In 1899, Carl Miele and Reinhard Zinkann founded Miele & Cie. in the German town of Herzebrock with a small factory, 11 employees, and one product: cream separators. Having manufactured everything from washing machines to bicycles, the company celebrates its 116th year as a family business. Today, the founders’ great-grandsons, Markus Miele and Reinhard Zinkann, oversee a brand that—while smaller in scale than the Whirlpools of the world—operates as a true global player. (In Hidden Champions of the Twenty-First Century, author Hermann Simon reports that “it generates 73 percent of its revenues outside its home market, an unusually high percentage for an appliance maker.”) Dwell sat down with Miele and Zinkann to find out how they retain their supremacy in a competitive industry while staying on the cutting edge of technology.
Dwell: Miele is a century-old family business. How does the company maintain its leadership?
Reinhard Zinkann: The company slogan, which was put on the lid of the first machine, is “Forever Better.” So each generation has strived to think about what could be different about the Miele product in terms of being better in quality and durability but also technology. Generation 6000 [Miele’s most recent line] is a huge step toward this, and it really improves cooking appliances. It’s now—we’re proud to say—the latest standard in our field.
Markus Miele: Our first product was a butter churn. My great-grandfather said, “We can make it longer lasting, but we have to use different wood and we have to charge a higher price.” This was the foundation of everything we do now.
Dwell: How is building to last the essence of sustainability?
Miele: That’s the interesting thing. An older lady wrote a letter to me about her Miele washing machine. She bought a new one and said, “Thank you very much, because the last washing machine lasted 38 years.” She wrote at the end, “This was the cheapest washing machine I could buy.”
Zinkann: Also, quality is priceless, and we never, throughout our history, talked about the price of the product. We do not talk about washers. We talk about taking care of laundry, taking care of what you wear—it is your second skin. If we talk about cooking appliances, we think about the most positive results and the easiest user interface. So we always think in value. As a family business having survived so many difficult times—from two world wars to four or five currencies—our consumer knows he can rely on the product. Or, to put it briefly: Plug, play, and forget.
Dwell: How does Miele determine which products and lines different markets want? What drives this decision?
Zinkann: If you want to be different, then you have to think ahead. You have to be a technology leader. The best example of that is the first dishwasher, which we introduced to Europe in 1929. Right after Black Friday, we came into the market with the dishwasher. There was nobody in Europe or anywhere else in the world who even thought about the dishwasher. Nobody knew the product, nobody wanted it, and nobody trusted it. Nobody wanted to pay the price, which was three or four times annually the salary of a housekeeper. But our grandfathers and great-grandfathers stuck to the product because they knew the time would come. Now we can say we are the company with the longest history in engineering and producing dishwashers.
As a family company, we have a very long breadth. We are auto financed; we do not have any debts. If we believe in a product, we believe in it. We do not have to travel around the world and look at the competition. Sure, looking at what others do is interesting to understand, but it never gives you the idea of where you want to go or where you should go. That’s absolutely the secret of success.
Dwell: From a product perspective, is there something missing from the Miele line that you would like to produce?
Zinkann: Not directly. We always like to expand business in a way that we can connect to our existing products. With the built-in coffee system, for example, we knew how to make built-in appliances, we just didn’t have the knowledge about coffee. So this was how we tried to extend our product line, this is also how in the future we will extend our product line. We have something special coming to the U.S…
Miele: We have a whole line coming and it will be the best and ultimate in the U.S. market when we launch it. I can’t wait. I couldn’t wait until Generation 6000, and I can’t wait until the next step comes here to the U.S. because I love it so much. There are so many ideas that will come in the next few years, so I’m excited about the future.
Dwell: What does the future hold for Miele?
Miele: Each generation in our business—our fathers and forefathers—had to undergo huge changes in terms of the product line, productivity and factories, globalization, markets, demands, consumers, and trade. That’s business life, and that’s normal. So “if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” That’s a quote from an Italian writer named Lampedusa in his novel, Il Gattopardo. We will always have to face challenges, but if we stick to our values, if we stick to our core beliefs, we needn’t be afraid.