“We love you George, ” the Chinese visitor said to his American host, hugging his neck before boarding a plane for home. George Landegger beamed; his Alabama China Partnership Symposium was successful. Sixty Chinese industry leaders met in Monroeville to discuss business in The Heart of Dixie, coordinated by a man born in Europe, raised in New York, but with a heart in Dixie.
But who is this global industrialist, headquartered in New York, with three homes in Alabama? To find out, we called him. “I’m told one should only be in print on your birth announcement, wedding declaration and obituary, ” the paper mill magnate said by phone. “And this isn’t it.” But Landegger, CEO and primary owner of investment firm Parsons & Whittemore, agreed to an interview from “an undisclosed location.”
“I’m calling from South Florida, ” he says. “But you told me you were in lower Alabama, ” I reply. “I am in Lower Alabama, ” Landegger answers. “I’m in Destin, like I said, lower Alabama. What can I do for you?”
And with that the interview began, a discussion of the paper-pulp business, job growth and all things Landegger.
He was born in London in 1937 and moved to America at age three. “My parents were considered Austrian Nationals during World War II, ” he recalls. “For safety precautions and fear that mom and dad would be arrested, I was sent to New York.”
His dad, Karl Landegger, made a timely move of the family assets from Austria — where he owned two pulp mills in the 1930s — to England, where Karl, in 1944, bought Parson & Whittemore, a privately owned industrial equipment manufacturer dating to 1853.
Young George was educated in Jesuit and Catholic schools and became a U.S. citizen in 1947. Graduating from Georgetown University in 1958, today he is chairman emeritus of its School of Foreign Service.
During his formative years, at age 16, Landegger says he started out on the ground floor of the family business, as a pulp mill worker. Decades later, he had worked his way up to CEO and primary owner of Parsons & Whittemore, now based in Rye Brook, N.Y. The company has built 60 pulp mills in 28 countries and has owned and operated three of them, including an especially big one they staked out in Alabama.
In the 1950s, Landegger joined the U.S. Army, achieving the rank of first lieutenant in the Artillery Division, and most important, experienced Southerners. “Before the Army, I don’t believe I’d ever met an Alabamian, ” he recalls. “What impressed me about Southerners in the military is they were the only ones who could find the way out of forests in any condition, cloudy or dark. It really impressed me.” So did Alabama.
“My first experience with the state was around 1975, ” he says. “I remember it was so lush in greenery and forests, I loved it.”
Karl Landegger had sent one of his vice presidents to Alabama in 1973 to scout the area for timberlands fruitful enough to feed what would become the largest pulp mill operation in North America, on the Alabama River near Claiborne. Karl died in 1976, when the Alabama plant was about to come tegether, and it was his son George who completed the deal.
“I’ve been a risk taker all my life, ” says George Landegger. “I had a hunch this state was worth the risk. When I first decided to do business in Alabama, we had already built plants in 25 countries — including some very primitive countries. By comparison to some of the other locations, Alabama was paradise. And I love turkey hunting and learned to love Alabama football.”
But there are other risks in the pulp and paper industry. Indeed to some, the very business is at risk. “Not necessarily, ” Landegger responds. “But it is evolving.”
“The core of our business was newsprint. That changed with the advent of the digital age. Successful mills will move toward ‘diaper pulp, ’ [wood products used in disposable diapers]. Another promising market is wood pellets shipped to Europe. With global warming concerns, Europeans are looking at wood pellets as a cleaner alternative to coal burning furnaces and stoves.”
And he emphatically claims that successful business, any business, will welcome China. Landegger does.
In 2010, he sold his pulp and paper holdings. Since then, he says he has devoted much of his time to the bonding of Alabama and China. The former paper pulp baron chairs the Alabama China Partnership, an organization devoted to uniting two of the “hardest working groups” he knows, Alabamians and Chinese.
Other international companies have teamed well with Alabama, he says, citing the German firm Mercedes-Benz and the Korean Hyundai. Now it’s China’s turn, he says.
“We want to join these two together through common economic and industrial interests, ” he says. “Our goal is to become the clearinghouse for constructive ideas, the clearing up of misconceptions and the constructive implementation of Chinese ‘greenfield’ investments in the U.S. There are 415 major foreign businesses in Alabama now. Imagine our economy without them.”
And imagine Monroeville without them. In March, 60 Chinese entrepreneurs met with Alabama counterparts in the city of 7, 000 to share ideas, network and learn from each other. It was organized by Landegger and the Alabama China Partnership.
His goal was to show China Alabama and vice versa. It worked. Monroeville was so impressed, its weekly newspaper, The Monroe Journal, published in Chinese that week. Few locals could read it, but overseas guests appreciated the gesture.
“We are the largest consumer nation on earth. We need them, ” Landegger says. “And they need us. The Chinese government recognizes it must be closer to and know its customers. They do not understand our EPA regulations, U.S. labor policies or tax laws. Meetings like this one in Monroeville are a good start to learning about us.” But what blew them away was Alabama-Auburn football.
In 2011, Landegger, who doesn’t speak Chinese, escorted a delegation of people who do. They attended the Iron Bowl. As thousands sang the National Anthem, a Chinese lady turned to her American host and said, “I look forward to the day my people sing the Chinese national anthem with such reverence.”
Emmett Burnett is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Satsuma.