A family business has been producing a simple niche product for five decades. By making the most of its employees’ expertise to constantly refine the “perfect” glass washer, it now sells to more than 50 countries.
If you go to a bar or pub almost anywhere in the world and look behind the counter, it’s highly likely that you will find a gadget that’s produced by a tiny company in the German town of Wuppertal, outside Düsseldorf. Here, surrounded by verdant hills, resides Schicker & Schäfer, maker of the Spülboy glass washer that sits in the sink of bars, allowing barmen to quickly clean everything from flutes to schooners without recourse to a dishwasher – or laborious washing by cloth and sponge. The machine connects to a tap and operates off water-pressure alone. Its two cylinders let you first clean a glass with detergent and then rinse with pure water – and very quickly.
The concept dates back 50 years but the mechanics have been tinkered with continuously since then and steadily improved by the engineers in Wuppertal.
Though computer-run machinery is involved in the production process, each Spülboy is assembled and thoroughly tested by hand. Some 25,000 to 30,000 units are sold every year and the firm’s market share in Germany is 70 per cent.
There are cheaper and even pirated copies on the market but the original Spülboy is still the professional bartender’s choice. There are good reasons for this success. And perhaps that’s why we have spotted them from Rio de Janeiro to Seoul.
The company has been run by two related families, the Schickers and the Schäfers, since 1960. Now the third generation is in charge, with Jürgen Schäfer’s Swedish-born wife Helena Sundblad-Schäfer as CEO. She studied politics and worked with the EU in Brussels before moving to her husband’s hometown to run the company in 1999. She and her husband built a new company HQ, putting production and sales under one roof for the first time. She also invested in hi-tech machinery for toolmaking and moulding the plastic parts.
The concept of a Spülboy is simple: it runs off the water pressure of a tap alone and works in two steps, first with detergent and then with pure cold water. The system has been refined over many years and, crucially, guarantees the perfect top a good German beer must have – something you don’t get when using a dishwasher and a rinse aid.
Over decades Schicker & Schäfer has adjusted the Spülboy according to global customer needs. In the UK beer glasses are smaller than those in Germany, so the Spülboy for this market is not as big. A Japanese version that works without a tap has been made for the Kirin brewery to use in regions where water pressure is low.
Fifty years is a long time for a company to produce just one product. Even today it comes in only three minor variations. Toying with different colours has not proved popular (most customers still go for the basic grey version) and Sundblad-Schäfer knows that customers buy her Spülboy simply “because it works; the results are totally convincing”. Next year, however, for the first time, there will be a completely new version of the classic Spülboy. The CEO won’t yet reveal how it is different, but Spülboy has already spent €600,000 on development.
Spülboy is sold in more than 50 countries, including Saudi Arabia (although it doesn’t get to shine beer glasses there) and Brazil. Sixty per cent of sales are in Germany, with Japan and the US also strong markets. While powerful middlemen often try to push Sundblad-Schäfer to lower the price by outsourcing production, customers from other countries value the “Made in Germany” label. One dealer in Japan so valued its provenance that he was pricing the product at $550. “That was way over the top,” says Sundblad-Schäfer, amazed. “But it sold.”
In times of environmental concern, Spülboy’s concept of a glass-scrubber that runs without electricity and that uses far less water than a dishwasher is pleasingly up-to-date. A Spülboy is also good for at least 10 years – customers only need to replace the brushes from time to time and buy the biodegradable branded detergents.
1960: Rolf Schicker invents a new glass-scrubber and names it – according to American-influenced zeitgeist – Spülboy.
1975: The company and brand falls into the hands of Schicker’s relatives, the Schäfer family, who start mass-production.
1999: The owner’s son, Jürgen Schäfer (left), and his Swedish wife, Helena, take over. They build a new headquarters and invest in new machinery.
2011: A new generation of Spülboys will launch, designed with Dutch company NPK.
Why have you kept production in Germany?
Being in Wuppertal and keeping long-term employees is central toour tradition. Now we’re developing a new Spülboy and having this experience in-house is very beneficial.
You not only make the product but also the tools to manufacture it. Why is that important?
There are many regulations to follow if you fabricate a product for the food and drink market, so it has to be perfect. We want to control every step.
You only have 25 employees but you are selling to more than 50 countries. How can such a small company do this?
If we had more manpower and time the Spülboy could be even more widely distributed.
Where are your growth markets?
Asia and South America. Eastern Europe used to be good but now there are many cheap competitors.
Your product is perfect, you say. So why are you launching a new version?
To distinguish what we do from copycats. Also, it’s fun to invent something new together.