125th anniversary of Rheinmetall – the years 1989 to 2000

Villains, rams and craggy rocks

The story goes like this: the communications technology company -Richard Hirschmann GmbH & Co. KG in Neckartenzlingen near Nürtingen is in financial difficulty. A new management is brought in to restructure the company and prepare it for sale. These are the basic facts behind the novel entitled “Nur Vögel können fliegen” (Only birds can fly). In reality, the sale of Hirschmann was a success: in fact, the electronics specialist was bought by the Rheinmetall group in 1997. Dr. Lothar Ulsamer, the former press officer of Hirschmann, has used elements of his professional and personal life in his thriller. The book is the first of several regional crime novels.

It is not by chance that the two protagonists of the story Markus Petermann and Roy Lester are based on the characters of the former Hirschmann managing director Richard G. Hirschmann and the press officer Dr. Lothar Ulsamer. The story reads well and it is soon clear that Ulsamer is an experienced writer, although the plot is somewhat strange. The build-up of tension is intentional: the entrepreneur couple Petermann is to be got rid of, a plot that is masterminded by a psycho sect and a drug cartel that intend to take control of the business. The two new managing directors Jablonsky and Meierle are reckless villains who operate a tough regime to restructure the company and happily fire loyal staff without reason.
The attempted murder of Mrs Petermann, the wife of the former managing director, with a delivery van takes place against this backdrop. To find out who is behind the attack, Lester persuades the Petermans to hide in the Scottish Highlands. The ex press officer Lester likewise wants to get himself and his family out of the way. So he packs up, takes his wife and children and drives all the way to the coastal town of Loch Eriboll in the north of Scotland. As expected, the holiday doesn’t go smoothly: the villains pursuing Petermann are hard on his heels. If only Petermann hadn’t rung his sister on her birthday and told her his whereabouts.

The drama and tension rise: having met up at the Golf Hotel, the Petermanns and Lester are still not safe from the villainous members of the sect in Scotland. In spite of Lester’s contacts with the local police, their place of hiding is soon found out. This time, the criminals try to kill Petermann. Fortunately, Lester just manages to save Petermann by telling his former boss and friend to hide in a sand bunker. The exciting story continues as the Petermanns pack up and move to a holiday home in the vicinity.

The chase continues: Lester outwits the villains and escapes in a fishing boat. In spite of various hints, the hero still doesn’t know who is masterminding the actions. Nonetheless, Jablonsky – the grand master of the solar sect and one of the new managing directors of the Petermann factory – is ultimately exposed. For lack of alternatives, Jablonsky commits suicide and the second managing director Meierle escapes. All is well that ends well: the sale of the Petermann company goes through, supported by Petermann and Lester. Petermann assumes a representative role in the company and his press officer remains loyal to him.

Criminal novels with a regional flavour are all the rave in Germany. Ulsamer who studied social sciences in Tübingen and Würzburg has chosen to follow suit. He deliberately picks Esslingen by the River Neckar (his former place of work, renamed as Kelterburg in the novel) as the location for the first part of the book – although Hirschmann had actually moved from there to Neckartenzlingen, many of the staff were still living there. The Scottish Highlands with their hills and craggy rocks offered the perfect scenery for villains, rams and gunslingers.


The end of a tradition

Rheinmetall and Düsseldorf – the two were closely connected for over a hundred years. Heinrich Ehrhardt had acquired the agricultural land from the widow Scheuten in 1889 and built a production building on it where around 1,500 people then manufactured cartridges for the infantry rifle of the German Reich. When World War I broke out 25 years later, the workforce had risen to around 8,000 people, mainly engaged in the manufacture of cannons. The factory at Düsseldorf-Derendorf grew to an appreciable size, extending as far as the area now accommodating the wholesale market. The company was downsized significantly after 1945 – and even shut down for a while. The creation of the German Bundeswehr injected new life into the plant and for 35 years Rhein-metall manufactured products for the Bundeswehr and NATO allies: for example, the MG 42, the Mk 20 Rh 202 twin-gun anti-aircraft system and the 120 mm smooth-bore gun. However, the fall of the Berlin Wall signalled the end of the site. Rheinmetall was once more forced to downsize. While the administration moved to a new facility in Ratingen, development and production were moved to Unterlüß in Lower Saxony. A long tradition in Düsseldorf had come to an end after 103 years.

A long and winding road...

In the early 1990s, the company First Automobile Works (FAW) from the People’s Republic of China acquired a part of the carburettor production from Pierburg in Nettetal, a small town located on the banks of the River Rhine, not far from the Dutch border. The Nettetal production lines for large carburettor series were no longer needed for the domestic market since tighter EU emission regulations for cars with gasoline engines meant the carburettor technology had to be replaced by catalytic converters. To prepare for the handover of the systems to FAW, the largest automaker in the People’s Republic of China at that time, around 65 Chinese employees came to Nettetal for a two month training that was carried out in several stages. Harald Fredrich, plant manager of Nettetal at the time, recalls the times with amusement.

“Pierburg faced tough times in the early 1990s. It was period of major change”, recalls Harald Fredrich, who was plant manager of Nettetal between 1989 and 1999 and – as such – also responsible for the carburettor business there. His tasks were certainly challenging: Not only did the 62 year-old manager have to disband carburettor production, but he was also involved in launching the manufacture of new products like electrical throttle bodies and advanced intake manifolds.

Although carburettors of the type 2E were no longer needed on the German and EU market, there was a strong demand for the product in China. Under a joint venture between Volkswagen AG and FAW in Changchun, North China, the carburettor was to be fitted in Audi 100, VW Golf and VW Jetta cars built under license in China. “To achieve this, the Chinese needed the complete production facilities which we were able to provide”, says the former plant manager who was with Pierburg GmbH for 42 years.
In 1990, he and his predecessor Karl Evelbauer, who had originally established contact with the Chi-nese and prepared the sales process for the production facility, travelled to China to sign the sales contracts. “I was really impressed by the way our meals with the Chinese were celebrated. Many different dishes were placed on a revolving table. Fortunately, I managed to escape eating the pig’s eyes that stared at me from one of the bowls”, remembers the retired Pierburg employee with a smile.

Since the Chinese employees had little or no knowledge of carburettor production, it was decided to train them at the Nettetal plant and teach them how to operate the machines and apply quality assurance measures, amongst other things. Only one year later, the first 20 FAW employees travelled to Nettetal with a delegation leader and interpreter.

The ten-day journey on the Trans-Siberian railway from Peking via Moscow to Berlin and then on to Düsseldorf was a real adventure for the guests and hosts alike: for the Chinese because they already got held up in Moscow for two days due to immigration formalities. And since not all of the workers sat in the same carriage and some of them failed to get off the train in Düsseldorf and mistakenly travelled on to Essen or Cologne, the Pierburg project team faced unexpected problems. “We had to get in touch with the German railway mission to find out how to return the “lost” travellers to their original destination. In many cases, our drivers had to rescue our Chinese guests from various places”. All in all, three groups of 20 came to Germany for training. All of them were familiarised with the new task relatively quickly, recalls Fredrich.

Chinese workers from the last delegation disassembled the production line. The casting and maintenance machines as well as the assembly equipment were shipped via Antwerp to China. Around six months later, production was fully under way there.

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