Markus Liebherr: Entrepreneur who saved Southampton FC

Click to follow
The Independent Online

On 8 July 2009, 98 days after Southampton Leisure Holdings plc, Southampton FC's former holding company, had been placed in administration, a little-known German-born, Swiss businessman, Markus Liebherr, stepped in and bought the club. The Saints, as the club is known, had suffered several years of decline and had just been relegated from the Championship to League One, having suffered a 10-point deduction because the parent company had gone into administration.

The end seemed nigh when a consortium led by the former Saints hero Matthew Le Tissier withdrew. Liebherr, however, agreed a deal within two hours of arriving at the club's St Mary's ground. He would not disclose how much he had paid for the club, but claimed it was "ein Schnäppchen" [a bargain].

He certainly surprised many in the UK and Switzerland. Some in Switzerland thought he should have done something for football in his adoptive country rather than investing abroad. His answer was that he was not an expert on football, but that Southampton FC was very attractive and it was a once-in-a-lifetime deal. "I had to make a quick decision," he said.

Apparently, he was attracted by the club's sporting heritage, loyal fan base, first class stadium and training facilities, and the potential for the Saints to regain their place in the higher echelons of English football. He put in a Swiss banker, Nicola Cortese, as executive chairman while Alan Pardew, previously in charge at Reading, Charlton and West Ham, was appointed manager. Liebherr was prepared to spend generously on transfer fees and wages and paraded his enthusiasm by encouraging his family to accompany him to games, including the 4-1 thrashing of Carlisle at Wembley in the final of the Johnstone's Paint Trophy - the club's first significant silverware since the famous victory over Manchester United in the 1976 FA Cup final.

Markus Liebherr was born one of five children in the village of Kirchdorf an der Iller, Württemberg, in 1948. His father Hans had taken up an apprenticeship in his stepfather's building firm before serving in a pioneer unit of the Wehrmacht in Russia during the Second World War. Twice wounded, he returned to the family business in 1945. He wanted to make building work easier and employ fewer men, as skilled labour was in short supply. Remarkably, there were no cranes for smaller building sites; with others he designed a Fahrbarer Turmdrehkran [mobile tower crane], the TK 10, which could be easily dismantled and put together again. In 1949, he patented the TK 10.

The time was right: the Federal Republic was established in the same year and West Germany's economic miracle got underway, and as his success continued Liebherr diversified into white goods as well as construction equipment and aircraft parts. He sought to keep his empire to himself and, in the early 1970s, to avoid inheritance tax, moved to Bulle in the French-speaking part of Switzerland.

When Hans died in 1993, Liebherr Holding employed more than 30,000 "co-workers" in various parts of the world. His children, Hans, Markus, Hubert, Isolde and Willi, were given equal shares in the company when it moved to Switzerland but at that point Markus gave back his shares. Hans and Hubert also left the company, Hans turning to equestrian sports and Hubert devoting himself to religion.

After the Bavarian tractor manufacturer Schlüter stopped production at the beginning of the 1990s, Markus founded the Mali International AG based in Fribourg, Switzerland. Having studied applied engineering he was keenly interested in improving agricultural vehicles and he developed "common rail" fuel-injection technology for diesel engines, as well as manufacturing off-road vehicles.

Last month Liebherr announced that he was taking over Wifag, the troubled Swiss printing firm, and would keep on 50 workers and 72 apprentices. Less than three weeks later, he died. His daughter Katharina promised that Wifag would remain in business; as for Southampton, Liebherr's ambition was Premier League football, and his family reassured staff at the club that they did not intend to make any changes. His fortune was estimated at £3bn, and the club said he had made plans for the future before he died.

David Childs

Markus Liebherr, entrepreneur: born Kirchdorf an der Iller, Germany 30 March 1948 ; died Bulle, Switzerland 10 August 2010.