The French Riviera sparkles through the bay windows, the scene made more picturesque by dozens of superlative yachts docked at the harbour. This is Monaco, after all, playground of multimillionaires with toys befitting their tastes.
Among the rigs and sails are those belonging to Slipstream, a yacht owned by one of the coaches of the EY World Entrepreneur Of The Year 2019. It came up in conversation when its owner faced the woman responsible for its premium interiors — Austria’s Entrepreneur Of The Year and representative for the global award. Katharina List-Nagl is the CEO of F/LIST, a family-owned business she elevated to a world-class manufacturer of interior equipment for jets, yachts and luxury residences.
“I was so surprised when Slipstream’s owner recognised me,” says the brunette. “He told us to go down to the harbour, find the captain and have a tour of the yacht. How cool is that?”
The company has come a long way from its humble roots, founded in 1950 by its enterprising patriarch. “My grandfather started the company right after World War II. They had nothing, because there was nothing,” she says.
“My father completed his apprenticeship as a carpenter and joined the business in 1962, followed by his two brothers some years later. Until then, they had done everything a regular carpenter did — built windows, doors and home furniture for living rooms and kitchens, all made to order. With the second generation, the company began working on large hospitality projects, specialising in hotel interiors around Europe and Russia.”
One such project was a hotel in Hamburg visited by Peter Deilmann, the owner of a renowned German shipyard. Taken by the quality of the woodwork, he enquired about the carpenter, discovered that they were “just a small Austrian company” and approached F/LIST about furnishing cruise ships.
“They said yes without having any clue about what that would involve,” says Katharina, who took over as CEO in 2009.
“It was an expensive market to enter, but we were a niche in the yacht industry by 1997. Then, a crisis hit in 2003. Everyone had been busy with a major project and did not have time to acquire a new business, so there was no work after that ended. I was 23 and living in Madrid, fresh from graduating, when my father told me they needed help.”
Naturally, she had grown up surrounded by the family’s calling. “When I was young, my father would take me with him to construction sites and on buying trips. I remember one trip to Switzerland when I was seven or eight years old. We went to buy a special kind of veneer called Bird’s Eye Maple and he asked me to write about the experience. It was fun. I heard about work all the time, over breakfast, lunch and dinner. Everything we did at home was about the business, so I think there was no chance of me escaping this destiny,” she laughs.
The dutiful daughter, who had until then planned on gaining experience abroad in other industries before eventually joining F/LIST, returned to Austria. She developed and executed marketing and branding strategies, then worked her way up through each department, from going through invoices to helping out with hiring. They needed the extra hands, too, as the small family endeavour was entering the aviation field, manufacturing components for lavish business and private aircraft.
It proved a lucrative idea. The 800-strong workforce across nine subsidiaries — including facilities in Berlin, Dubai, Canada, the US, Melbourne and Brazil — now handle contracts to design, build and outfit the interiors of plane models for Bombardier, Embraer and Pilatus, in addition to yacht, hotel and residential projects for clients in over 30 countries. In fact, the respected company was recently chosen by Bombardier to collaborate on enhancing the interiors of its service centre at London’s Biggin Hill Airport. Aviation comprises almost 80% of F/LIST’s current turnover, with constant innovations ensuring its relevance.
One of its developments was patented ultra-thin stone flooring, which offers the elegance and durability of stone without the weight of the real thing.
“We come from a carpentry background, but going in that direction was logical,” says Katharina. “We didn’t understand why customers used carpets in aircraft entrances or restrooms — it wasn’t hygienic, and since these areas are prone to be damp, the carpets needed to be changed often. We proposed flooring that was easier to clean, and developed stone veneers. They are not even a millimetre thick and we pack them on a special construction to enhance the appearance and maintenance of cabin interiors.”
A striking point throughout her conversation is the lack of formal training for any of the new ventures the family pursued. “That’s true — opportunities arose and we just took them,” she says. “That’s entrepreneurship. If we had known what it would take to enter aviation, we might never have done it because there are so many barriers to entry. You need to understand flammability, weight, stress, the certifications involved — we had no clue, we just said yes and learnt through experience.”
Requests can be creatively demanding but working with a great team keeps the job exciting and the clients happy.
“Some designers who come to us have the craziest ideas on how interiors can be produced,” she says. “One wanted bar elements in gold leather with high-gloss surfaces. We treat all sorts of materials, from eggshells to, well, everything. We say yes and then figure out how to make the customers’ dreams come true. (Austrian three-time Formula One World Drivers’ champion) Niki Lauda was one of our clients. He passed away earlier this year. I appreciated our interactions because he was very clear and direct. He would tell you, this is shit, don’t deliver that, and we would revise. But he was always happy with our work in the end and would come back to us for the next project.”
Things were not always plain sailing, but perseverance and a cool head kept the company in good stead. “One of the most interesting lessons I have learnt is that there is always a recovery after a recession,” says the CEO. “What goes down will come up, and you shouldn’t freak out in the meantime. You learn to relax. In the beginning, I was really nervous because I was responsible for hundreds of employees and their families, but we kept going. Expanding globally was a strategic decision to be closer to our customers and drive more work to Austria.”
On the cards, for Katharina seems unable to sit still, are plans to disrupt the furniture production industry. Those are, after all, where the company’s roots are, only now it will tackle it with the full weight of modern innovations behind it — digitisation, automation and artificial intelligence. The company will also be expanding its portfolio to include in-house design services, rather than have clients bring their own designers to the drawing table.
“In addition to that, we are looking to provide industrial services for suppliers across industries to support them with our production abilities,” says Katharina. “Our production quality is extremely high because of our machinery and automation. But all that has no meaning without craftsmen. Anyone can buy machines. It’s craftsmanship that distinguishes us, that symbiosis between art and technology.”
Most of this talent is cultivated in-house, where apprenticeship programmes allow young people to learn the basics right after school. F/LIST invests in training them to develop their English language and personal and professional skills. They are quickly granted practical exposure with trips to construction sites and customer visits — just as Katharina herself unconsciously learnt the ropes as a child. Success of this programme is measured by the non-existent dropout rate as all apprentices so far have chosen to continue working in the company.
“We are still a family business, which means we know our employees by name. It’s a friendly environment, and young talent appreciate that the company is big enough for them to develop in any direction and learn from the best,” she says. “I most enjoy the people part of the job, connecting with customers to understand what they want and then relaying those insights to our team. I also like empowering them to develop the next generation of interior specialists. I don’t want foot soldiers; I want initiative and instincts.
“My father is very charismatic and had his own brand of leadership, but I inherited some of his traits, including his insistence on always remaining hands-on. That’s why I started from the bottom up — I didn’t want to be seen as just the owner’s daughter, I wanted to earn it. No matter how big the company grows, I will always be actively involved. We have no airs, like only travelling first class, forget that. We’re very down-to-earth and the employees appreciate this.”
It comes as no surprise then that Katharina has a hard time separating business from pleasure, breathing the very work that built her family fortune. “Every time I travel, even on holiday, I immediately check out the interiors of aircraft cabins and hotels,” she laughs. “It’s an occupational hazard.”
This article first appeared on Dec 2, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.