Steyr businessman paves the way into America for Austrian companies
By Thomas Hochwarter
A pioneering Austrian entrepreneur has spoken of how he found fortune in America by creating one of the world's most important online business platforms.
GŁnther Edelsbacher left his Upper Austrian hometown Steyr almost ten years ago and says he has no intention of coming back to Europe anytime soon.
But Edelsbacher only planned to stay a short while in the US when he arrived there in September 1999. Speaking to Austrian Times, the 44-year-old tells the amazing story of his private and professional success.
Edelsbacher says things might not have turned out so well had he come to the US with a plan to settle there and do business. Together with his wife Elke and their daughter Kimmy, aged 13 today, he flew to the US for a totally different reason.
"We just wanted to let our daughter learn English at an American Montessori school. But we loved the way of life here in Sarasota, Florida, so we decided to stay.
"We were a bit naÔve at the beginning. We arrived with three-month visitors' visas. It was only when they were about to expire that we consulted some visa attorneys who helped us along," he says.
Edelsbacher set up a website called "US Austrians" – www.usaustrians.com – an official partner of the Austrian Times. By going to the homepage, Austrian companies considering doing business in America can get first-hand advice from Edelsbacher and his experienced team.
"I'm doing new projects all the time but ‘US Austrians' remains my core business. We found out how much demand there is for our know-how in different ways."
Edelsbacher says the winning formula is that his team deals with various requests from firms of all sorts and sizes individually. "Everyone who e-mails us gets a detailed reply answering all questions within 48 hours," he pledges.
Edelsbacher explains a main challenge in adapting to the lifestyle in America was getting used to the culture of small talk. He says: "Small talk dominates conversations in this country.
"Everybody makes small talk with you here, no matter if it is a conversation about doing business or a private chat. This is something we had to get used to. But it also helps doing business because you can bluntly talk about your ideas and future plans without any concern about promising too much."
Edelsbacher adds: "That's also one of the reasons why an actor can become president or some other high political figure here. They are just good talkers and entertainers. Americans like that."
The businessman says he found out how to make the most of this for his business, while keeping his "Austrian mentality." He says he is confident he and his wife successfully passed on a lot of that to their two daughters.
Less close bonds within families and among friends were another striking difference compared to the mentality in Austria for Edelsbacher.
"It can be hard to find real friendship here," he claims.
"There are no real family clans here – at least not like in Austria. I think sticking together is much more part of our culture.
"In Austria, family members are closer to each other and people find it very hard if someone moves abroad. Here, it is a perfectly normal thing if close family members live with thousands of kilometres between them.
"We became friends with many people who moved away a bit later on. For them, it was nothing special but we were really sad," he admits.
After getting more and more used to the American way of life, Edelsbacher was able to fully focus on his business projects – which soon blossomed. This positive development persuaded him not to go back to Austria.
He says one of the most positive aspects of doing business in the US is the larger potential customer numbers.
"Whatever you do, there is a good chance you get 10,000 customers at once, while it would be just 100 in Austria," he explains.
But Edelsbacher has also had to accept good times are always followed by bad times.
"The economic crisis hit us badly. We lost around two thirds of our customers – meaning we are unlikely to see any of the money they owe us," he says. Edelsbacher was forced to dismiss staff and relocate one of his offices. However, the credit crunch failed to diminish his creative spirit and positive thinking. He proudly says: "We recently decided to set up an office in Austria again to focus on international businesses as well."
It was not just business-related blows that let the Edelsbacher family have doubts over whether their decision was right.
"I was once followed by a pick-up truck driver to my door. That guy – he had a gun in his car – got out of his vehicle and threatened me and my family. We had to call the police who arrested him," Edelsbacher says of a recent experience.
"We found out he followed me because I overtook him with my car! And we were told that he killed himself a few days after the incident.
"Pick-up drivers are especially very aggressive on the road. Almost everybody has got a weapon in their cars – it's really dangerous."
Edelsbacher decided to get a Smith & Wesson 375 Magnum to protect himself and his loved ones as the number of burglaries in his neighbourhood soared recently.
Turning to more pleasant experiences though, Edelsbacher reveals how his second daughter Nina, 7, was born in America.
"We planned to fly home so my wife could give birth in Austria. But Austrian Airlines did not let Elke, who was already heavily pregnant, on the flight. So we had to stay. The birth cost us 25,000 dollars because we did not have any private health insurance!
"I know AUA staff have strict rules they need to stick to in such cases. These days however, they got probably other things they have to worry about," he adds.
Last year's presidential elections were also an impressive occasion for Edelsbacher and his family. Edelsbacher, who rooted for Obama, reveals most of his friends are Republicans.
Asked to give his view on the political situation in America, he says: "Those voting Republican don't realise they would be much better off with the Democrats – who want to introduce new taxes to support those you need it."
Edelsbacher, who loves travelling through the USA, reveals he sometimes fails to find the right German word when speaking or writing to friends in Austria.
"Some accuse me of being cocky because of that but I don't do it deliberately," he laughs.
Edelsbacher, who spends summers and three weeks in winter in Austria, does not hesitate for a second when he says what Americans think of when they hear the word Austria after he says he comes from the Alpine country. "Mozart, Salzburg and Schwarzenegger," he laughs.
But Edelsbacher says he does not regret a minute of his first ten years in the USA.
"I think everyone can – and should – move abroad at one point. It opens your eyes and widens your perspective. It can be adventurous, of course, but it is great to get to know other cultures.
"It doesn't have to be ten years – why not live in some other country for six months or a year?" he says.
As far as his business is concerned, Edelsbacher is confident about the future. Recent global online successes like Facebook do not trouble the razor-brained Austrian entrepreneur. He says: "I do not regard Facebook and other community platforms as competition but rather as a good additional way to make people aware of what we offer. We operate on Facebook as well and benefit from the attention raised there."
Since things are going so well for Edelsbacher, there is little he really misses from home but one thing many Austrians apparently struggle with is finding good food which can match up with the delicacies they got used to at home.
It is no surprise Edelsbacher has a solution for this problem.
"We cook a lot ourselves and there are thankfully many online shops offering the stuff we love," he explains.
"And I'm really fortunate to have a German butcher just around the corner. I even get wonderful Schweinsbraten there!"