Beating the drum - Issue 38 - Magazine | Monocle

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Most families would struggle to trace their history further than two or three generations. Perhaps a few might be able to embellish theirs with occasional accounts of heroism and adventure – an illustrious uncle’s emigration to a far-flung territory; a great-grandparent’s pursuit of happiness aboard a billowing steamer, or a distant relative whose skeletons still rattle around the family closet.

Between the Mieles and the Zinkanns, however, there are four generations of first-born sons who have shouldered the hefty responsibility of heading a successful family enterprise. Few start-ups can plan on being run by future generations but the ­success of a single product or service can afford an enterprise the longevity to outlive its creators.

When 30-year-olds Carl Miele and Rheinhard Zinkann set up a workshop to manufacture butter churns for northern German farms in 1899, they would have fallen off their milking stools to learn 111 years later their great-grandsons would still control the family business and that their modest venture would turnover €2.83bn. With 16,600 employees, 10 manufacturing plants, subsidiaries in 45 countries, a domestic product range that warrants over 400 catalogue pages and a professional product division, Miele is a white goods Goliath that has never cut corners on quality or compromised on price by off-shoring outside Europe. All product manufacturing, including washing machines, fridges, vacuum cleaners and ovens, is still carried out in Germany – the headquarters are found in Gütersloh, just a few kilometres from the original workshop in Herzebrock-Clarholz – with some assembly and electronics work being done at two new factories in Austria and the Czech Republic.

“At the time our ancestors didn’t know there were at least 40 other butter-churn manufacturers in the surrounding area. These days you would never start a business in such a competitive marketplace,” says Dr Markus Miele, the current managing director and co-proprietor of Miele & Cie. Despite this, the founders persisted and just two years after they launched the company the men invented the product that would be the making of the company – the Meteor washing machine.

Carl was the original product developer and Rheinhard was the marketing meister, although technical and sales roles were subsequently filled by interchanging Mieles and Zinkanns over the years. Today the status quo is ­restored with Markus Miele minding the design and Reinhard Zinkann running sales.

The Miele Meteor wooden washing machine was based on the same principle as the hand-driven mechanical agitation of the butter churn, thus taking the back-breaking strain out of laundry day. By 1905 the two had patented an electric power-driven machine with the company’s new motto, “Immer Besser” (Forever Better) emblazoned on the top. This sense of progress and experimentation would fuel the growth of Miele over the next four decades as the friends and partners built the domestic appliances market, adding model after model and even diversifying briefly into bicycles and cars. When both men died within a year of each other the reins were completely handed over to their sons in 1939.

More recently, Markus Miele and Reinhard Zinkann were never expected to join the firm. “My father saw that when a number of his clients forced their kids into the business then it was bad for the company and for the kids so everybody was losing out,” says Dr Miele. When both Miele and Zinkann were ready they were made aware of the hand-over process that was set in motion by the founder’s sons – their grandfathers.

“We have written rules in the family that state you first have to attend an outside business for at least two years to prove leadership, knowledge and skills. Maybe our grandfathers also had it in mind that it would be better that other companies pay for our first mistakes,” says Dr Zinkann with a chuckle. After obtaining their doctorates in business and engineering, Zinkann went to work at BMW in Munich while Dr Miele chose to stay closer to home in Gütersloh and work for a local family-run car company called Hella.

Walking into the Miele factory, where the washing machines and driers are manufactured in Gütersloh, is an impressive experience. Gütersloh is a small town in the Westphalia region of northern Germany and the high-speed DB ICE train from Düsseldorf whisks visitors through the very pastures that inspired Miele in the first place. Far from the agricultural cosiness of the surrounding area, Miele’s plant is a shining, spotless space that turns out over 5,000 appliances a day, each one assembled by hand for different markets.

Miele has its own train line that connects to the German network for bringing in raw materials such as iron ore and sending out finished products to local distributors and on to Hamburg in order to be shipped farther afield. Miele’s fastest-growing markets at present are Austria, Australia, Canada, China and Singapore.

In Germany, Miele products have always been held in the highest regard and when asked if there was anything he wished people outside Germany knew about the company, Dr Miele is direct, “Germans know it is a high quality appliance. When you look at the new markets such as India people don’t know about Miele and I wish they would experience the quality.”

Miele products have always been expensive but customers pay for German precision – on first entering the complex you could be forgiven for thinking you were at the Audi works in Ingolstadt. Everything is considered, from the smart, branded uniforms to the reassuringly stringent testing processes. Miele even has its own fire brigade that is dispatched into the local community when needed. “Miele makes the machines that make the machines,” beams Jochen Menke, our proud factory guide. “If a particular piece of equipment to do a particular job doesn’t exist then the Miele technicians will build it.”

Family values are placed at a premium in all aspects of running the business. “We are educated to think in terms of generations, not only in our products but also in terms of our employees, ourselves and everything we do – it helps being independent,” says Zinkann. “We don’t have to ask for any banking or for any kind of foreign capital. If we start a product it can wait two or three years until it becomes a success story. We won’t stop engineering the product in between because it takes time.”

Yet the company is cautious in its product developments, adhering closely to the “Immer Besser” mantra whereby appliances must naturally evolve from existing lines. “The founders wanted everything to be better than their last product. If you look at it from a long-term perspective as a family business you don’t want to risk [ie if you started adding surprising new lines] too much because maybe you’ll want to hand it over to the next generation,” says Miele.

When asked to describe a family business devoted to craft, provenance and customer service, one automatically envisages a small workshop in a quaint village where one or two craftsmen turn out high quality handmade products for a loyal customer base. It is refreshing in this day and age to learn of a multinational, multi-billion euro company like Miele holding fast to the ideals of the very craftsmen who founded the business in that same small village.

Dr Miele and Dr Zinkann both have young first-born sons to carry on the family tradition but the partners are adamant that like their parents they will not force them to join the family firm. “My father always said to me you have to do what you like, what you’re best at and he was right. We’ll just have to wait and see,” reflects Miele.

The Miele & Zinkann dynasty 

Carl Miele

1869 - 1938
Founder of Miele 

Carl Jnr

1897 - 1986
Managing director 


1929 - 2004
Managing director and co-proprietor 

Dr Markus

Managing director and co-proprietor 

Reinhard Zinkann

1869 - 1939
Founder of Miele

Kurt Christian

1904 - 1985
Managing director 

Dr Peter

Managing director and co-proprietor 

Dr Reinhard

Managing director and co-proprietor 

Timeline of Miele 

Patents its first electricity-powered wooden washing machine

Begins the production of the K1 touring car and by 26 February 1914 the company has sold 143 before discontinuing the line 

Begins production of a bicycle 

Launches Europe’s first dishwasher 

The founder’s sons, Carl Miele Jnr and Kurt Christian Zinkann, take control of the company before the patriarchs’ deaths in 1938 and 1939 

Having sold vacuums since the 1920s, Miele launches its popular “President” vacuum cleaner

Its washing machines get enamelled

Launches Studio M, its fully built-in kitchen range

Buys competitor Imperial and absorbs it into the Miele brand

Opens Japanese subsidiary in Tokyo

Launches the curved W 1000 series washing machine

Celebrates its 110th anniversary

Top five picks

  1. DG 4164 L Steam Oven with pressure
    Using a combination of pressure and steam, this oven offers a quick, efficient and above all healthy way of cooking a variety of foods, especially vegetables. It has to be plumbed into the mains in order to create the steam and has a 7.8 litre usable capacity.

  2. CVA 5065 coffee machine
    Miele’s first bean machine will hold up to 500g of coffee beans, which are ground in single portions for single coffees. The CVA 5065 has built-in programmes for the perfect pour and the model will produce espresso, coffee, hot water, hot milk and froth, cappuccino and latte macchiato.

  3. B990 Rotary Ironer
    More widely used in the service industries such as hospitality and catering in hotel and restaurant laundries, Miele has designed a rotary iron for domestic use. Large items such as sheets are fed into the rotary and pressed as the machine turns. There is also a dry laundry shelf to store ironed items.

  4. Cat & Dog Turbo 5000 Cylinder Vacuum Cleaner
    All Miele products are tested to last for 20 years and this vacuum cleaner has been designed to last the lifetime of your pet. The 2200W motor ensures maximum dust elimination and the turbobrush has rotating air-driven rollers that gives carpets a thorough clean in order to remove pet hair.

  5. W1614 washing machine
    One of Miele’s best-selling washing machines, the W1614 comes complete with Miele’s patented honeycomb design 6kg capacity drum – created to minimise damage to clothes, thus extending the lifetime of your wardrobe – and 1,400 rpm spin speed. The W1614 is an industry leader in the domestic market and the front of the machine is enamelled, making it virtually invulnerable to damage. Miele has achieved top marks in European comparison tests three times over – for low energy consumption (A+), outstanding wash performance and outstanding spin performance, making the W1614 machine one of the most economical.

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