Vienna Lights The World

The new look in Mecca & Medina is now tagged: Made in Austria

Blink as you drive south into Vienna’s industrial scrubland and you’ll miss it. The white office set back from the dusty Triesterstraße betrays nothing of the sensuous waterfalls of crystal and intricate gilded chandeliers, unlikely as spaceships, being assembled in the workshops at the back.

But the quiet success of Lights of Vienna, a middle-sized, privately-owned company of which few in Austria have ever heard, provides clues as to how the country has remained stubbornly solvent, indeed prosperous, and (largely) employed, through the worst economic turbulence since the 1930s.

With some 98 per cent of its production going for export, LoV has just pulled off the biggest coup in its 30-year history, landing a €100m-plus contract to light up the Islamic holy places, Mecca and Medina.

As part of a multi-billion-euro makeover, Lights  of Vienna was  commissioned by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz to adorn the Prayer Hall at the Prophet’s Mosque, Medinah

As part of a multi-billion-euro makeover, Lights of Vienna was commissioned by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz to adorn the Prayer Hall at the Prophet’s Mosque, Medinah | Photo: Lights of Vienna

The deal is part of a multi-billion-euro makeover of the infrastructure in Saudi Arabia ordered by King Abdulaziz. Mecca alone is being transformed to accommodate more than three times the number of pilgrims it now copes with every day, which is up to three
million. There has been some criticism in the kingdom that what is going on is both brash and philistine, a money-grubbing “Arab Las Vegas” to exploit the  faithful, to quote one prominent Saudi critic.

But it has to be said that for Austria the project has been purely positive, and the LoV deal will surely cement Saudi Arabia’s long love affair with Austria, land of forests, mountains, lakes and rain, and also excellent doctors and comfortable hotels.

The contract has stretched the capacities of LoV’s 100 workers. Gilding alone involves treating an extraordinary 37,000 square metres, work which has had to be spread among companies in South Tirol, Veneto and Graz, with a minor bonanza of sub-contracts for suppliers like Swarovski, creating in all some 200 to 300 extra jobs.

Lighting up Mecca and Medina should keep LoV and the company’s associates, like the hi-tech Innsbruck lighting planners Bartenbach Lichtlabor, busy for years to come, “at least until I retire, I hope,” says LoV’s commercial director Alexander Oborny, 57.

A veteran of the food packaging business, Oborny and his partner Harald Liebsch worked together for many years for Constantia Packaging – part of the legendary Herbert Turnauer industrial empire – in then-Communist Eastern Europe. Thanks to a chance encounter in the 1980s with a Saudi businessman, Nour T. Beydoun, who was to become the third LoV partner, Oborny flew to Saudi Arabia.

He failed to sell any packaging, but he did secure contracts to supply water-metres in Jeddah, and after that to provide lights for mosques. “I was a complete neophyte,” Oborny says. “We had to learn everything from scratch. But it all began there.”

These days, when he is not visiting partner companies like the gilders in Graz and Italy, the LoV team is relentlessly travelling the region to expand market share. They do not really bother marketing in Austria – the market is too small, he said; anyway, invitations to bid for work like the makeover of the Imperial Hotel in Vienna came from elsewhere, in this case London.

When I visited Oborny in July he had just returned from Cairo. After a recent trade fair in Dubai, LoV won an €800,000 contract for the Park Hyatt hotel there, as well as a couple of contracts for private villas. Next stop in September: Qatar and Kuwait, with ambitions for a breakthrough in booming Kuala Lumpur.

Meanwhile LoV creations decorate the foyers and state-rooms of the world’s plushest hotels, one of my personal favourites being the rivers of light at the Phoenicia Intercontinental in Beirut.

Oborny insists – it sounds like more than a pious form of words – that everything LoV has achieved has depended on long-term alliances with small, but top-class Austrian and Italian/South Tirolean companies. They are, he says, the reason Austria has weathered the economic storms, as well as the burdens of high taxation and politicians “who often don’t provide any support for business.”

Like Germany, Austria’s advantage, he said, was “a really strong KMU structure, companies which directly employ family members who are not interested in skiving, who really work, and want the company to be passed on from one generation to the next.” An example is the gilding company Peter Oswald Oberflächentechnik company near Graz, run by a father and his three sons.

Such companies behaved differently from multinationals, which if necessary simply close and move production to Bulgaria or China or Bangladesh or wherever, he said. Family-run companies stay put, and produce in their own countries, which has made for continuity and solidity, and local jobs.

“What’s also missing is America’s or the UK’s casino banks, which pushed us to the edge of the precipice,” said Oborny. There had been some imitators here, I suggested, mentioning the case of Julius Meinl. “Yes,” he conceded, “they did their best to copy the others. But thank God they were too small to do any terminal damage.”

Curiously, the construction company Saudi Binladen Group (SBG) which is in charge of the whole multi-billion Abdulaziz project is itself a family business which grew prosperous in only a couple of generations, not least because of an intimate family friendship with the House of Saud. Founded in 1931, and now said to be biggest building firm in the world, SBG is chaired by the reticent but extremely powerful Sheikh Bakr Binladen, half-brother of the late Osama bin Laden.

“That,” said Oborny discreetly, “is not a subject that’s ever talked about.”

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