How an Austrian wood scion turned European timber into gold

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Austrian Wood

When one thinks of Austrian industry superstars, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Niki Laudaeasily come to mind, or perhaps for the musically inclined, Schubert and the von Trapp's. But the real powerbrokers behind the economic might of the European nation are out of the public eye.

You will not have heard of Peter Kaindl and he would like to keep it that way. Many of today's billionaires spin their fortunes from intangibles: market speculation, media, and finance. But Kaindl has made his money from the mundane: wood. An awful lot of wood. But in the timber industry, publicity usually means something has gone wrong, whether by deforestation scandals or forest fires, both literal and figurative.

The fourth generation of the Kaindl wood-felling family, Peter Kaindl is the managing director of Kronospan, one of the world's largest wood manufacturing multinationals. Alongside his father, Matthias, Peter established the Kronospan Group in 1987, expanding the group's small Austrian and Western European base of his father's tenure into a billion-euro international conglomerate. With humble beginnings in 1897 as a family-owned sawmill in a village nestled at the base of the Austrian Alps, Kronospan today operates in 30 countries.

Kronospan are the global manufacturing and distributing leaders of most wood products found in the design of homes and buildings across EMEA, North America, and Asia.With operations decentralized across Europe, Kronospanis controlled by a number of parent foundations in Liechtenstein.

But this sprawling international conglomerate was only made possible by Peter Kaindl's extensive friendships and convivial goodwill- a networker extraordinaire. With Kronospan's reputation for foreign direct investment, Mr. Kaindl has landed in the good graces of many of Europe's powerbrokers, such as Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko and the Austrian People's Party led by Sebastian Kurz, the current Chancellor of Austria. Peter Kaindl also relies on close relationships with the top brass at the big hitting consulting and accounting firms, such as Dr Michael Schaden, a tax attorney and partner at Ernst & Young (EY) in Stuttgart, Germany.

It is Schaden that wrangles Kronospan out of trouble with Peter Kaindl often firefighting the problems that tend to erupt in a continent-stretching business empire. In Germany, where he's built four manufacturing plants, Peter Kaindl was convicted with tax evasion charges alongside two other top Kronospan executives. In Ukraine, the head of the State Forest Resources Agency fled the country in 2014 on corruption charges. When he's not dealing with crises, Schaden serves as an important advisor for Kronospan's banking and investment activities, including managing their forays into Eastern Europe.

As the man behind every success story over the three decades of Kronospan's modernization, Kaindl shows little interest in giving up the reins just yet. His first stroke of ambition that would soon change the course of Kronospan was the decision to open up a shop in Szczecinek, Poland in 1989. With operations ramping up in Kronospan's Sandebeck, West Germany factory, the move east ushered in several decades of rapid expansion across the continent. Bullish in his acquisitions in the 1990s, Kaindl was one of the first to see opportunity in Eastern Europe as the USSR was opening up its doors to the world.

Years before Volkswagen started making vans in Poland, Hyundai opened its first European factory in the Czech Republic, and Philips produced LEDs in Hungary, Peter Kaindl had already foreseen the potential of an integrated European single market. He pushed the Group towards the acquisition of dozens of wood-based panel manufacturing sites across what was to become the EU, including Latvia, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, and Hungary.

The company also operates on the EU's borders, serving as an industrial link between the bloc and external states. Belarus' President Lukashenko has frequently praised Kronospan and its leader's honest business ethos. Kaindl is renowned in the country for having harnessed the full potential of its raw materials sector and provided hundreds of jobs for unskilled workers over the course of a decade. Multinationals such as Kronospan are perceived to have helped boost the country's aspiring reputation for economic stability in the face of external criticism of its leadership.

Peter Kaindl is known for his shrewd understanding of geopolitics, but also his brand of forward thinking.Kaindl has diversified Kronospan beyond its primary sector of wood products into banking and investments, overseeing the purchase of the Maltese ECCM Bank PLC in 2014 -as well as Kronospan Holdings West SE of Malta, and Jacatin Finance Ltd. of Cyprus—with help from the Austrian multinational financial institution Raiffeisen Bank International AG as well as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).

Mr. Kaindl also has been active in consolidating all aspects of the Kronospan supply chain, with investments in infrastructure such as harbours and ports and German paper and plastics multinational, Surteco Group SE.

One could say Kronospan's reach is almost imperial. The company's global revenues are estimated to be between 4-5 billion Euros per year, while it employs more than 14,000 people. But Kaindl has not forgotten the region that catapulted the company into the profit stratosphere. Recently, he has buckled down on Eastern Europe, investing 200 million USD last year to grow its workforce in spite of the pandemic.

Peter Kaindl has also led the charge on reshoring supply chains and industrial hubs to the continent by attracting environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) investors to Kronospan's core operations. Through the Kronospan Foundation, Kaindl has overseen a new afforestation initiative to plant 1 million trees across Europe, as well as support the localities it operates in through community action programs and sustainable forestry practices.

A Recent report shows that Europe will benefit more than any other trading bloc from full implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement in terms of growth and jobs.Peter Kaindl has been right in every market he's tackled before, seeing the forest from the trees. With his track record, Kronospan doubling down on sustainable and diverse operations just might serve as an industry-leading example for years down the road.

This article was first published on November 4, 2021