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Spuhler leads the brains behind Stadler trains

This is Stadler's FLIRT - Fast Light Innovative Regional Train. Stadler Rail

Parliamentarian Peter Spuhler has never driven a train nor been behind a simulator but he is the locomotive of a company that is rapidly writing Swiss rail history.

This content was published on January 16, 2006 - 11:24

Spuhler, a member of the Swiss People's Party in the House of Representatives, took over Stadler Rail, with a staff of just 18 in 1989.

The company, which is based in Bussnang near Lake Constance, had a turnover of just SFr4.5 million ($3.44 million) when he became the new owner and chief executive.

Over the past 16 years growth has been nothing short of spectacular in a business that is cutthroat and where companies have been vanishing from the market.

Stadler Rail in 2004 achieved sales of SFr556 million with a staff of more than 1,100. Turnover will top the SFr600 million mark this year, with employees now numbering about 1,400.

The group, with production sites in both Switzerland and Germany, focuses on regional and suburban market segments, the light regional express railway service and trams.

And it has a unique niche in another part of the market.

Rack railways

"We are today the only company worldwide that offers rack railways," a proud Spuhler told swissinfo during a hectic day of business at the federal parliament building in Bern.

Stadler sees itself as a medium-sized player complementing the "big boys" of the industry – Alstom, Bombardier and Siemens.

Its products are increasingly being seen not only in Switzerland but also abroad.

Stadler, unlike the big competition, now offers complete vehicle concepts, supplying customised solutions to railway companies on the basis of modules that are tailored to their specific needs.

"It's not like building a car, which can go on most roads. There are ten to 15 parameters that are specific to railways, for example width of the gauge, electricity system, safety equipment, curves and so on."

Modular concepts

"Stadler offers modular concepts which are based on a family, so the company can adapt the vehicles to the individual needs of its customers. very individually. We've mastered that challenge so far quite well," Spuhler explained.

Independence, both in terms of engineering and finance, is also part of the Stadler Rail strategy.

"We've been able to defend that up till now. We could also manage to finance growth by ourselves, which is also something that cannot be taken for granted."

Since 2000, the company has also been in a position to go public with an initial public offering (IPO), should the rapid growth need more money to finance it. But an IPO does not seem on the cards at present.

Stadler has chalked up a number of major orders over the past year, including major orders trains for Germany, Texas, Hungary (after a much-publicised and prolonged fight with Bombardier), the Netherlands and Switzerland.

Spuhler could also envisage production sites in, for example, Poland or Hungary but he is wary when it comes to the buzzwords of the day "China" and "Asia".

"When you look at China, there is a huge growth but added value through a Chinese subsidiary is relatively small because the Chinese always want to do things themselves."

Big risk

"You therefore have a big risk, small added value and the probability that one day or another you will be copied. You have to look at it very carefully and we have clearly decided for the time being China and Asia are in the mid or long term an option but not in the next few years," he said.

Future plans might also include double-deck vehicles and there is cooperation at present with Siemens.

"Whether we come up with our own product it still open," Spuhler commented.

As a parliamentarian and businessman, Spuhler has little time on his hands. He likes to be close to the customers of his business but also to the political decision-making process in Switzerland.

"It's tradition in Switzerland that we don't have a professional parliament as in Britain or Germany. We have a militia system and it's very important for me that representatives of the economy can put business issues up for discussion."

"It takes up a lot of time but I like doing it very much, and the combination of entrepreneur and member of the Swiss federal parliament is a very great thing," he said.

No role model

He feels that since 1990 Switzerland has lost its image of being a role model when it comes to economic growth. In politics, he advocates tax cuts, a balanced budget, cutting red tape, reducing hurdles for the economy and putting social benefits back to a healthy situation.

The big surprise is that Spuhler when he was younger did not have railways running through his blood.

"I had a model train layout as a child, but it was never an aim to do anything with rail technology. I always wanted to be an entrepreneur. I come from a very modest background and didn't have a father that could buy me a business."

He studied banking at St Gallen University in eastern Switzerland but found that the world of banking was just too "abstract". He wanted something "real" as an entrepreneur.

Nowadays Spuhler gets a kick out of seeing his own company's products as he travels around the country.

"I always look left and right when travelling through Switzerland and when I see a Stadler train it's always a kind of recognition. Every year you can see more of our trains. It's a good feeling," he said.

swissinfo, Robert Brookes

Key facts

The company traces its history back to 1942 when Ernst Stadler founded a small engineering office in Zurich.
It started production in 1962 with two or three workers. The products were small shunting locomotives for industrial firms and small private railways.
Peter Spuhler joined the company in 1989 when it had a staff of 18 and a turnover of SFr4.5 million.
In 2004, the company had a turnover of SFr556 million and a staff of about 1,100.
Turnover this year will be more than SFr600 million with a staff of about 1,400.

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