When she first came to Malta on a one-year contract in 1989, little did Jutta Eisenger know she would still be here today, 15 years later. Here she speaks to DAVID LINDSAY about the McNeill schoolbag manufacturing operation she manages, how the company has grown exponentially since first being set up in Malta and the company’s special social aspect.
Like so many German manufacturing subsidiaries set up in Malta over the last two decades, McNeill’s operations have flourished. Having started out with just eight employees back in 1989, the plant now employs over 100 and accounts for approximately half of the group’s global output, besting McNeill’s other two German plants.
However, Malta wasn’t McNeill’s first choice as an additional overseas location. Ms Eisenger explains, “15 years ago the demand for McNeill’s products was surging and the capacity of the one German plant there was at the time was simply not enough.
“At the time we were overtaking our competitors and reaching the top of the market share. The output had become so large that there simply wasn’t enough capacity at the one German factory there was at the time. Given this situation, we were looking an alternative manufacturing location.
“The group had first considered Portugal and the decision was quite close between there and Malta, until a representative from Malta approached the owner in Germany and convinced him very quickly to come down to Malta.”
The incentives being offered by the government at the time were enticing, as witnessed by the number of foreign manufacturers setting up shop in Malta at the time. But there were other elements, apart from the bottom line, that enticed McNeill to Malta.
Despite the incentives, at the end of the day there were two attractions that sealed the decision in Malta’s favour. Ms Eisenger recalls, “One was the island itself. The owner, when he visited, fell in love with Malta. Also in Malta’s favour was the fact that everyone speaks English, which gave us a common ground with the Maltese as most Germans have to study the language at school and, whether they use it later in life or not, at least they have a basic knowledge of English. As a whole, the package was good and that’s why we started here in 1989.
“As for my personal involvement, I was working part-time for the company and was filling out some forms dealing with the new venture in Malta. At the time I thought to myself ‘this could be interesting’. I pursued the matter and got a one-year contract, which ended up being 15 years to date,” she adds with a laugh.
Here in Malta McNeill manufactures school bags and pencil cases for export to the German market, where McNeill holds an impressive 45 per cent market share.
And the production figures from the Malta factory are equally impressive, with between 3,000 and 4,000 schoolbags and between 8,000 and 9,000 pencil cases are manufactured each week.
The figures represent approximately half McNeill’s global production of schoolbags and its total output of pencil cases.
Over the years, McNeill Malta has surpassed its own expectations. Having started out with five employees in 1989, the company’s business plan had forecast the number growing to 60 over the next three years. The figure was, however, surpassed within year one.
Ms Eisenger explains, “We have been growing really fast. We had to extend our factory space and after three years we added an additional 1,000 square metres to our production area and another 1,000 after eight years.
“There was a time when we were up to 150 employees, but following something of a low period about three years ago we reduced our workforce. However, we did not lay anyone off. Since most of our workforce is female, there is a natural staff turnover - they get married, have children and stop working. Some years ago the trend was that women would stop working when they got married, now they tend to stop working only when they have children.
“At the moment we have 115 or so of our own people. We also have some work out sourced to individuals we give work and machinery to so they can work from home. Sometimes these would be people who have worked for us in the past and who have been married, have children and are looking to earn some extra money.”
Despite its considerable success McNeill Malta is a low-key organisation and when people do speak of the company it is mainly in praise of its socially responsible practice having within its ranks a number of disabled persons, an topic of conversation Ms Eisenger is pleased to speak about.
The company, which has in the past hired a number of people through organisations such as Dar il-Wens and the Eden Foundation, engages in the practice in its German factories as well.
“There is certain work that can be done even if someone has a disability,” she explains, “that does not inhibit their work performance.
“As one example, I remember some 10 years ago there was a disabled girl whose parents were looking for a job for her. She had a child as well and had been looking for work for a long time. Somehow our name came into the programme, we employed her and now she has integrated with the workforce very well. We also had a girl come to us from the Eden Foundation and she has been with us for nine years now.”
The most shining example is McNeill’s relation is with the Dar il-Wens organisation from Paola, which used to have work sent to them by McNeill and they would work in their garage. However, the group always worked as a team off site and despite their wish to join McNeill’s proper working environment, the company simply didn’t have the working space available at the Hal Far factory.
Smiling, Ms Eisenger adds, “When we undertook the last expansion to our floor space we kept our promise and took them on board. Now we have a production line for them, where they are working on pencil cases and they are really very happy. It’s really nice, and rewarding. They work six hours a day, associate widely with our other employees and mix with everyone at our social events such as Christmas parties.”
Many of Malta’s manufacturers would do well to take a leaf out of McNeill’s book when it comes to corporate social responsibility.