April 26, 2017 | Ernst Prost

Always on the move

Liqui Moly boss Ernst Prost pays his employees an €11,000 bonus, is searching for a production site in the USA—and at 60 years old is far from contemplating retirement.

Article by Stefan Mayr published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung  

Ulm – Ernst Prost lowers his head and squints over the top of his spectacles. “I’ve mellowed with age,” says the proprietor of Liqui Moly, the engine-oil manufacturer based in Ulm in southern Germany. “I no longer hit out at our competitors, who aren’t as good as us anyway.” So despite his professed mildness, he still can’t stop himself from taking a quick sideswipe. But he does manage to hold back the straight-arm punch. Up to 2012, Prost never passed up the chance of an interview or of going on a talkshow. With a ribald turn of phrase, he never failed to demand tax increases for the rich and tax relief for the workers. At one point, he even had autograph cards printed up. And then he suddenly went to ground for five years. But now he’s reappeared and is talking again. About the €11,000 annual bonus he’s paid his employees, for example. About his plan to expand production outside Germany’s borders for the first time. About the prospects of his company, which at some point in the future, when internal combustion engines have been replaced by electric motors, will have to live without his best-selling “10W40”. And about his future as the company’s boss, because he recently celebrated his 60th birthday (although he did keep it quiet).

 

He turned the firm into a global brand—among other things by sponsoring Formula One

 Ernst Prost’s black spectacle frame shows distinct signs of wear—if not to say of being worn out. This is an area in which the company boss is unpretentious, even thrifty. On the other hand, he’s no slouch when it comes to spending money. Standing in front of the building is a bright red Mercedes SLS. His home is quite literally his castle—Schloss Leipheim, located in the small Bavarian town of the same name. And parked in his garage is a white Harley Davidson Road King Classic. Emblazoned on the black leather saddle is the U.S. flag, his initials, EP, and the Liqui Moly logo. A present given to him by him staff on his 55th birthday. This year saw Prost return the compliment by giving each of his employees—who he insists upon calling “fellow entrepreneurs”—a very generous present: He paid every single full-time member of staff an annual bonus of €11,000 for 2016. In doing so, he distributed around one quarter of his business’ annual profits to his workforce. “I wanted to double down on Daimler,” he says with a grin, referring to the significantly larger Daimler AG, which had shortly before proudly announced it would be paying those employees covered by the collective bargaining agreement at its German plants a bonus of €5,400. Prost points out that unlike at Daimler, his bonus was paid to everyone, be they a manager or a storeman, and irrespective of whether they live in Germany or in South Africa. Prost’s reasoning behind his making his staff happy in this way isn’t simply restricted to outtrumping powerful conglomerates. “The money will flow back in again,” he says. “My fellow entrepreneurs work and think in the interests of the company of their own accord. I say to them: Act as if it’s your own company.” Prost is now in his element; he starts to lecture and he quotes Robert Bosch: “I don’t pay good wages because I have lots of money, but rather I have lots of money because I pay good wages.” When Prost walks through the factory workshop in Ulm, he’s given a friendly, even affectionate, greeting at every piece of machinery. And this affection certainly appears to be genuine. Prost gives his people a hug, a pat on the back, a word of encouragement or shares a witty comment—everything’s very casual here. However, if an employee breaks the rules, Prost can become very awkward. When a manager was found to have lined his own pockets and was duly fired, Prost then sent an email to everyone in the company denouncing the man as a “despicable expenses fraudster” who had “lied and cheated”. Prost took a lot of stick for this because up to then he had always portrayed himself as a model employer and had preached about taking a human approach and having a friendly relationship with employees. In his commercials, he emphasized that his company would manufacture “only in Germany”. He then invited his audience “most cordially” to buy Liqui Moly products. It all sounded very credible and went down well. But when the email circular about the fired ex-employee reached the public domain, Prost was given a good whipping. He took the consequence and went to ground. Today, he says, “I much prefer peace and quiet to short-lived fame and glory.” Self-critical, he acknowledges that, “My choice of words is always debatable.” His success excuses a lot. Liqui Moly GmbH, with its 800 “fellow entrepreneurs” competes with global players such as BP (Castrol), Exxon (Mobil) and Shell. All the same, this Swabian SME continues to grow its market share. So how do they do it? “We are quite simply better,” says Prost. Whereas others “work to rule”, he and his team “fight every day to survive”. In 2016, sales hit €489m, with profits coming in at €40m—a company record. New production facilities in the USA are soon to be added. “I want to buy a little factory that’s already standing,” the Swabian announces. A production site outside Germany: How does that fit in with his previous advertising messages? “I’m not going to cut back anything here,” he emphasizes So far, the self-made millionaire has always been expanding. The son of refugees, he began by doing an apprentice as a car mechanic. In 1990, at the age of 33, he joined Liqui Moly as Head of Sales and Marketing. At that time, the company’s revenues were DM30m. In 1998, Prost took over the firm and turned it into a world-famous brand—partly through sponsoring Formula One and the Bundesliga (German Soccer League). In 2006, he took over the oil manufacturer Méguin in Saarlouis in Western Germany, near the border with France. Today, his firm is active in 127 countries, including Kyrgyzstan, Iraq, Sri Lanka and Sudan.

 

His successor has already been chosen, he says. But is he really thinking of retiring?

He refers to the imminent switchover from internal combustion engines to electric motors as the “sword of Damocles” for his company. His prophecy: “Méguin, which is purely an oil factory, will at some point become obsolete.” Although admittedly, he won’t be around to see it. As Prost puts it, “There’s always going to be things that move.” Even door hinges and compressors are lubricated with oil. Nevertheless, Prost has expanded his portfolio. “We’re moving into field of cleaning, care and protection.” There’s always going to be things that fall on windshields. “This could well be our salvation.” Prost turned 60 in February. Is it time to line up a successor? Of course it is, because he’s not the one who will decide when his time is up. Card player Prost phrases it thus: “It’s the Lord God who holds the ace of hearts.” His assistant, who sits opposite him, pulls a copy of his last will and testament out of her desk drawer and holds it up. Hand-written on light-yellow paper, the latest amendment is dated February 2017. Prost doesn’t reveal the details. But for those who get to meet him, it quickly becomes clear that he’s just as motivated as he ever was, despite the restraint he knows exercises in public. “The only time I feel 60 is when I walk past a mirror,” he jokes. This guy is going to remain at the wheel for as long as he can.