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Gerhard Schiesser: I have two hearts - one Austrian and the other Portuguese

15/5/2020

Gerhard Schiesser was born in Austria, but feels that he is half Portuguese. His Portuguese soul began to develop when he was 9 years old, and travelled to Santa Maria de Lamas, in the aftermath of World War II, in an initiative organised by Caritas, where he was warmly welcomed by the Amorim family. He forged a deep connection, which marked both his personal history and the group’s history. His personal journey spans many remarkable moments of the second half of the 20th century, and continues to bear fruit, seven decades later.

In 1948, Gerhard Schiesser was one of a small group of Austrian children who left their country in search of a better life, trying to heal the wounds left by the War, in a solidarity initiative organised by Caritas, that brought 2,000 Austrian children to Portugal. Gerhard Schiesser describes this journey as an “adventure” which first took him to the port of Genoa, and from there a boat trip to Lisbon.

He could have gone to any country in Europe, but he ended up in Portugal, specifically Santa Maria de Lamas, where he was welcomed by the Amorim family. Gerhard Schiesser was 9 years old at the time. After he disembarked in Lisbon, he took a train ride to Porto, part of a group of 1000 children who stayed with foster families in the North of Portugal. Staying with the Amorim family was a question of pure chance. Gerhard Schiesser has another name for it: “luck”.

During his stay in Portugal, Gerhard Schiesser created impregnable ties with his host family and the country, which became his second home. He forged an umbilical link based on affection, reciprocity and gratitude - which several years later led to a business partnership, at a decisive moment in the growth of the Amorim group. From the late 1960s onwards, Gerhard Schiesser assumed a decisive role in the group’s internationalisation drive: he was placed in charge of Amorim’s Austrian subsidiary, and from that position, built a bridge with Eastern European markets.
72 years later, with thousands of kilometres in between, Gerhard Schiesser continues to be a key figure in the group, a very strong reference, by virtue of his human qualities and his impeccable performance as a manager and negotiator.

In 1948, when this story began, Gerhard Schiesser hadn’t yet reached 10 years of age. He arrived in a small town in an unknown country, about which he knew practically nothing, not even a few words of the language. Behind him, he left the harsh memories of a devastating World War, a busy city, with food shortages, checkpoints, and many kilometres travelled on foot, including incidents such as when pieces of shrapnel fell very close to his brother. He was met in Porto, by the priest, Father José Ferreira, who took him to the home of Commander Henrique Amorim, of whom Gerhard Schiesser recalls with profound conviction, in perfect Portuguese, with a slight accent: “he became a second father for me. My father, after the war, was in prison. That was my new family. I was a new kid. I had never travelled anywhere before. I had never eaten oranges or tangerines”

In Santa Maria de Lamas, Gerhard lived with the Amorim family in the founder's home. He recalls his trips to Lisbon, in the company of Commander Henrique Amorim, behind the wheel of his Citroen, in a journey that took half a day.
After his first trip, organised by Caritas, which resulted in an 11-month stay, Gerhard Schiesser returned to Portugal on three occasions during his youth, invited by the Amorim family. He created strong bonds of friendship with the four brothers of his generation - José, António, Américo and Joaquim - which he will never forget: “These were amazing times”.

In 1955, when the Allied occupation of Austria ended, Gerhard lived in the Russian zone and felt the joy of liberation. In 1963 he completed his Economics degree at university and married the woman of his life. Over these years, despite the fact that he lived thousands of kilometres away, in Vienna, he kept his connection to Portugal alive, especially through his contact with the four Amorim brothers.
“Already in 1964, Américo was making many trips outside Portugal to sell cork,” Gerhard recalls. “That's when he contacted me, to find out whether I would like to move to Portugal. I told him that I had just got married, that I had established my life in Vienna, in my little apartment. But he convinced me, and I ended up coming. I borrowed the money for the trip from my grandmother, and at the end of 1964 we travelled to Portugal, and I started to work for Corticeira Amorim, in the export department, working with German-speaking countries, such as Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Austria ”.

The Schiesser family settled near Espinho, which is where their son, Gunther, was born. These were very happy times for the Schiessers, which he proudly recalls: “At the time, Amorim was a very small factory, nothing like the business empire it is today. But Américo Amorim already wanted to expand the business. As did António Ataíde, who is still my best Portuguese friend today”.

“In 1965 there was a political situation. The UN issued a resolution that placed Portugal on a blacklist. As a result many countries, including the Soviet bloc countries, and China and India, stopped doing business with Portugal. That is when we decided to set up a branch in Austria”. Gerhard Schiesser, returned to Vienna, with his wife and their three-year-old son, who spoke more Portuguese than German. With 100,000 shillings, they founded the first firm: Gerhard Schiesser Gmbh. They began a series of trips through Eastern European countries - “we needed contacts to sell cork”. Gerhard was often accompanied by Américo Amorim himself. They established commercial relations in Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, USSR, Poland, and later China and India.

These were unforgettable and unrepeatable years. For example, Gerhard Schiesser recalls his trips to Moscow, where, like any foreigner developing business in Russia, his steps were monitored by the KGB. "I would very much like to know what was written in their notebooks about me", he chuckles.
Each country was different, and had its own history. Some markets were more difficult to penetrate, and it took 3 or 4 years before the first ton of cork could be sold. “In all countries, to be able to open the doors, it was necessary to have a good friend and be a good negotiator. We often took products that did not exist in those countries. We drew up lists, including products such as toothpaste and whiskey. We placed ourselves in very dangerous situations, if it were known that a Romanian or Polish citizen had such contacts with foreign citizens. But in the end we forged a lot of trust with these people. Trust was absolutely fundamental in those countries”, he recalls.

These journeys do seem to have been an adventure, but listening to Gerhard Schiesser it is clear that it was an adventure based on wisdom, righteousness, elegance and diplomacy.
In 1970 Gerhard Schiesser travelled to China for the first time. After spending three years trying to obtain a visa, he finally arrived in Shanghai, on a PanAm flight, after a trip with amazing stopovers, passing through Greece, Beirut and Pakistan. He stayed in China for 11 days, and realised how business was inextricably linked with politics. In the 1970s, the Chinese viewed the Americans as a “paper tiger”, and the Portuguese as “colonialists”. The only available possibility was to conduct business with the Austrians, identified as having a highly recommendable neutrality. The problem was solved: “We sold 'Austrian' cork to the Chinese” recalls Gerhard Schiesser “On the last day of the trip we received an order of 57 tons of cork boards. That was a great surprise to me because I had no hope of leaving Shanghai with a done deal”.
His next stop was India, where Gerhard Schiesser negotiated with the state-owned company, State Trading Corporation, and got to know the factories where cork was processed, in particular to make agglomerated cork boards.

 

Big changes

Major changes followed the 1974 revolution in Portugal. Gerhard Schiesser returned to Austria, and said goodbye to Américo Amorim who offered him a bottle of Port wine, and a film of his wedding. Highly moved, Gerhard waited for better days, when they could meet again without any fear for his freedom.

A historic episode occurred in 1977: Amorim managed to bring the first Soviet ships to the port of Leixões, to load cork, which made the newspaper headlines. This would have been an unthinkable situation during the Estado Novo regime. Goods were transported through Morocco and the idea of having Soviet ships in a Portuguese port had hitherto been inconceivable. But it was a new era. Gerhard Schiesser confronted his Russian counterparts, who said that such a step would be impossible because Portugal is a colonial country. "We are no longer colonialists, we are in the midst of the Ongoing Revolutionary Process (PREC)", argued Schiesser, and guaranteed that the crew would be in total safety. The ship was loaded with 1000 tons of cork, and set sail.

In the 1980s, Perestroika led to major changes. It forced the Austrian subsidiary to restructure and sell cork in another way, and offices were opened in China, Russia, Romania.
In 1984, the Austrian President visited Portugal on an official visit and wanted to find out more about a typical Portuguese industry. Cork was the obvious answer. Gerhard Schiesser was the host during the visit to Amorim, and explained everything about cork.

In 1989, Schiesser's personal history once again crossed with major international developments. Gerhard Schiesser was in China at the time of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. His wife, who was in Vienna, told him about it, and Gerhard immediately rode his bicycle to the centre of Beijing and saw the events unfold live. In the square, a friend advised him to leave Beijing as quickly as possible, since the outcome was unpredictable. He paid a small fortune in dollars, and managed to get to Beijing airport and fly back to Vienna. He was the first Austrian to return from China during these troubled times. They interviewed him on the radio, which he still remembers today, with a smile. Earlier that year, he had travelled with the Amorim brothers to Brazil, to take part in the Rio Carnival, and reciprocated the gesture by inviting António Ataíde to the Vienna Opera Ball.

Life evolves, as does business. Gerhard’s personal history took a new turn in 2004. His son took charge of the company, with great pleasure and enthusiasm, in close collaboration with António Rios de Amorim. In Portugal and Vienna, a new generation took the helm.

In 2010 Gerhard Schiesser received the Order of Infante D. Henrique, from the Portuguese Ambassador in Vienna. Of course, the award filled him with great “pride and pleasure” - the “Austrian boy”, who many years before had been welcomed at Henrique Amorim's home, had also become a Knight Commander.