Hotel Sacher. Home to the most famous cake in the world: Sachertorte. And one of the finest hotels in Vienna, its five stars do not do it justice. Super-rich Arabs stroll in and out carrying Louis Vuitton luggage, the women wearing Ray-Bans to shield their eyes, and burqas to cover the rest. Past guests include John F. Kennedy, Indira Gandhi and Queen Elizabeth, to name but a few. The person in charge of this palace is Elisabeth Gürtler, who is herself quite regal: elegant yet stern, she chairs the Vienna Opera Ball, is a member of the General Council of the Oesterreichische Nationalbank and a director of the famous Spanish Riding School.
But she is above all a businesswoman, who has managed the family business since 1990. And she has done well. During her reign, the Sacher company has expanded, taking over a hotel in Salzburg, starting a company for the production of the cake and opening Sacher cafes in Salzburg, Innsbruck and Graz.
I’ve read that family owned businesses are very crisis proof.
‘Do you know why? Because families are not only careful, they are also determined to survive. They invest their private money in the company because they love their company and want to keep up the tradition. They are not focused on short-term success, but concentrate more on the long term. And they’re willing to take this extra step, because it’s their company and they identify with it. There is much more emotion.’
We meet in the blue lobby, furnished with elegant antique furniture and paintings, and dark oak panelling. You might say that time has stood still here, but not for Frau Gürtler: the businesswoman is very busy (‘If I talk fast, can we be finished in 15 minutes’?). To the point then: do you feel European?
‘Of course I feel European. Since we have the Euro, I can pay with my money almost everywhere in Europe. But it is also a way of thinking. We know Europe is the ‘old continent’, and this somehow gives us a feeling of familiarity. And I have the feeling we have to stick together because there are these new very successful continents. Brazil, India, you know. The BRIC countries, they have become strong competitors. We have to stand shoulder to shoulder.’
And is it succeeding, the way it is going now?
‘I think we share common values.’
What are they?
‘I think we are aware of our cultures. Before the European Union, we were aware that there were painters all over Europe, but back then I only felt responsible for the Austrian painters, and now I also feel responsible for, for example, Van Gogh. If there is a Van Gogh exhibition in China, I feel proud of him, because he is European. And also with regard to fashion. I am a woman, I am wearing French fashion, I am wearing European fashion. But I am not sure if I will wear Chinese fashion.’
I have a quick look at her shoes, a pair of stylish high heels. What are your shoes, are they Italian?
‘Of course they are Italian. But, you know, we have our common values and we are proud of having established brands. Brand names in fashion, basic goods, cultural goods, but also vehicles. I do not drive a Dodge. I drive a BMW, a Mercedes. I would never drive an American car.’
We make the nicest things?
‘I am not sure whether it is true, but I believe Europe still prefers quality. I have the feeling Asian and American companies place more emphasis on very short term success. And I think, for example, that European cars are produced to a higher standard of quality than maybe Japanese, Chinese or American cars.’
And how do you feel about a federal European Union? A United States of Europe?
‘I think it is a rather difficult thing, because the feelings of people are dependant on their history. And Europe has had a long lasting history, with a lot of wars. And these wars were between the European countries. So I think there are some deep-seated feelings that mean it will never really be possible for Germany and France to feel like brothers. I think that is something that is passed down from your grandparents. You find out that your grandfather went to war against another European country and that makes it so difficult for Europe to become one nation. On a rational basis, we know that we are one continent, but we have a long history, and during that history we fought against each other. And we have different rules. We have different languages. This makes it a little difficult to unite.’
That is the credo, the motto of the European Union. To be united in diversity. But can you be united and diverse at the same time?
‘You know, it can be done on a rational basis, but not in terms of emotion. Maybe the next generation or the next generation after them will feel like this. But as long as there are generations alive who have grandfathers telling their grandchildren that the neighbouring country was the enemy, it won’t be easy.’
In America they use national symbols like language, but also the flag, to feel as one country. What do we have?
‘Officially we have a European anthem, we have a European flag. But everybody still feels that this is something artificial. You never, never, never can force people to bring their emotions to a certain point. It takes time, and you can never ignore the time factor. Time, time, time, because one generation takes over from the previous one. I am still influenced by my grandparents. Take the Czechs and the Austrians, for example: they haven’t always been good friends. It takes time.’
It takes generations.
‘Yes, it takes generations.’