ABIE GERMANY PRESENTS … Peter Dreher
Peter, you have developed very strong ties with 'all things German' over the years. Why Germany?
Once upon a time, a young woman from the Harz Mountains near Göttingen came as a tourist to Sydney and met a young student playing water polo for Monash University. A few years later, we moved to Germany, where we lived in Frankfurt for three and a half years before moving back to Melbourne, where we now live with our three children. 'All things German' remain an important part of our professional and social lives.
What was your first impression of Germany?
My first impression of Germany was derived from a brief backpacking interlude at the end of 1990 and beginning of 1991. Like most Australian visitors, I found Germany fascinating and culturally exciting. Spectacular too. At that time, die Wende had only occurred a couple of years before. The intrigue of Berlin (the frission of fascism and communism past); the stark contrast of eastern Germany and the inquisitive freshly released Ossis ("Sie kommen aus Australien? Wow. Haben Sie ein Kangaruh gesehen?" Well, yes I have - in fact I ride one to work. "Wahnsinn man!"); magnificent villages, towns and scenery; and those statutory experiences and experimentation with unique dishes and a diverse range of beverages (all of which must be sampled by law).
Yet, when I first moved to Germany in 1994 it was March, and nearing the end of winter. Germany at that time was quite grey - the buildings, the sky - even the clothes. Perhaps it was because I moved to Frankfurt, which at that time of the year is absent a bit of green. But when Spring came it occurred to me that even a town like Frankfurt (which in reality is the centre of the European financial universe; in the 1990s some 422 banks had an office in FFM - less today) is really quite an attractive and vibrant city. Indeed, I could easily move back there. Whilst I don't care much for Hessisch as a dialect or Handkase mit Musik (many establishments around FFM could do with a little less Musik of that variety), I do love Ebbelwoi and eventually understood why Goethe liked Gruene Soesse. And don't forget the Taunus region; quite beautiful indeed.
Arriving in March, the other impression I had - and this has stuck with me - is that Germans (indeed Europeans) worship the sun. It initially seemed odd to me, because Australians tend to shy away from it. People also live a lot closer together than in Australia, and therefore I was confronted with rules which I initially did not value. The classic example for me was mowing on a Sunday - almost an Australian tradition, which I attempted to introduce to the Frankfurt suburb of Bornheim. The building we lived in had a pocket-sized backyard of grass, which needed to be cut (I planned to put some turf down for a cricket pitch, but that's another story). The day I pulled out the clack-clack grass cutter (not a motor-mower) and attempted to cut the grass I was abused by a neighbour. From then the concept never really got anywhere. At the time, I thought what a nonsense it was. Three years later, having converted to sun-worshipping on a Sunday morning (our backyard faced the South) someone clearly non-German had arrived in the neighbourhood and - how dare he - mowed on a Sunday! What's more, it was with a motorised device. My immediate and unthinking response was to spring from my chair and peep over the fence in dismay. Putting on my sternest teutonic frown and speaking in my best teutonic voice, I asked him what did he think he was doing; it's Sunday! I realised at that moment that I was truly German: I was passionate about rules.
It must have been a challenge finding a position as an Australian lawyer in Germany in the mid-1990s - how did you deal with this?
I initially couldn't speak German and underwent an intensive course at the Goethe Institute, attending three consecutive two month courses in Frankfurt. I then felt confident enough to apply for a job, and I of course took the traditional route of applying to many firms; however, it was difficult. Initially I thought this was on account of my unattractive photo, stapled to my CV (obligatory in those days and apparently still usual for many), but in reality getting a gig as an Australian lawyer was tough. There were only a handful of Anglo-Saxon firms in Frankfurt (indeed Germany) at that time and they were really small outposts of big London and New York firms. German law firms viewed Australian lawyers like Vegemite - an acquired taste and may in fact never be tasted or enjoyed. It was through this experience that I found out the value of networks and networking. I started attending an international lawyers' 'Stammtisch' in Frankfurt and through contacts here an opportunity arose with British firm Osborne Clarke, which turned out very well for me. I principally represented German companies in their commercial transactions in Australia, the UK and the USA. Holding an English practising certificate also enabled me to practise EU law.
How significant was the business relationship between Australian and German companies at the time?
At this time, the mid-1990s, a significant number of Australian companies were already doing business in Germany or trading with German companies. It was particularly apparent to me in the IT space. CeBIT was a big deal in 1995. Australia was the partner country and there were more than 100 Australian IT companies involved and represented at the trade fair this year. The Australian wine industry was also starting to make itself known at the time. Austrade already had an established presence at this stage.
We at ABIE Germany have you to thank for our establishment. How did that come about?
In 1995, I was approached by the then President of ABIE UK, John Martin. ABIE UK had already been going strong for 20 years. The British branch felt that to be truly "Australian Business in Europe" it has to focus on building new European branches and connections. It was perceived that there was an opening to expand the Australian - Europe business networking relationship to Germany. I co-founded ABIE Germany together with Bernd Neubauer (the Australian government's then Regional Investment Commissioner for Central and Northern Europe) and Elmar Wider (Executive Director of the Victorian State Government's Business Office for Europe) in the same year. We were able to reach out to a large group of Australian business people in Germany and Germans with business interests in Australia, who in turn became the first members of ABIE Germany. The first ever ABIE Germany function was a drinks evening sponsored by Austrade in 1995, held at Bernd Neubauer's residence in Kronberg. About 50 people attended. We ran a number of events in Frankfurt after that, including a couple of events at the top of the Deutsche Bank building, with Deutsche's support. We also supported sprouting interest in other Australian-orientated ventures. I recall a restaurant in Offenbach that called itself "Australian" serving kangaroo, crocodile and emu, amongst other national and protected species (I guess they had an under-the-counter menu with a list of endangered snacks, but I never found out). We even held an ABIE business event there, which on account of the unique menu (which for the gullible the committee advised this was usual dinner fare at home) was a well- attended occasion. ABIE Germany became an e.V in 1997.
Do you still have strong business connection with the German business community in your every-day work?
Yes, the business relationship between Australia and Germany remains a significant part of my professional life. I have a number of German clients with Australian interests, which clients generally tend to be involved in the renewables (solar and wind), engineering and financial industries. Examples of such companies are Westwind Energy GmbH (Kirchdorf, Niedersachsen), ProVentum International GmbH (near Freiburg), GreenEn GmbH (Bremen) oil filter company Perma GmbH (Bavaria), engineering companies Duesmann & Henschel and EDAG AG, and Mercedes Benz Financial Services. I also act for Australian companies in their dealings with German business partners.
How would you describe the German-Australian business community and ties in Australia?
The German-Australian Community in Sydney and Melbourne are particularly strong in a business networking sense. For me personally, Melbourne is my focus and here I have leadership roles with two national associations with German connections - ABIE Australia (as President), and the Australian German Association (as Executive Officer). There is literally a constellation of support, interest and networking groups on a business and cultural level promoting German-Australian relations. These include the German Embassy and Consulate; the AHK - Australien (German-Australian Chamber of Industry and Commerce); the Goethe-Institut; the Society for Australian-German Student Exchange, the German-Australia Opera Grant, the German Lutheran Trinity Church, the German Australian Welfare Society (helping elderly people of German origin), as well as smaller groups such as the German (Tivoli) Club, Deutsche Lieder Society and the Australian-German Teachers of Victoria. The AHK and AGA cooperate regularly on events; for example, there is an upcoming event in late March at the Melbourne Intercontinental Hotel featuring both the German Ambassador to Australia¸ Dr. Christoph Müller, and the Australian Ambassador to Germany, Mr. Peter Tesch, as guest speakers.
AGA cooperates with other organisations in the German-Australian community. The Australia-Germany Fellowship (a project based fellowship for applicants under 35) is convened by AGA and the Goethe-Institut. AGA also sponsors the German Film Festival (which is convened by the Goethe Institute and sponsored by German companies),
Worthy of specific mention is also the Society for Australian / German Student Exchange (SAGSE) which targets school students in year 11. Seventeen scholarships are offered in Melbourne alone, and additional scholarships are offered in Sydney. The exchange involves a dual family relationship, and the applications are considered once every year. It is supported by a German company doing business in Australia such as Siemens, BMW or an Australian company with German links (such as Henkell Brothers) who will sponsor the travel and related costs for an individual student. It is a highly formal and academic process, and an extremely popular exchange programme.
How would you describe the focus of ABIE Australia?
The focus of ABIE Australia is that shared by its European counterparts - being the promotion of bilateral trade between Australia and Europe. The interests and business of our members is quite often pan-European. We have a multi-ethnic flavour with our pan-European and Australian members, who represent a diversity of industries. We aim to have a minimum of 6 events per year including the Heads of Missions Luncheon and the Australian-European wine-tasting challenge. We hold industry themed business events with interesting speakers. We are also contacted from time to time by DFAT (the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade), when an Australian ambassador is returning for briefings or when a European delegation is visiting Melbourne and build or host events and forums around such visits.
Ultimately we are a forum for business to exchange information about their experiences in Australia and Europe as well as (unashamedly) contact generation. It is about making the cake bigger. Ultimately we want people to enjoy the ABIE experience.
How do you rate the importance of business networking associations such as ABIE?
They are extremely important. From my involvement in both ABIE and the AGA, with focus on the German link, I have noticed that both interests and markets are constantly changing. Current questions being asked are: what is the experience of German companies in China; how is that relating to Australia; how are German companies overcoming structural issues in their economy; and what can we in Australia learn from their experiences? When I returned to Australia, computers were just starting to really make their presence known in the workplace. Today, an amazing amount of information is easily accessible (and also understandable) via the internet. However, when it comes to business relationships there is only so much you can achieve with email and telephone. Until you actually meet people, the bond is not the same and can change the whole relationship dynamic. This is the real value of face-to-face contact and networks. ABIE has proven itself to be an excellent vehicle for this!