[Interview from September 2018]
Go West, go East: The opening of the Experience Center in Singapore was a dream come true for Heinz Haab, the commercial CEO of Hawa Sliding Solutions. He explains where the challenges of internationalization lie, and why the company is on an expansion drive.
Mr Haab, what do you have at home that slides?
Heinz Haab: For me, sliding is never the end in itself. Every sliding solution must improve the living situation. I live in a two-floor apartment. Among other things, I have four glass sliding doors, a wooden sliding door and a wardrobe with a sliding solution. All of this helps to make better use of the spacial conditions – and provides freedom of movement.
You opened your first foreign subsidiary in 2005: in Dubai. Why was that?
When my cousin Gregor and I took over the company, we wanted to expand the business model that our fathers had drawn up. Until then, we were an industrial company that manufactured products for specialised dealers. We lacked the intensive link to specialist partners in the markets, even though we travelled abroad. The attack on the WTC on September 11, 2001 also had an effect on our company. We therefore gathered our forces before putting together our business plan, which we implemented in 2005. We wanted to be closer to the markets and customer requirements
Why did you choose Dubai?
We had already exhibited our products at the Big 5 show, which takes place in Dubai every year. We were working successfully with regional partners. Dubai is the biggest state in the UAE. It is not only relatively close geographically, but we are also compatible in terms of language and know-how. The Emirate of Dubai is modern and cosmopolitan.
But the people there tick differently than they do in Switzerland.
Clearly, cultural workshops were needed in order to get a better understanding of the Arab world. But we Europeans must abandon our simplified assumptions about this region – and deal with the people and conditions on site with open eyes and open ears instead.
5 years later you opened a branch in Dallas. What is the significance of the market there?
It is a future market which surpasses our expectations: In North America, there are 2 national economies with a total of around 360 million people. Many of them have spending power and appreciate quality. In India, on the other hand, there are more than 1 billion people, but they have less spending power. North America isn't new territory for us. We gained a foothold there in the 1980s via a trading partner. We have also been directly on site since 2010. But we are not taking anything away from our partners. On the contrary: We support them in order to increase their revenue with our products.
An important step took place in the fall of 2017: You opened the Experience Center in Singapore.
We dreamed of expanding both towards the East and West. We have now achieved that, and it feels great! Our crew in Singapore is ambitious. We achieved our budget targets last year, and are well on the way this year.
Why use the term “Experience Center”?
It is more than just a showroom. In our center in Singapore, you can not only look at solutions but experience them – regardless of whether you are interested in private apartments, commercial buildings or hotels. Everyone can experience what is possible with sliding solutions.
You manufacture in Switzerland, in Mettmenstetten and Sirnach. Is that a selling argument?
Yes. Swiss values such as reliability and quality are much sought-after. Europe generally has a good image. The thing that distinguishes us is the organization of our plants. Guests visiting from abroad are often amazed: “It is so clean, you could eat off the factory floor!” A clean environment, state-of-the-art automation and qualified personnel are required in order to produce quality. The Swiss vocational training system is a trump card as far as this is concerned. However, there is yet another virtue that is appreciated: our “understatement”. We are serious creators who expect a high level of performance – and have done so for more than half a century.
To what extent are customers prepared to pay for quality?
The price/performance ratio is decisive. We are not the right partner for people who only look at the price. But there are many market segments in which people are prepared to pay for quality. That’s because no one wants the annoyance of a defective sliding door or having to pay for structural defects. On the contrary, they want a sliding solution that works without problems over the long term. Our solutions perform well in full cost accounting. Regular customers say to me: “Low-cost solutions are costing me a fortune!”
A good product is not enough – you also have to know how to make proper use of it.
Exactly. The best fitting isn't much use if it is installed incorrectly. If we equip a hotel, for example, we train the foremen and support the installation. It hurts us if our quality products are not used in the best possible way.
What characterizes the old continent?
Europe is our domestic market. This is where we find outstanding experts with regard to architecture, joinery and technology – particularly in Switzerland. At the same time, the competition in Europe is intensive.
The European market appears to be stagnating ...
We want to expand here as well. But we cannot restrict ourselves to Europe alone. We are now in a good place internationally. If a market or a Euro exchange rate collapses, we can partially compensate for this via other markets.
« We always dreamed of expanding towards the East and the West. We have now achieved it. »
Last year, Hawa and EKU became Hawa Sliding Solutions. How did the merger go?
We prefer to call it integration. That’s because Hawa and EKU were both profitable companies with a strong culture. The merger wasn't a money-saving exercise. If we achieve synergies, we will be able to finance our growth initiatives. That is how we have developed our presence in the Asia-Pacific area. We also want to improve our quality in all areas. I am very proud of our staff: The majority of them have contributed to the changes. A change of mentality was needed from every individual in order to create a new, market-orientated corporate culture.
An ambitious goal ...
As an executive committee consisting of 7 members of the management, we met with experts in workshops over 14 months in order to shape the future culture of Hawa Sliding Solutions. You can either let a culture develop or consciously shape it – we decided on the latter. We also still manufacture in our two locations. The challenge to the management is to instil the new culture uniformly across all locations, and no longer permit the previous behavioral patterns. We have made substantial progress from a cultural point of view, and I am optimistic.
How have the market partners reacted to the integration?
Many customers say: “You should have done this ages ago.” Others have encouraged us: “You are two powerful companies – the merger will work out well.”
EKU already belonged to Hawa.
Many people were unaware of that, although we never made a secret of it. Hawa AG took over the company in 1992. The managing director employed at the time developed EKU in an extremely good way with innovative solutions, and multiplied the amount of revenue. EKU is extremely powerful in the furniture area.
Please give us an example of a challenge.
The Falcon Stadium in Atlanta is equipped with glass boxes. When the stadium is filled with 80,000 people, every floor drops by a few millimeters. A glass wall must not be put under pressure, otherwise it will jam. We therefore developed an additional part in order to overcome the technical challenge. We must listen to the customers – and develop suitable solutions. Our strengths lie in flexibility and innovative strength
« A clean environment, state-of-the-art automation and qualified personnel are required in order to produce quality. »
How do you deal with the different cultures?
It is not enough for the bosses to understand a country. It is important for as many employees as possible to understand other cultures. They need to have their own experiences. We take employees on trips and send them to other countries. This is the only way to generate a “sense of we”. All of the sales people operating worldwide also meet 3 times a year in Switzerland.
What effect does this have on the locations in Switzerland?
We often speak English during our everyday work and gain an understanding of other regions and become more marketorientated. That is good for us!
Do you have discussions about the design concepts?
Our sliding door fittings are usually concealed. But it is essential for them to be technically impressive and make solutions possible. It is also wonderful when craftspeople as well as architects get a good feeling when when they handle the fittings.
What do you do to make the work of architects and craftspeople easier?
We produce digital tools, video clips and instructions that explain our solutions. But above all we are prepared to support them on site. This is very important to many customers – despite digitalization.
Does this apply in Miami like it does in Mettmenstetten and Sirnach?
It doesn't take long for craftspeople and architects from Mettmenstetten and Sirnach to come to us in the factory. However, in addition to online support, specialist partners from Miami can also count on competent people who can provide them with advice.
Is digitalization helping with internationalization?
It effects all areas of our company, and helps to implement innovations in the markets promptly. It is very important to reinforce our digital expertise for all of our stakeholders.
Where do you see Hawa Sliding Solutions in 10 years?
We have combined two boats into a great ship. Now we can pick up speed. We have innovations in the pipeline and are strengthening our marketing. We are still not well-known in many locations, although we would have solutions. In 10 years we will be more well-known than we are today