Norbert Friob: a born entrepreneur
A builder at heart, Norbert Friob has created or has a stake in 56 companies - and he doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon. His career has been so successful that an aerial view of Junglinster shows just how entrepreneurs can shape the life and development of a town. Interview.
How did you start out?
Meeting Arthur Nilles was the real catalyst. He employed 15 traditional carpentry workers while I was developing Batisco, a technical sales agency with a department for completion and prefabricated buildings. With the construction of the Cactus shopping centre in Esch and General Motors in Bascharage, the success of our shared ventures led to the idea of combining his production capacity with my technical and commercial services.
« Our particular strength has been our vision and the complementarity of our skills »
Arthur’s workers lived in the area. One option was to focus on Kehlen but we had our eye on a 3 hectare plot in Junglinster which housed a sawmill which was no longer in use. We wanted to create 100 jobs in 10 years, a target which we reached in just two years. In 1972, the local mayor Gaston Stein, father of Yves Stein, the CEO of KBL, agreed to us buying a plot with a purchase option on remaining land at a good price, which led to the creation of Préfalux. Thanks to the quality of our products and our workforce, we grew steadily, but after thirty glorious years, CECO, our main client, was declared bankrupt. Not only did we lose a client, we also ended up with an unpaid account worth several million Luxembourg francs. Our bank manager - a real partner - immediately gave us a loan for the amount due which marked the beginning of a new era of hard work to overcome the challenges we faced.
From there, how did you develop your companies?
Our particular strength has been our vision: for example the merging of 12 different trades. As proponents of a different way of looking at things in the Grand Duchy, Arthur's commitment to the Chamber of Trades helped to bring about the merging of complementary professions with certificates of proficiency. We offered increasingly complex solutions, previously reserved for foreign companies, which helped us to win the contracts for building d’Coque and the station in Antarctica. Personally, I find that using large sheets of tracing paper on a regular basis helps me to analyse what works, what doesn’t work and which direction to take. This approach led to the creation of Cibat in Luxembourg in 1979, the first ‘Do It Yourself' and building information centre in Luxembourg. Acquiring Clément in 1984 led to the creation of a network of trade stores with 5 properties. In 1990, FNP - Friob Nilles Poeckes - came about after a restructuring process, in which each of the partners was equally involved in all the group’s companies. Since then, the landscape in Junglinster has changed considerably with shopping centres in Junglinster, Langwies 1 and 2, not forgetting the alternative shopping centre on rue de Hollerich.
What lessons did you learn from all these experiences?
Lots of people say that it all comes down to people and it’s true. You have to accept their flaws and capitalise on their experience. This helps to ensure that you’re surrounded by people who are really committed to the group. My approach was sometimes utopian, because I made decisions based on personal experience. When I started out, I was paid on commission and when starting my business, my boss offered me the chance to purchase a stake by creating Batisco, which gave me a different view of what a company could be. Later, wanting to duplicate this system to benefit my employees, 1% of the salary of each of my employees was put into an account, with an extra 1% added. After 5 years, every employee was able to choose whether to take the money or to invest it. 100% of the workers sold their stake. I think that you always have to listen to the market. Traditional companies which don’t change often face difficulties. Lastly, I think it’s important not to be afraid to be wrong - while making sure never to make the same mistake twice!