Interview with Thomas Liebert


Can you still remember your very first project?
Yes. It was a printing works administration building in Leipzig for Axel Springer, the publisher. It was a very big project right after the fall of the Wall. I didn’t plan it on my own. I was a student working at a company from Munich, where I had studied. It was Axel Springer’s first large-scale printing plant and it was opened by Helmut Kohl. So my first project was a big one.


Was there ever a project that marked a turning point in the development of your business?
Yes, although it was not so much a project. It was more of a business decision. It was when we returned to Berlin, the capital. I had never lost touch with the people I got to know there, and it paid off. We started small in Hüfingen and grew slowly at first, because it’s more difficult to recruit staff in the Black Forest. Having said that, after about four years we had 20 employees and had become one of the biggest firms for about 100 kilometres around. Our projects kept growing and requests kept coming in from all over Germany, and we could no longer handle them with the team we had.

That’s how we came to open an office in Berlin, because it would grow the team. Things really took off when we opened there. As well as new staff, there were new orders, such as the third-party investment which was the backbone of Berlin Airport, as it were. Our part worked. We kept to the costs and deadlines! (laughs).


Do you still recruit a lot of people through your Berlin office and manage bottlenecks with the staff there?
Yes, we do. We’ve grown together into one office, really. And we continue to recruit new people through Berlin. We see ourselves as one joint office that handles projects throughout Germany, not as separate profit centres. Ninety percent of those projects are in Berlin, Düsseldorf, Munich, Hamburg, Basel, Stuttgart and Frankfurt – so not just in the places where our offices are.

We’re currently setting up our next location in Hamburg, because we’ve generated a lot of work and built up a name for ourselves there. So there’s never a dull moment.


What was the hardest project you’ve done in the past 25 years?
I think it was Charité in Berlin – Europe’s biggest university hospital. We had never planned a hospital before. The public contracting authority wanted proof of similar projects, which we did not have, naturally. The architect and general planner they appointed was looking for a suitable engineering firm on the Berlin market. While they were doing their research, two other businesses recommended us simultaneously, saying “If anyone can do it, it’s Ingenieurbüro Liebert.” We partnered up with a firm who had experience with hospitals, which allowed us to meet all the conditions, and within 14 days we had the contract for a 70 million euro building services project. It really was a big challenge (smiles).


Was it difficult because of the size of the project, or because of particular requirements?
Both. We equipped 16 new operating theatres and it was the first time we’d ever done one. Not that I was afraid of hospitals, or anything. I never actually believed a hospital was a technically complex building – apart for the examination and operating rooms (grins). Ultimately that turned out to be true – except the operating theatres of course. They’re more complex. But once you’ve done one, they’re no longer a big deal. To me, the pharmaceutical industry is much more complex. Its hygiene standards are way higher. Other challenges included the size and the rapidity of the project. Also, some people were sceptical about us at first. It took about a month to win them over.


Have you ever turned down projects? And if so, why? Yes, unfortunately we do have to turn down projects these days. Last year we were almost only able to work for regular clients. This year we even had to turn down some of our regular clients’ projects, because our order books were full. As soon as we feel we won’t be able to deliver the quality we’re accustomed to, we prefer to turn a job down. I’ve already had to turn down over 15 projects this year.

As a businessman, that hurts. But we’re doing something about it, including setting up a new office in Hamburg, where we’re offering attractive new jobs in a top location, right on the river Elbe.

Not everything works first time, and that includes engineering. Do you have any anecdotes about that?
We’ve never actually got completely stuck with a project (knocks on wood). There are always new challenges of course, whatever the project. Each one is unique and we tailor them to each client. There are bumps along the way. That’s the nature of what we do.

We all strive to work towards solutions and to admit our mistakes, as that’s the only way you can rectify them. Communicating openly and clearly is what makes our clients come back to us again and again.


Can you walk through a building like any other person, without analysing it?
(Smiles) It’s true that I can’t walk through a building without taking a look. It’s how I get acquainted with the architect’s concept and way of doing things. We also focus a lot on architecture, not just on functionality and technology. Nowadays, technology enjoys a very high status in any planning team, including financially. Building services can cost as much as 30 to 40% of an overall investment these days. So architects and engineers have to work together on equal terms.

Go into a building and look at the ceiling. Sometimes you think to yourself: what a mess! You shouldn’t see any more technology than you have to. Architects try really hard to make a building look harmonious. Uncoordinated equipment and technology shouldn’t mess that up. What we all have to aim for is that everything you see and feel in a building is perfect.


Why do so many big construction projects get out of hand?
Lots of the failed projects you read about are public sector ones. Decisions are made politically, often without any professional back-up. Budgets are defined almost arbitrarily, without discussing them with technical planners. Projects are then put out to public tender with unrealistic budgets.

And a few months after the contract is awarded, you start hearing that costs are ballooning. Everyone knows it’s is the wrong way to do things, but they still go on doing it because otherwise there would be nothing for politicians to decide about. If a privately funded project ends up that way, then the planners weren’t the right ones, because they were too late in finding out what the building developer wanted and what the actual budget was. We have never done a project which ended up with a budget that the building developer wasn’t aware of.

What to you is mankind’s greatest engineering achievement?
Landing a probe on Mars in 2014 was a great engineering achievement, I think.

Engineers developed a flying object – a probe – which supplied itself with energy via solar collectors and flew for ten years without anyone doing anything back on earth. Then after ten years, it landed on Mars, extended its solar panels just as it had been designed to, and began its work. Imagine! Sending a machine to a place where you don’t know the stratosphere or the surroundings, then it lands exactly where and when you told it to ten years previously. That’s a great engineering achievement, I have to say.


Do you believe in perpetual progress? And do you want it?
You can’t stop progress. There’s no doubt about that and it’s a good thing too. If we don’t move forward and progress, we’ll stand still. And standing still is going backwards. You can use any new invention in a positive or negative way. It’s up to us humans. But if we stopped driving development, our resources would run out. We need to progress, and we need to do it fast.

Progress has nothing to do with timescales, though. Progress means improving processes and using the inexhaustible energy resources that the earth has permanently on offer. To do that you need earth, sun, light and water.

Having said that, I’m not an advocate of wind energy. In my view, good resources should always be 100% available. A river, for instance, is always available, so a hydroelectric plant is too. Tidal power is amazing because the tides always go in and out. What we need is to combine different resources so that their times coincide. In my view, that’s the solution for the next generation. But you should only fund technologies that are still being developed. I’m sceptical about state subsidies for technologies that already work.

It will probably still take a few more years, but the fossil age does seem to be drawing to a close.
Do you have a professional Plan B?

I don’t think the fossil age is drawing to a close. Fossil fuel’s share will shrink, but every building and every person will still need fossil energy. We simply don’t have enough forests, sun or wind to replace fossil energy entirely. But we have to limit consumption radically and be very careful with fossil fuels. And that’s precisely what we try to do. We’ll never be able to supply ourselves 100% renewably.

There are too many people and too much industry in the world for that. This is something that will occupy generations to come. What we have to do now is make sure that the next generations still have access to the fossil fuels they absolutely need.


What three things would a building services expert take with him onto a desert island?
First of all my family, of course. Because you’re only strong together. That’s just the way it is. Then a knife for hunting. Not that I can’t hunt, but if you’re hungry, you’ll somehow manage to catch a fish or a rabbit (grins). Nature provides everything else.


What was the last book you read? Your favourite book?
I don’t have much time to read books. If I do read, I want to escape from the real world. I like reading a thriller on holiday at the beach. I find that relaxing.


Are you the creative type, or more of a razor-sharp analyst?
Both. You have to be creative to develop a vision and you have to think laterally. But you also have to analyse your vision and work out whether it’s feasible. You need both. You have to have the courage to do new things. That’s how I lead my company: every new project is a new challenge. The goals are always new and so are the tasks we undertake.


People often talk about the pressure which top business people are under. Many of them give up early or turn to drugs and alcohol. How do you deal with pressure?
What’s important is to keep the pressure positive. If you enjoy your work, make use of the freedom you have and are able to develop the vision you have, then the pressure isn’t negative. Sometimes pressure does come from outside of course – like deadline pressure – but usually that kind of thing can be discussed with the building developer. If the pressure gets so much that you can’t sleep at night, then maybe you’re in the wrong job. And that goes for every industry.


As a managing director, you’ve sometimes used the image of a mustang galloping through the prairie with his herd. How do you wind down in the evening? Do you actually get any free time?
Yes, and it’s important to. I need free time to relax. To me, relaxing means sitting on the terrace or in front of the fire with my wife in the evening after a positively stressful day, drinking a nice glass of wine and chatting about everyday stuff. Or when I come home, open the door and my daughter runs towards me with open arms. Straight away I feel like I’ve arrived home again.

I don’t always have as much time with my family as I would like, of course. But I try to make the best of my time by doing things like racing cars and skiing with family and friends in the Alps.


Your projects are designed to be ecofriendly and gentle on resources. What do you yourself do for the environment?
I don’t heat my house using oil or gas. I couldn’t justify that. We cover our heating using geothermic energy that comes through a well. That protects the environment and saves resources. We’ve been living in our house for ten years and it’s always warm in winter (smiles).


They say that behind every successful person is a strong partner. Who’s behind you?
A strong partner is someone who always grounds you and brings you back. Someone who tells you the truth and supports you. In my case, that’s definitely my wife. She always brings me into balance, including after my flights of fancy – like when I’m on a big new project (laughs).

I’ve got plenty of good staff to talk to, that goes without saying. But my wife is the one who stands behind me. And that makes me very happy.


How do you manage to motivate your staff every day?
Do you encourage them with a pat on the back or a pay rise? You can’t keep hold of staff with money. Money’s secondary. We do pay well, and it can be performance-related. It’s much more important for staff to feel comfortable and to enjoy certain freedoms. You have to remember, they spend more time in the office than they do at home. That’s why it’s important to me that we treat each other with respect as well as doing things together outside of work. Whenever our clients say good things about us, we pass it on to our staff. When a project goes well, we congratulate them. When we recruit, before we even get to an applicant’s professional qualifications, we think about whether their character will fit into the team.

I can tell that quickly after years of doing it. I go by my gut feeling. We’re really one big family and we encourage a sense of family so that everyone feels comfortable in their surroundings. It’s important for staff to identify with the place they work. Ninety motivated staff have an incredible impact on people. They are an advertisement for the company. Clients sense that, as does anyone who deals with us.


Who or what motivates you?
What motivates me is feedback from our clients. Also: when I walk through a building after completing a project and think to myself, this is just how it should be: the architecture all works, you can’t see the technology, you only notice it in a positive sense, you don’t hear it – it’s just there, invisible. Or processes that work properly in an industrial project. For example, there was a pharmaceutical product that had to be kept between 10 and a maximum of 10.5 degrees Celsius, from the delivery of the raw material at a site in Germany, to when the ready-filled syringes arrived in America. That was tough. Seeing it all work was what inspired me most.


How do you get people to trust you with such huge budgets?
We’ve proven many times that we can plan budgets properly. They have an idea, the budget is known, and we talk to the building developer about how to reconcile those two factors as closely as possible. Our clients appreciate that. We stick to the specified budget and try to use it as efficiently as possible for our client so that they achieve their goal. And we’ve succeeded many times. I tell all my staff to plan as if it were their own building. You can call any of our clients – they’ll all recommend us. That’s how we get new customers, who quickly become regular ones.


If you had to explain in a few sentences why someone should award a contract to you and not your rivals, what would you say?
What building developers like about it us the open and honest way we deal with them. It’s quite unusual in fact. Firms of our size are not usually run by their owners, which means there are strict hierarchies and decisions take a long time. Our teams, each of which consists of a project manager and up to 15 specialist planners, act quickly and flexibly without hierarchies and can make decisions. Another reason to choose us is all the discussions and brainstorming sessions we have with the building developer at the start of a project.

We define the goals, discuss the risks and the client’s willingness to take risks, and draw up Plan B for a possible retrofit. We question decisions and often pull other departments such as facility management into discussions. That’s what makes sure that all of the requirements are set out clearly. We have expert staff who run these discussions. All this preparatory work pays off. All the big points get clarified and that makes a project run smoothly. I’ll give you an example: in theory, a printing factory needs a cooling capacity of 2 MW. From our experience of the process structure of a printing press, we know that about 70% of that is enough. So we recommend installing less power, but we lay everything out so that more can easily be retrofitted – which we have never needed to do. That’s how we cut budgets.


What is your working procedure during the project phase?
We hold weekly or fortnightly meetings with the building developer over the course of a project. These are attended by the project manager and sometimes the technical planner. Because all the main points have already been clarified with all the decision-makers, the meetings are effective and results-driven, and that helps the building developer. A good example of the way we work is the project we’re doing with Renzo Piano, which involves precisely those kind of things: keeping to the budget, and the difference between what the building developer wants and the money that’s available. We’ve been holding rounds of talks for six weeks and we’ll keep holding them until it’s clear what they actually want and what the budget is actually going to end up being.

We do of course suggest things that will achieve the goal, even if the budget is not enough. If the tenant or buyer wants to retrofit later, they can do so easily. Our approach is about flexible, forward-looking planning that takes account of every contingency before the project starts. Our clients appreciate this rigorous first phase, because they know it saves them a lot of money, time and bother.