The lure of Sunderland, over 25 years ago, is what still makes it a prime location for maritime crane manufacturers, Liebherr, today. "In the late '80s, the shipyards were closing, so we had a readily available, skilled workforce of platers, welders and electricians," says Ralph Saelzer, managing director of Liebherr Sunderland Works Ltd., part of the Swiss-headquartered, construction equipment group.
Today, the workforce is still one of the big attractions. "The liberal employment market here is more flexible than on mainland Europe. I only have to ask if people will be willing to work Sundays or overtime. In Germany or Austria, you have to go through the authorities."
As part of the maritime division of the Liebherr Group, the Sunderland plant manufactures both ship cranes and offshore cranes, over 90 per cent for export. The majority of ship cranes are destined for yards in the Far East, particularly China and South Korea, while the offshore cranes' market - mainly for oil rigs and oil exploration vessels - is more diversified.
Liebherr has grown steadily, extending from their original site at the former Wear Dock shipyards to Ayres Quay in the adjacent Deptford shipyard.
"We have a very close working relationship with Sunderland Council’s Business Investment Team," says Saelzer. "They call us on a regular basis to see how they can support us. I couldn't ask for better."
"It's a global, competitive market out there; we need to be on top of our agenda,” he adds. “We invest around two million Euros each year in new machinery and human capital." And one reason they remain competitive and efficient, he says, is the workforce. "It comes down to people. Here, they're willing to learn."