Australian management handover, global performance and not being a trendsetter: Q&A with Miele’s co-owner

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This author is on Twitter: @Patrickavenell

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Dr Reinhard Zinkann, fourth from the left, on the expert panel at the IFA Global Press Conference.

Miele co-owner and co-managing director Dr Reinhard Zinkann was a special guest in Malta recently for the 2015 IFA Global Press Conference. Miele is expected to unveil new appliances — and the inside word points to built-in and coffee machines — at IFA proper in Berlin in September, so it was not surprising that the German business leader was invited to speak on a panel at the press conference.

Before the big reveal later in the year, however, Miele’s Australian subsidiary will be going through a considerable change, with a new managing director taking over. To discuss this handover, the local industry and the global market, I sat down with Dr Zinkann in the lobby of the InterContinental Malta and I started by asking:

How is Miele going at the moment?

We are happy, it’s going well, we are growing. All over the world our business is going well. We have a few shades: one of the unpredictable shades is the conflict in Russia and Ukraine, yet last year Russia was very good. Due to the fall of the Russian Ruble, the Russians bought everything high end like mad, so December was an incredible month — they even queued to purchase products that are not due to be delivered until June 2015 — quite incredible and something that has never happened before. Greece and Spain are getting better: they have touched the ground and are now coming up slowly. All other countries are doing well. Norway and Finland are a little bit difficult at this point in time. Due to the US Dollar to euro exchange, the US is excellent. Canada is excellent. Australia is excellent: we are very happy in Australia and; China is doing well.

It’s been 18 months now since Generation 6000 started rolling out — what’s the verdict?

Excellent! Excellent! Excellent! We’re extremely happy! The new M Touch (user interface on high-end models) is perceived great, everybody loves it due to the fact that it is so easy to understand. Everybody knows smartphones so the swiping in the programs is understood without reading the instruction manual. Also very well perceived is our design, which is a completely timeless design and is very stylish. The Italian kitchen manufacturers love it.

Do you consider yourself a trendsetter?

I wouldn’t call us ‘trendsetters’, I would call us innovation leaders, because a trend comes and goes. If you talk about colour schemes, they come and go, and our idea is to have colours that really fit into the kitchen as if they have always been there. You look at them and like it for 5, 10, 20 years. If you are too stylish or too modern or too trendsetting, then the problem is that trends come and go and colours come and go and after five or 10 years they might not like it much more. I believe that we have understood consumer needs, we have understood the design trends of the kitchen cabinet manufacturers, and combined both into what we do.

When you see what you’re opposition is doing, do you feel that you are ahead of them?

I would never say we are ahead of someone. We are different and we’re perceived differently.

Australia is often seen as being 5-to-10 years behind European trends — what can we expect Down Under?

In Europe, the most important topics are ecology (water and electricity consumption), usability and the connected home. These are the major trends. I believe all of them will improve because we have not come to the border where nothing more is possible. I believe that the connected home trend — where we were way ahead of everybody else because we talked about that more than 10 years ago — I believe that will come to Australia. The topic we have at this point of time in Europe is that we do not have one standard of industry. There is not one standard for each and every appliance. I believe that will come.

To that end, is Miele happy to work with other major appliance manufacturers?

It’s not a question of whether I like it or not: it will come and it is necessary. What consumers want is to control their heating, air conditioning, alarm system, lights — whatever you name — and, of course, their appliances. They want an all-in-one solution and for that we need a standard and I’m very positive that the time will come where we will see one standard.

We’ve seen incredible growth in Thermomix-style appliances in Australia recently — is Miele looking at that category?

You should never say no – everything is possible – and the Thermomix is a great product but everybody who has tried to copy it has not reached that standard. It’s a class of its own and we do not compete with them but you should never say ‘no’. If we have the right idea at some point in time then it is possible but, in the end, small appliances is not our core competency. Coffee machines is something that is absolutely trending and if we have a built-in machine it is logic that we have a freestanding one as well because there are people that need the space filled by a built-in coffee machine for a steamer, so they would prefer to have a freestanding one.

A new managing director is about to take over at Miele’s Australian subsidiary. What can you tell us about the change and new MD Sjaak Brouwer?

We are very confident. Sjaak Brouwer has managed the Netherlands very well for a long time. We know him very well and we are full of trust and we believe firmly that he will run the business in Australia successfully. He has a different style of leadership, he has a couple of different understandings to (outgoing MD) Michael Jeanes but that is normal.

What are some of his differences?

The Dutch market is different so he has had different experiences. We will see how what impact that has on his idea of leadership. Every person is different and a new leader brings in new ideas for his team but that is positive and normal. He is a very good guy — I like him personally — I have seen his success story in the Netherlands: he knows the product, he knows how to interact with our dealerships and he knows how to deal with customers.

The Netherlands doesn’t have the Miele Chartered Agency system (MCA) — will this be a steep learning curve?

No. It is an extremely successful system. We were the ones to invent it and we were the ones to drive it forward and we believe in it. In the end, dealers around the world think and act in the same way. We’ll see how the Australian market changes but I believe that the Chartered Agency system will be a consistent system.

Did you consider hiring an Australian to be the new MD?

Yes and no. Normally we have a local search process so it’s not a question of not wanting an Australian — there are definitely very capable people in the market who were interested — I talked to some who were interested. Sjaak Brouwer took his chance though; he said ‘That’s a new challenge I am willing to take up. My children are out of the house and this is something I can do because I can move, I like Australia and I want the challenge’.

What are your thoughts on Michael Jeanes’ time running the Australian business?

He did a very good job. It was not an easy task to take over from his predecessor, Peter Murphy, who was a real character. He devised the MCA system in a very difficult situation in the Australian market when the dealers killed themselves by prices and went out of business. He said, ‘It’s impossible for us to go with that as a premium brand’, and that’s why he came up with the MCA system. He had a very  foresighted vision with the MCA system and he was a real entrepreneur and it is not easy to follow a guy like that but Michael Jeanes did that very well and he was very well accepted by the trade; he’s very well accepted by everybody I speak to in the Narta Group and Harvey Norman. He has a very good understanding of market and team and he developed Miele to a new and higher level so we are thankful for what he gave to us. It is a pity that we have a rule that someone has to retire at 65 but that is it.

That’s a Miele rule?

Yes. It’s because in Germany people retire at 65. There are other companies like BMW where you have to retire at 60.

Do you ever feel as though you are letting talent go unnecessarily?

It is a very old company rule. The only people that don’t go at 65 are me and Dr Miele. We need new leadership talents and skills so succession is something normal. I have to admit my father retired when he was mid-70s but he’s still coming every day. You cannot run a complex business, especially if you are in worldwide sales and marketing, if you are over a certain age. It is really hard to travel a lot, always sleeping in different beds and somehow, even if your body is fit, your brain gets older. It’s not good if you think, ‘I’m the only Highlander and I know the only way’, until you’re 95. There is always somebody new coming and it’s important to let the young generation come up, and to guide them and help and to make use of their talents and their new skills.

What can we expect from Miele at IFA?

Unfortunately I can’t reveal any secrets! We have a few products that we will be covering and you will be surprised.

Should your rivals be nervous?

Self-confidently, ‘yes’, but we don’t get nervous when our competitors launch something because competition is necessary. We need it because it drives us forward. I like competition because it gives us new ideas.

The 2015 IFA consumer electronics expo is being held in Berlin 4-9 September 2015.

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