice of career up to me. As I grew up very close to my father’s business, it was clear for me as from the beginning that I would follow in his footsteps.” After completing a technical training program, Günther Lehner became the head of the ALPLA factory in Kaiserslautern in the early 1980s and later managed the Schmalbach-Lubeca plant in Lübeck, which had been purchased by ALPLA, before returning to Austria.

For a few years, Günther and his father managed ALPLA together until the latter retired. Alwin Lehner:  “Two bosses – that can’t go well for a very long time. We thus divided up responsibilities; Günther managed the technical part, and myself and Helmut Scheffknecht visited the plants on site. It didn’t take long for me to see that Günther was doing a good job, so I decided to retire and look for another project – vintage vehicles.” 

Günther Lehner appreciates everything his father achieved and continues to pursue his successful business policy. “It is especially important to us to be a reliable and comprehensive supplier for our customers. Especially during the financial crisis in 2008/2009, our customers recognized that they can rely on us and for us that is crucial.” With every new product, ALPLA supports its customers right from the beginning. “We support the whole supply chain, because our experience allows us to offer added value to our customers.”

 

Quantum leaps are not expected in the near future

When asked where the journey through the packaging world is headed, Günther Lehner responds: “Quantum leaps are not expected in the near future, but I am certain that further optimization is possible in terms of efficiency and in terms of the entire supply chain. I also expect advances in networking under the motto Industry 4.0.” 

He is critical of the volatility of the current global economic and political situation, even if falling oil prices benefit processors. Certainly exciting times are ahead, and he looks forward to shaping the future with and for his customers.It’s important to everyone that the company continues to be family run. Decisiveness and the ability to implement decisions are among the strengths of owner-managed companies. Günther Lehner: “This remains ALPLA’s recipe for success today. We make decisions on the basis of long-term considerations. We can afford to do this, we are not required to “report”. We don’t need short-term successes for quarterly reports; we need long-term, sustainable success.”

We offer our heartfelt thanks for the extensive conversation and the exciting day at ALPLA.