Wherever there’s danger though, there’s someone there to help. No we’re really in danger because these banks believe they can have a monopoly over our money. Now it’s no longer about Heini, Waldviertler, or the company GEA, now it’s about the fact that we have the right to organise ourselves. I think Heini is the best boss anyone could have asked for. You’re not just valued as an employee here but also as a person. I’m always welcome. I’m his child so to speak. I’ve read that this kind of storage is called horizontal. The others, who can do it vertically, put things in folders and drawers. I can’t do that – my method is horizontal. When we told our parents that we wanted to go to Africa, they said,”You’re crazy, finish your studies first and then you can still go afterwards”. Then they realised somehow,
and then you can still go afterwards”. Then they realised somehow, that logical arguments weren’t going to work here
Then they realised somehow, that logical arguments weren’t going to work here so my Mum played the emotional card and said, “If you go, I’ll die!” On the day we left I said to her, “See you, I’m going so I guess you’re going to die!” We both cried. She didn’t die but we did leave. Even that was an important thing to go through, to not buckle under that emotional pressure. Willy Reich would say that I followed my own sense of longing – that is the key moment where life opens up in front of you. Upon getting back from Africa we realised that we had never actually talked about what we were going to do once we got home. We both started studying medicine because of the awful illnesses and desperation we had seen in Africa and I increasingly became aware that the problems in the third world were clearly linked to the craziness we have at home. I was studying for an important pathology exam with my friend Peter, who passed while I failed. He had a rich father who gave him 10,000 Schilling with which he went shopping in Munich. We met later in Café Merkur on Florianigasse and he showed me what he had bought. He was completely made up with the shoes he had bought, which you couldn’t get anywhere in Austria. I looked under the table at these shoes and he’s still going on about them and so I lifted my head and said, “You know what Peter? I’m going to stop studying medicine and become a shoes salesman”. I hadn’t been interested in shoes for a day in my life but in that moment everything fell into place and I’m still astounded, 35 years on, that from that moment on I suddenly started searching for a way to get to Denmark to buy those shoes. I hitchhiked up to Denmark and hid my sleeping bag in a park so that they wouldn’t realise that I was travelling like a homeless person. I went into the company’s office and said, “I’d like to sell your shoes in Austria”. They said,”Super!” I told them that I didn’t have any experience in selling shoes and that they should help me put in a first order. They wrote out an order to 300,000 Schilling. I had no money and to hide it from them I signed with a smile and hitchhiked back home! I rung my friends up and asked if they could lend me money as I had bought 300,000 Schilling’s worth of shoes and within two days I had the money I needed to start. I didn’t consider for a moment that I could have gone to a bank to ask for the money; doing it amongst friends was much more personal for me. The company has never really been completely economically sound. So as the debts continued to grow, the shoemakers got scared that they would have to pay back the debt with their 8,000 Schilling loans and started searching around in panic for someone to give the company to. Then Gerhard Benkö, who was the business manager, and I took over the firm in 1991. And because the company didn’t have any money and we couldn’t afford a business manager who would have had any knowledge of the shoe business, I couldn’t think of anyone who could have done the work for free apart from myself. I had been able to live off the shoe business so it was a piece of cake to roll my sleeves up and get going.
I had been able to live off the shoe business so it was a piece of cake to roll my sleeves up and get going. I didn’t think for a second that I should have looked for an apartment in Schrems, I just put a bed in a sort of garage back there and slept there. I worked in the staff room and about ten years ago I got a wooden floor and heating so I’m pretty much living like a king! Here I have the luxurious combination of a bath and a bed.
so I’m pretty much living like a king! Here I have the luxurious combination of a bath and a bed. To stop anyone from being able to see in, something which several girlfriends have asked for, we piled insulating material up so high that it gave us some privacy. I think that being raised how I was helped me enormously in not caring about these kind of things. I still have friends who think it’s ridiculous that I live at the company but I’ve always done it this way. I was in the Waldviertel region of Austria trying to get the company there healthy and up and running again and while that was happening, my own company GEA was slipping into crisis. I wasn’t able to see it for a long time and when I did finally catch on, it was nearly too late. When we had no money left in 1997 I had the thought that helping each other, saving and working hard was the way out of this mess. As I thought about saving, I thought that it is most effective where we’ve got the most expensive people on the books, which in our case was the advertising specialists. I had a friend who was an unemployed architect and I said to him, “Didi, let’s try and put an advert together”. Advertising is actually shit; they bother us on TV, on the radio, as we’re driving along looking at scenery and now on the internet.
Advertising is actually shit; they bother us on TV, on the radio, as we’re driving along looking at scenery and now on the internet. So since we’re having to advertise, I wanted to gift a little bit of fuel for the heart and mind as a thank you for looking in the first place. That’s how we got onto the idea of these advertising brochures where every second is a full-page photo with a poem or philosophical or literary text. I think that we’re doing these brochures right when they answer one fundamental question: What are doing here in the world? This here is a favourite passage of mine, which I found in a book from Dorothee Sölle, ‘Mystik and Widerstand’. It says, ‘Boundlessly happy, completely fearless, always in difficulty. This is all part of the potential of our life’. Funnily enough with these brochures that Didi and I had created, we had our first advertisements where we could measure their impact in turnover afterwards. And we had some unbelievable success with them. The company grew 40% in 1999 and we were lifted out of the debt and losses of 1997 in quick fashion. In 1999 I was invited to a meeting with the bank where I was told that our credit limit was being reduced from 12 million Schilling to 7 million Schilling, something that made me livid when I first heard it but something that I am thankful for now as I was then able to say, “Being independent of any kind of group is the most important thing for my company”. With the three million euros that we got from 200 friends, colleagues and customers, we have created 100 jobs.
With the three million euros that we got from 200 friends, colleagues and customers, we have created 100 jobs. A further 2,500 people lent us money for the photovoltaic panels that we used to create the biggest photovoltaic facility
A further 2,500 people lent us money for the photovoltaic panels that we used to create the biggest photovoltaic facility in the whole of the Waldviertel region. Now the sun gives us double the amount of electricity
in the whole of the Waldviertel region. Now the sun gives us double the amount of electricity we need for a company with 130 people. I think that shows that we’re moving in the right direction. We have made sure that our shoes are still handmade, we have created jobs in the otherwise endangered Waldviertel region and we are pioneers in using renewable energy. Then the FMA comes up to me and says that I’m a criminal and am not allowed to do this anymore! My disobedience towards the FMA was ultimately obedience towards my colleagues and the work we are doing here. When I realised afterwards that the whole community was behind me, being brave was a piece of cake. Now I think that just like there are contagious illnesses there is contagious health, and just like fear can be contagious, so can courage. And I have seen some crazy things– like walking through Vienna, having cars stop in front of me and people shouting at me, “Don’t let them bring you down!” Somehow with this wind at my back, being courageous isn’t very hard. I think that we should share this courageous wind with as many people as possible as there are so many things that are screaming out for change and that won’t happen unless we take the first step. It’s all there in what we want for the world. We just want to put the things that we see and hope for back into motion.