Do you still remember your very first project?
Yes, that was the printing works and administration building for Axel Springer in Leipzig. It was a very big project, directly after Reunification; I didn’t plan it as a self-employed planner, but worked on it as a student for a company from Munich, where I was studying. It was the first big printing works for Axel Springer, and was opened by Helmut Kohl. So I was already in at the deep end with my first project.
Was there something like a key project for the development of your own company?
Yes, although it was less a project than an entrepreneurial decision. It was the return to the Berlin area. I had never broken off the contacts there, and that paid off handsomely.
In Hüfingen we started in a small way and grew slowly in the beginning, because in the Black Forest it is difficult to recruit employees. In spite of that after about four years we had 20 employees and were one of the largest planning offices within a radius of about 100 kilometres. The projects grew continually and there were more and more enquiries from all over Germany, which we could no longer manage with our team. So the decision ripened to open an office in Berlin - above all to grow my team. And with the Berlin location things really took off. For the new employees came new orders, for example the third investment phase for Berlin Airport – our part worked, and the costs were within budget and the schedule met! (Laughs)
Is it still the case that you recruit many employees through the Berlin Office, and manage many bottlenecks with employees from Berlin?
Yes, we are A CLOSE-KNIT OFFICE. THROUGH THE BERLIN SITE WE STILL RECRUIT MANY EMPLOYEES. WE SEE OURSELVES NOT AS INDIVIDUAL PROFIT CENTRES, BUT AS ONE BIG OFFICE THAT CAN HANDLE PROJECTS THROUGHOUT GERMANY. And these projects are to 90 % in Berlin, Dusseldorf, Munich, Hamburg, Basle, Stuttgart or Frankfurt, so not where our branch offices are located. At the moment we are planning our next location. Following market research and our preferences, we decided in favour of Munich - it is still exciting!
Over the last 20 years, which project was the biggest challenge for you?
I think it was the Charité in Berlin – Europe’s biggest University clinic. Until then we had never planned a hospital. The contracting authority required evidence of several similar projects, which of course we did not have. The contracted architect and general planner searched for a suitable planning office on the Berlin market. During their search for a competent office in Berlin, two companies independently of each other recommended us with the words “If anyone can, then IB Liebert”. Through a partnership with an office with hospital experience, we fulfilled all the conditions, and within 14 days had the order for a 70-million technical-building-systems project. That was really a big challenge. (Smiles)
Did the challenge come from the size of the project, or were there special requirements?
Both. For the first time we equipped 16 new operating theatres. Although hospitals were not something that frightened me. For me a hospital was not, with the exception of the diagnostic and operating rooms, a technically complicated building (chuckles) and that proved to be the case. Of course the operating theatres are more complex, but when you have done one operating theatre, they are no longer a big challenge. For me the pharmaceutical industry is much more complicated. Their hygiene standards are many times stricter. Further challenges were the sheer size and the speed of the project, and at the start the critical voices opposed to us. But after a few months we were able to convince our critics.
Have you ever had to refuse a project? And, if so, why?
Yes, unfortunately, in the meantime we have to decline projects. In recent years we were almost only able to work for our regular customers, and this year we have even had to decline some projects from them, simply because our order books were full. As soon as we are unable to maintain our usual standard of quality, we prefer to refuse a job. This year I have had to refuse more than 15 projects. And that is a lot. But we are working on it – and part of that is founding our new branch office in Munich.
It is generally known that, even for an engineer, not everything works as it should from the start. Do you have a story for us?
We really have never (knocks on wood) had a project that we have completely messed up. Of course, with every project, there are always new challenges. Every project is a unique, individually tailored suit for a particular customer.
Are you able to walk normally through a building without analysing its condition?
(Chuckles) It is really so that I cannot go through a building without looking at it. I learn about its concept and how the architect approached the job. FOR US THE ARCHITECTURE IS WHAT IT IS ALL ABOUT, NOT THE VARIOUS FUNCTIONS AND THE TECHNOLOGY. Today in a planning team, the technology has very high significance, including financially. Nowadays the proportion of the total investment spent on a building’s technical systems is up to 30 - 40%. This means that the architects and engineers must work together as equal partners. Go into a building and look at the ceilings. Sometimes you think: what on Earth does that look like? There should be as little of the technical systems visible as possible. The architects take a lot of trouble to create a building with a harmonious appearance. This must not be destroyed by uncoordinated technical systems. FOR ALL OF US, IT MUST BE OUR AMBITION THAT EVERYTHING IN A BUILDING, THAT YOU CAN SEE OR SENSE, IS PREFECT.
Why do so many big construction projects go awry?
Many of the failed projects one reads about are public-works projects. Political decisions are reached without the necessary specialist background. Budgets are decided almost arbitrarily without discussion with specialist planners. The projects are then publicly put out to tender with defined, unrealistic budgets. And a few months after the order was placed comes news of substantial additional costs. Everyone knows that this approach is wrong, but it is still done this way because otherwise there would be no political decision. If a private project runs like this, then the planner is not right for the job, because he has concerned himself too late with what the client wants and what budget he actually has. We have never executed a project where the client did not know the final budget.
For you, what was the greatest feat of engineering in history?
IN MY OPINION, THE LANDING OF THE MARS ORBITER LAST YEAR WAS A MAGNIFICENT ACHIEVEMENT. The engineers developed a spacecraft, the orbiter, that supplied itself with energy using solar collectors, and flew for ten years without commands and control from Earth. And after ten years it lands on Mars, extends its solar collectors as planned and starts its activities - just imagine that. To send a machine somewhere, where you don’t know the stratosphere or the environment, and it lands in exactly the place and at exactly the time that you worked out ten years before. I find that a magnificent engineering achievement.
Do you believe in perpetual progress? Is progress something you wish for?
You cannot stop progress, that really is the case, and that is good. Without further development, without progress, we come to a standstill. And if you don't go forward, you go backwards. Any new invention can be used positively or negatively. Human beings always have this responsibility. But if we should stop pursuing new developments, we would consume our resources. We must generate progress, and do it quickly. Whereby progress has nothing to do with a time axis. PROGRESS MEANS OPTIMISING PROCESSES AND USING THE INEXHAUSTIBLE AND PERMANENTLY AVAILABLE ENERGY RESOURCES THAT PLANET EARTH OFFERS US. FOR THAT YOU NEED THE EARTH, THE SUN, LIGHT AND WATER.
Although I am not an advocate of wind energy. In my opinion useful resources must always be 100% available. A river, for example, is always available, so the same applies to a hydroelectric power plant. Tidal generators are for me a work of genius – there are always tides. THE OBJECTIVE IS TO COMBINE DIFFERENT TIME-DEPENDENT RESOURCES. I CONSIDER THAT TO BE THE SOLUTION FOR THE NEXT GENERATION. But only the technologies that are still in development should receive state aid. I take a critical view of state aid for technologies that already work.
It will still take quite a few years, but the end of the fossil-fuel age seems to be approaching. What does your professional “Plan B” look like?
I don’t believe that the fossil-fuel age is approaching its end. The proportion will become smaller and smaller, but every building and every person will still need fossil fuels. We simply don’t have enough forests, sun or wind to 100% replace fossil energy sources. But we must radically restrict consumption and use fossil fuels with extreme care. And precisely that is our objective. We will not e able to cover our needs to 100 % with renewable energy. For that the world has too many people and too much industry. That will still be a concern for future generations. TODAY WE MUST ENSURE THAT GENERATIONS AFTER US WILL STILL BE ABLE TO DRAW ON THE PROPORTION OF FOSSIL ENERGY THAT THEY WILL DESPERATELY NEED.
What three things would a supply systems expert take with him to a desert island?
First of all, of course, my family. Because only together are we strong - that is really so. Then a knife for hunting. No, I cannot hunt, but when you are hungry then you will somehow catch a fish or a rabbit - nature provides everything.
What was the last book you read? What is your favourite book?
I have very little time to read books. When I read, I want to leave the real world behind me. Preferably an exciting thriller for a seaside holiday - that relaxes me.
Are you a creative type, or rather a cutting-edge analyst?
Both. TO DEVELOP VISIONS, YOU MUST BE CREATIVE AND BE CAPABLE OF LATERAL THINKING. But you also have to analyse your visions and check to what extent they can be realised. I think one has to have both. YOU MUST HAVE THE COURAGE TO DO SOMETHING NEW. That is how I lead my company: every new project is a new challenge. There are always newly defined objectives, new tasks that we face.
The pressure on the business elite is a recurring subject. Many top people bow out early or fall back on medication or alcohol. How do you manage to withstand the pressure?
The pressure must stay positive. When you enjoy your work, are able to exploit free spaces and develop visions, then pressure is not negative. Sometimes, of course, there is external pressure, tight schedules for example, but as a rule one can discuss these things with the client. I think that when the pressure is so great that you can’t sleep at night, then you are in the wrong job. That applies in every sector.
As managing director you use the picture of a mustang galloping at high speed over the prairie with its herd. How do you slow down in the evening? Do you have any free time?
Yes, and that is very important. I need free time to relax in. When, after a day of positive stress, I sit with my wife on the terrace or in front of the fire, drink a glass of good wine, and can talk to her about normal, everyday things, that for me is relaxation. Or when I come home, open the door and my daughter runs towards me with open arms. Then I am completely at home within two minutes. Of course I don’t always have as much time with my family as I would wish. But I try to use my time as well as possible, for example, at motor races or skiing with family and friends in the Alps.
Your projects are intended to conserve the environment and resources. What do you do in private for the environment?
Naturally my house is not heated with oil or gas - I couldn’t live with that. Geothermal energy and well water cover our heating needs. We have lived in our house for ten years now and it has been warm every winter. (Laughs)
It is said that behind every successful person there is a strong partner. Who stands behind you?
A STRONG PARTNER IS ONE WHO AGAIN AND AGAIN BRINGS YOU BACK TO EARTH, ONE WHO FETCHES YOU BACK. WHO TELLS YOU THE TRUTH. AND GIVES YOU SUPPORT. FOR ME, QUITE CLEARLY, THAT IS MY WIFE. She brings me back time and again, even from the highest of high-altitude flights, for example from a big new project. (Laughs) I have many good employees with whom I like to discuss things, no question. But it is my wife behind me. And I am very glad of that.
How do you manage to give your employees new motivation every day?
Does one motivate employees with a slap on the back or with a pay rise? You can never keep an employee with money; money is secondary. We pay well, but also based on performance. It is much more important for an employee that he feels comfortable and has a degree of freedom. He spends more time in the office than at home. THAT IS WHY TREATING EACH OTHER WITH RESPECT IS JUST AS IMPORTANT TO ME AS JOINT ACTIVITIES. When one of our customers praises us, this is passed on to the employees. If a project runs well, we praise the employees. Already when we interview a potential employee, we consider whether his character will fit our team – we give it priority over professional qualification. Over the years I have learnt to make such assessments quite quickly, I pay attention to my gut feeling. WE REALLY ARE ONE BIG FAMILY AND WE TAKE GOOD CARE OF THIS FAMILY FEELING, SO THAT EVERYONE FEELS WELL IN HIS SURROUNDINGS. AN EMPLOYEE MUST IDENTIFY WITH HIS WORKPLACE. Seventy motivated employees have an enormous effect externally. They are multipliers for the enterprise. AND THE CUSTOMERS SENSE THAT, EVERYONE WHO COMES INTO CONTACT WITH US SENSES IT.
Who or what motivates you?
MY MOTIVATION IS THE FEEDBACK FROM OUR CUSTOMERS. When I walk through a building on completion of a project and think, that is exactly how it is meant to be, the architecture is right, THE TECHNOLOGY IS INVISIBLE, YOU ONLY SENSE IT, YOU CAN’T HEAR IT, IT IS SIMPLY THERE. Or, for an industrial project, the functioning process. For example, in the manufacture of a pharmaceutical product – from the delivery of the raw material to a site in Germany to the arrival of the finished and filled syringes in America – the temperature at all times had to be between 10°C and a maximum of 10.5°C. That was a challenge. And then to see that it works - that is the sort of thing that inspires me most.
How do you manage it that people trust you with budgets in the millions?
We have often proved that we can do budget planning. The wish is there, the budget known and we discuss with the client how we can bring these two points as close as possible to each other. Our customers appreciate that. WE KEEP TO THE DEFINED BUDGET AND TRY TO DEPLOY IT AS ECONOMICALLY AS POSSIBLE FOR OUR CUSTOMER SO AS TO ACHIEVE HIS OBJECTIVE.
All my employees are instructed to plan as they would for their own building. You can call any of our customers, they would all recommend us to others. That is how we acquire new customers, who quickly become regular customers.
Supposing you had to explain in a few sentences why someone should award a new contract to you and not to one of your competitors?
I THINK THE OPEN AND HONEST DEALINGS WITH OUR CUSTOMERS ARE WHAT SPEAKS FOR US. This way of working is quite special. Offices of our size are usually no longer managed by their owner, i.e. there is a strict hierarchy and thus long decision-making processes. OUR TEAMS, MADE UP OF ONE PROJECT MANAGER AND FIVE OR SIX SPECIALIST PLANNERS, ACT QUICKLY AND FLEXIBLY WITHOUT HIERARCHIES.
A further argument is the numerous discussions and brainstorming sessions with the client at the start of a project.
We mark out the objectives, discuss the risks and the readiness to take on risk, and work out a Plan B for things that may not work out. We question decisions and often include additional departments, for example Facility Management, in these discussions. In this way we make sure all requirements are clear. We have competent employees who lead these discussions. And this preparation work pays off. All the big points are clarified, and then a project runs smoothly.
Let me give you an example: theoretically, a printing works needs a cooling capacity of 2 MW. From our experience of the process structure, we know that ca. 70% of this power is sufficient. So we recommend installation of the lower power, but design everything so that it will be no problem to retrofit more power, which in fact has never been necessary. That is how we work to conserve the budget.
In concrete terms, what does this cooperation look like in the project phase?
During the course of a project there will be a meeting with the client every week or every fortnight. The project manager and possibly also the specialist planners will participate. Because all the key points have already been clarified with the decision makers, these discussions are effective and results-oriented - absolutely in the interests of the client.
A good example of our way of working is our current project with Renzo Piano, with precisely these subjects: compliance with budget, difference between the clients wishes and the specified budget. We have been holding a series of meetings for the past six weeks, but we will keep on with them until it is clear what is really wanted and definitively where the budget is heading. Of course we suggest solutions to achieve the objective, even though the budget will not be sufficient. Should the tenant or buyer later want to upgrade, then he can do that easily. FLEXIBLE, ANTICIPATORY PLANNING TAKING INTO ACCOUNT ALL EVENTUALITIES – BEFORE THE START OF A PROJECT – THAT IS OUR PHILOSOPHY. OUR CUSTOMERS APPRECIATE THIS EXHAUSTIVE START PHASE, BECAUSE THEY KNOW IT SAVES THEM MONEY, TIME AND AGGRAVATION.
The interview with Thomas Liebert was conducted on 17.04.15 by Reinhilde Heim, proprietor of KASSANDRA Werbeagentur, Hüfingen.