How to stick it out when life socks it to you

The Lindners survived the split of the family business in Germany before moving to Australia and then endured the exit of the patriarch, but mother and son picked themselves up and the business is still going strong today.

Lindner Quality Socks Pty Ltd is a tiny family business ($300,000 pa) in a tiny NSW town (Crookwell, population 2000), but it has a size-12 story.

Lindner Strumpffabrik (German for hosiery factory), started in 1921 in Chemnitz, Germany. There have been two events in the 93-year history of this little business that make it worth telling the story: first, the family split in Germany that saw one brother take half the sock machines to the other side of the planet, and second, The Divorce.

Lindner Socks is a story about how a family business can survive the destruction of the family not once, but twice, including the exit of the patriarch.

Graph for How to stick it out when life socks it to you

Wilfred Lindner was the third generation of his family in the sock business, and the third son of Alfred, son of the founder Max Lindner. All three of Alfred’s sons worked in the business for a while until Gottfried, the eldest, took off for Switzerland to do something else, leaving his brothers, Reinhard and Wilfred to take over when their father died in 1975.

They worked together for 11 years, but by all accounts it wasn’t a happy partnership and in 1986 the Chernobyl disaster tipped the balance. Wilfred was already thinking of splitting the business and getting his family out of Europe because he feared war, and the idea of nuclear fallout settled the matter.

The business had 48 sock machines. Wilfred loaded 24 of them into a shipping container with his family’s furniture, and he and his wife Gisela and their two sons, Andrew 6, and Matthias, 5, left for Australia as business migrants.

It seems he wanted to get as far away from Chernobyl as possible, and for some reason settled on Goulburn, NSW. He bought a factory there, set up his 24 machines and started making socks.

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Think about that. A German bloke turns up in Goulburn with his family and asks around in a thick accent where he might get hold of some cotton to make socks, learns to his surprise that even though Australia is a warm place, he needs to make wool socks, not cotton ones, buys some wool instead and then starts selling thick wool socks at the local weekend market.

And do you know what? The business does OK. The locals like this weird family of sock-making Germans and the Goulburn stores start stocking the socks and then gradually Wilfred gets some deals with wholesale distributors to sell them further afield, and eventually his 24 sock machines are whirring all the time.

But Wilfred’s not happy. The pessimism that was evident in his decision to get out of Europe before there was a nuclear disaster or indeed, another war, didn’t leave him. He lived in a constant state of certainty that an economic collapse (or worse) would wipe them out at any moment. He focused only on costs and kept the business hunkered down, refusing to grow or change, and as a result the family never had any money to spend.

And then in 2008, in the midst of the very financial crisis he had so often predicted, Gisela and Andrew, then 27, couldn’t take it any more. They delivered an ultimatum to him: either you have to open up to change and growth, or it won’t work any more and we can’t stay with you.

Wilfred decided to go back to Germany, and Gisela and Andrew bought him out, half each. (Matthias had already left home and was studying in Canberra.)

Coming to an agreement on value was difficult. The business was losing money because the distributors were screwing them on price and the machines were old -- the youngest of them was from the mid-70s.

But eventually they agreed on a price for the stock, a bit for goodwill and nothing for the machines. Gisela and Andrew took out an overdraft and then paid the rest over a few years.

Graph for How to stick it out when life socks it to you

When Andrew got into the business and looked at the books, he discovered they were losing between 20 and 50 cents per sock. He told the wholesale distributors that the price had to go up. They melted away and sales collapsed.

He and his mother decided to move to Crookwell, 45km to the north-west, and open their own store. Andrew went on long country drives, offering socks to stores in other towns. Gradually, painfully, they rebuilt the business -- and their lives.

Andrew married Lucy last year and they now have a 10-week old daughter named Dorothy. Gisela lives on farm not far from them and works in the shop, while Andrew runs the factory with four permanent part-time employees. They even bought a few more machines from Germany.

They sell about half their socks in the shop in Crookwell and half in other towns, although they’re not entirely sure about that because they haven’t got around to bar-coding the stock yet.

But they know they make about 30,000 pairs of socks a year, mostly woollen, at an average price of $10 a pair, specialising in ones without elastic that don’t cut off the circulation to the feet for elderly people and diabetics. With $300,000 in sales, they make enough for a comfortable, if unexciting, living.

Busloads of tourists often stop outside the store and Andrew shows them through the factory, proudly showing off the ancient German machines as he relates the history of his fourth-generation sock business, and how Max Lindner started making socks in 1921 in Chemnitz.

And then each night he drives 30km up the road to his hobby farm in the Southern Tablelands.

“It’s a fine line between pushing the business and spending time with the family and not getting stressed,” he says.

I don’t think so. It feels like this fourth-generation sock-maker and his mum have got things pretty well worked out.

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