Kitchens & Bathrooms News visited storage component manufacturer Blum in Austria and learnt about the accuracy required for the components
There was something quite spectacular about the Blum headquarters in Austria. It’s difficult to decide whether it was the employees and their undying enthusiasm for storage components, or the lakes and mountains surrounding the seven separate buildings. It could even have been the tremendous amount of orange everywhere, but there was definitely something that made you feel you were a part of the €1,317 million company. One thing was certain; it was a company that took great pride in what they provide for the kitchen industry, and its hometown, Vorarlberg, Austria.
According to Blum, it is the biggest employer in Vorarlberg and since 1971 it has run an apprenticeship scheme taking on between 60 and 65 apprentices each year. The four-year programme currently features 256 apprentices, 246 in Austria and 10 in the USA.
After learning basic skills for six months, the apprentices go on to specialise in one of seven jobs, which include machine mechanics and technical designers. All equipment including a tracksuit, work wear and school equipment is provided, plus bonus schemes for good grades on top of basic pay and a job guarantee. It’s no wonder 65% of employees stay with the company.
David Sanders, UK sales and marketing director of Blum, explains why the company invests so heavily in the scheme: “You can’t find an engineer to work on our machines off the shelf unless you train the person to do it. But more importantly, the culture of the business is as much as part of the training as learning the practical skill. Being a Blum employee, being part of the Blum business is about learning the Blum culture and being a part of that culture.”
Top to bottom
This ‘culture’ runs right through the business. From the person who feeds the production machine one of 180 parts that make up a drawer runner, to David himself. And it seems it is also that culture which is partly responsible for the company’s success.
David says: “I met a guy whose job is to design hopper machines, to feed the production machines with the very small parts, so he is so far removed from the customer it is beyond belief. But his care and attention to that particular part of the process, shows he sees the bigger picture of where he sits and how that helps me sell a drawer or a hinge. Because he does his job properly and because I have confidence in him, because of the training the apprentices have gone through, it means that when I stand in front of a customer, I am fully happy that what I am saying to them is the truth.”
But Blum don’t just rely on the employees adopting the Blum culture, they also rely on their skills and develop them. Each machine is built in-house, from testing to those on assembly lines. Brand new machines go to the apprentices first, where they learn from scratch and eventually, some go on to develop them.
David explains: “It’s [the machine] like a baby, they [engineer] give birth to the machine, they develop the machine, and going round, it’s like there is an emotional attachment between him as an engineer and the machine. For him, a lot of his life was spent developing, designing and building that particular machine. They travel with it.”
He adds: “The level of accuracy we have to go into is the same as the aerospace industry. It is exactly that level but we are not dealing with life or death. If our part goes wrong in theory, Mr. Smith doesn’t fall out of a plane. But the issue of this is the fact that to get our product to the quality that we want it, it has to be at their tolerance levels.”
Testing hinges to 200,000 (said to be the equivalent of a 20-year life span in a kitchen), drawer runners to 100,000 and lift systems to 80,000, the company leave little to chance. David explains: “If the quality of the product is not right, then it doesn’t matter what fancy words I put round it in the marketing, or what nice pictures I put round it, it makes absolutely no difference if when it gets on the market, it falls on its backside and fails. That’s why this year we launched the lifetime guarantee to all our customers because we basically turned around and said we stand by everything we make.”
Blum believes it is the “engine of the kitchen”. The vast majority of people, if not all, buy a kitchen based on aesthetics. The hinge and drawer runner are probably not a consideration, unless they break. So the lifetime guarantee not only guarantees quality, but also reputation, as David explains: “You could put the most glorious kitchen into the most glorious London apartment and it will look absolutely wonderful. And once it is fixed to the wall and all the fitters have walked away, the only two things that will work in that kitchen for the rest of its life are the drawers and the hinge. But if the drawer and the hinge stop working, the reputation of the kitchen manufacturer suffers because of it.”
He adds: “If I ask a retailer how do you get business, they will all tell me they get it off recommendation. So if my client is still happy with my product ten years after I installed it, that means for ten years they’ve been telling everyone how great the experience is of dealing with me. It is not sexy, it is not glossy. But you can say to people, ultimately your business reputation depends on that piece of furniture that you provided functioning for the lifetime.”
Spikes to success
It’s hard to imagine this company started in 1952 selling spikes for horse shoes. Now, it is now present in 100 countries, claims 27 subsidiaries and saw a 4.4% increase in last year’s figures. And David believes the success is down to more than just the product.
He explains: “It’s a lot of effort to differentiate yourself. Continual effort. It’s not just about the product, it’s about how it is presented. There is a whole set of people out there who want to feel special, be treated differently, made to feel good. And kitchen retailers need to bang in to the idea of saying ‘that’s the customer I need to get, that is the customer that is going to spend money with me and I’m going to make them feel as though they are in the club lounge of BA’.”
David believes the way drawers and cabinets are presented in showrooms, is the key to sales opportunities, as well as retailers being able to differentiate themselves. He adds: “In a showroom, retail is detail. When I open a drawer, I shouldn’t see worktop samples and brochures. The customer has no imagination so the customer must see what the kitchen will look like in their home. To see that, it must be full of food. It is a functional cabinet. The client just needs to know what it is capable of doing. For the independent, it is about getting the best value out of it. [The multiples can’t do it] because people would rob it. The kitchen showroom has to sell to you, has to be designed as if there wasn’t somebody in the showroom. Tesco and supermarkets are the best sales organisations in the world because they sell to you without a salesman.”
For Blum, a 600mm cabinet is just as important as a 600mm fridge. While the product this company sells might not be why you buy a kitchen, you wouldn’t have a functioning one without it. And its 80 million euro reinvestment per annum for new product developments, machinery, buildings and the apprenticeship program reiterates how important it sees itself in the market. Plus Blum also carries out research into how people use kitchens. It has 280 sensored kitchens worldwide, plus its age explorer suit which replicates a day in the kitchen for an older person. But innovation is “vital” for them according to Johannes Jagg, Blum Austria sales manager for UK and Ireland. He says: “This is to safe guard our future. We have to always make sure we are one step ahead of our competitors. We try to stay on top with new innovations.”
And David adds: “Blum will continue to monitor both aesthetic trends and also the needs of the market in regards to the worldwide changing demographic to continue to provide solutions that meet the needs of the customer. We continue to provide solutions for handleless design and at Interzum this year we showed a concept study of a drawer with soft-close but working on a mechanical principal. So providing a universal solution for both bathrooms and kitchens, in areas where the electrical solution is not possible but while continuing to supply a soft-close and perfect motion.”
Therefore while to many, a hinge is just a hinge. To this business, it is a whole world more than that and will continue to be, so it won’t be taking its eye off the future anytime soon.