They may not be sexy but the small firms that make everything from dog leads to lifting gear are the fuel powering Germany’s economy.
Johannes Klais founded his organ workshop in 1882 in Bonn. Today the family owned company is run by the fourth-generation Philipp Klais from the factory building, still on the original site on the same street where Beethoven was born. Every part of the organ is built here by hand and Klais organs are played in cathedrals and concert halls all over the world, from the Kölner Dom to the National Grand Theatre in Beijing and the Auckland Town Hall. Klais has around 60 employees, many of whom work away from Bonn on new projects and restoration assignments. Current projects include organs for Leon Cathedral in Spain and the new Concert Hall in Buenos Aires.
In 1947 Paul Binhold started melting old gas protection goggles for horses on a stove in his living room and turned them into dolls’ heads. A year later he had developed his skills enough to begin making artificial skeletons and 3b Scientific was born. Today the company sells around 12,000 items, from model human ankles, brains and eyes to hi-tech birth simulators and anatomical boards. It’s the global leader in its market and now counts 800 employees in 18 offices worldwide. Last year 3b Scientific extended its reach to South Korea and opened a sales office in Turkey to manage the demand for its growing Asian markets. Offices in Mexico and India are on the horizon.
The city of Heidelberg has a long and illustrious relationship with printed matter, so it’s fitting that the world’s largest printing press manufacturer should be based here too. A former bell foundry established in Frankenthal in 1850 by Andreas Hamm has been turned into an 860,000 sq m production site in Wiesloch-Walldorf. The firm employs around 15,400 people, of whom more than 600 are trainees and apprentices. You may not have heard of the Speedmaster or Printmaster models but, as the world’s leading provider of solutions and services for commercial printing, Heidelberg had sales last year of almost €2.6bn.
Kranunion constitutes three firms: Ardelt, founded in 1902, based in Eberswalde; Kocks, founded in 1872, based in Bremen; and Kirow (pictured) founded in 1880, based in Leipzig. It’s a family business, run by Ludwig Koehne, with a workforce of around 450. It’s no household name and what it makes is hardly glamorous but it is vital for the smooth operation of logistics and industry the world over. Kranunion manufactures equipment that hoists and transports heavy things in railway yards, ports and steel works. Kirow’s output is focused mainly on cranes for lifting trains, huge slag pot carriers and articulated-steering transporters bearing epic names such as Switch Tilter or the Slag Taurus.
Though the output of each Hidden Champion could be described as the glue that keeps daily life together, at Delo this is no metaphor. The Windach-based company is the global leader in industrial adhesives, making sure everything sticks in manufacturing that ranges from aircraft interiors to photovoltaics and consumer electronics to semiconductors. Delo began life in 1961 in Munich, specialising in basic adhesives such as polyester fillers and resins. Nowadays the company has more than 300 employees and runs offices in Boston, Shanghai, Singapore and Taiwan. It invests a whopping 15 per cent of its sales revenue in r&d, understanding that to stay on top it needs to innovate. It’s a strategy that makes sense: 30 per cent of Delo’s sales revenues last year came from products developed within the last three years.
Can you imagine a world without retractable dog leads? Thanks to Manfred Bogdahn, you don’t have to. He invented the now ubiquitous product in 1973 and founded Flexi at the same time. Forty years on, the company is still the market leader, exporting its wares to 93 countries – every lead is still made in the original Bargteheide plant by its 300-strong workforce. The retractable dog lead remains the company’s only product but there is a continuously expanding range of options from which to choose, from tasteful leather-encased leads to a range encrusted in Swarovski crystals – for the more bling bitches.
Given their status as the world’s leading provider of sanitary fittings, it’s highly likely you’ve stood under a Grohe showerhead or two in your time. Founded in 1936 by Friedrich Grohe, today the firm has a global workforce of around 5,500 in 130 countries, with 2,400 in Germany; 530 alone work in Hemer, the main manufacturing site for the brand. Investment in research and development, as well as in design, is key to Grohe’s continued success; since 2005 the product range has picked up more than 500 design awards. Ethics are a key part of the philosophy too. The company founded the Grohe Jal Academy in 2009 in Mumbai dedicated to training a new generation of Indian plumbers.
Bargteheide is a town of just more than 15,000 inhabitants about half an hour north of Hamburg. There is an industrial park at the far end of the town, with a gathering of low-rise glass and concrete buildings. It is entirely unremarkable except for the signpost that features a chipper fox terrier called Lisa, who turns out to belong to the owner of the company based there. This is the world of Flexi and its retractable dog leads, manufactured here in rural northern Germany and dispatched into the hands of canine-loving customers around the globe.
Manfred Bogdahn, the owner and founder of Flexi, invented the retractable dog lead in 1973. Today the company still makes this single product, albeit in around 400 variations. Flexi has 300 employees, ships to 93 countries and is the global market leader in its sector. Everything is still managed and produced in house, much of it by hand, and the majority of suppliers are German. The current average length of employment in the company is more than 10 years; it would be even higher but Bogdahn keeps adding new staff. A hands-on, charismatic entrepreneur whose portrait (in a fancy pink scarf) pops up all over Flexi’s headquarters and website, he is matter-of-fact about his company’s success: “Flexi dog leads offer by far the highest quality in the market.”
Much of the real success of Germany’s economy is rooted not at Siemens or Porsche but in nondescript industrial estates in little towns such as Bargteheide, at companies most people have never heard of or really thought about. Flexi, Delo, Klais, Kirow, Heidelberg: these aren’t household names and they don’t make things Germany is known for, such as beer or cars. Their output is less glamorous: adhesives, organ pipes, cranes that lift trains onto tracks, printing presses. And dog leads. But these all have a global market, they are all things people need and they are all still made – to an extremely high quality – in Germany.
There are many reasons why the financial crisis hasn’t done as much damage to Germany’s economy. An early deregulation of the labour market certainly helped. Unemployment has remained low, domestic demand has remained high. But none of this would have mattered or been possible were it not for Germany’s strong industrial backbone – the Mittelstand – where small- to medium-sized companies, often family owned, with strict ideas about quality control, training and retention of employees, still dominate. They are also referred to as “Hidden Champions”, a term coined by Hermann Simon, a former professor of business administration and marketing who now runs a consultancy firm. It’s a term more Germans are familiar with than most English speakers.
“A Hidden Champion is a firm that belongs to the top three in its global market or is number one on its continent, has less than €5bn in revenue and is little known to the general public,” says Simon. He counts 2,734 worldwide, of which a whopping 1,307 are in Germany. The Teutons also claim the highest number of Hidden Champions per capita, followed by Luxembourg, Switzerland and Austria. At the bottom of the list are Russia, China, Brazil and Taiwan. Simon consults for the latter’s government on how to grow their Mittelstand.
This is no easy task. The reasons for Germany’s strength in this field stretches far into history. Until the late 19th century, Germany was still a collection of small states and fiefdoms. An entrepreneur who wanted to grow his business had to operate on an international scale. “Today this is still part of the dna of German entrepreneurs,” Simon claims. “We have dozens of industrial clusters with fierce competition, which force companies to fight for the global market.” Simon points to the century-old watch-making industry in the Black Forest, “from which totally new sectors have emerged. Today there are 450 medical technology firms in the region.”
The German apprentice or vocational training system is still one of the best in the world, which helps. Add to this the philosophy of making just one thing but doing it exceptionally well and you begin to understand that Germany’s Hidden Champions are more than canny mini-manufacturers that form the bedrock of the economy: they also shape much of German society.
“When 300 employees spend all their time on a single product it is bound to be good,” says Bogdahn back at Flexi. As a young man, Bogdahn read an essay by Wolfgang Mewes, a pioneer of cybernetics in Germany. “In it, he said, ‘Focus on a narrow target group and make yourself the biggest fish in a small pool.” This became Bogdahn’s mantra and soon after, retractable dog leads were born.
Flexi employs an r&d team of eight who develop and experiment on cad workstations. The company has its own graphic design team. All plastic parts are injection-moulded with tools the company has designed itself. There are two halls dedicated to assembly and packaging. In Flexi’s test lab machines imitate excitable puppies tearing at leads, and careless owners dropping casings. Making one thing very well is a start but continually improving it is vital for staying ahead. “You don’t find this everywhere in the world, this meticulous precision and testing for reliability,” says Thorsten Meier, Flexi’s head of production. “It might seem like a simple product but a lot of love can go into the perfect dog lead. We can always improve.”
This type of highly skilled, dedicated, robust workforce can be found in industrial estates all over Germany. Thanks to their singular focus they turn out products that can’t easily be knocked off cheaper elsewhere: snow groomers (Kassbohrer), banknotes and secure id solutions (Bundesdruckerei), tunnel drillers (Herrenknecht). Even toothbrushes (m+c Schiffer), drawing pins (Gottschalk) and shaving brushes (Mühle) have been honed to near perfection.
Unlike so much of the UK or the US, Germany has held onto its manufacturing base. “Until relatively recently this was seen to be behind the times. Now it’s a reason to be admired,” says Professor Simon. The Made in Germany label may not carry the same weight in some circles as Made in Italy but, thanks to the Hidden Champions, it’s a strapline that supports the German economy, on which rests rather more.