German Mittelstand

Fine Tuning, Down Under

Opernhaus von Sydney
No more swallowing sound: Sydney's iconic opera house is getting world-class acoustics. Source: DPA

German opera stars like Jonas Kaufmann are no strangers to Sydney’s iconic opera house, but at a recent rehearsal for Wagner’s “Parsifal,” it was two other visitors from Munich standing in an aisle, arms folded, who will eventually be contributing most to what audiences hear.

Jürgen Reinhold and Gunter Engel are acoustics engineers from a medium-sized engineering firm based in Planegg outside Munich and they were collecting data to renovate the acoustics in the main hall of the opera house, which has become the symbol of Sydney, and even of Australia, since it was opened in 1973. The overlapping shells suggesting sails, designed by Danish architect Jørn Utzon and perched on a point in Sydney’s harbor, made the building a Unesco World Heritage Site. It has also been credited with transforming 20th-century architecture.

But the large concert hall, which seats nearly 2,700, has been criticized over the years for flattening notes and swallowing sound. John Malkovich, Hollywood star and occasional opera producer, once remarked that the acoustics in an airplane hangar were better.

“Many Mittelstand companies are highly specialized in a few products and as a result, they are often global market leaders.”

Jan-Alexander Huber, consultant, Bain & Co.

Müller-BBM has planned and constructed acoustics for opera houses around the world. The firm helped reconstruct the legendary La Fenice in Venice after a fire, and fixed the acoustics at the Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater when it was the home to both the New York City Ballet and the New York City Opera. Mr. Reinhold and Mr. Gunter themselves have worked on opera and ballet venues in Paris, Salzburg and Moscow.

Founded in 1962, the firm has worked on acoustics in concert halls, theaters, sports arenas, office buildings and even the Reichstag, the home of the German parliament in Berlin. It employs some 350 people, drawn from a multidisciplinary pool of engineers, architects and scientists. A small company of specialists with global reach, Müller-BBM is an example of Germany’s robust “Mittlestand,” the small and medium-sized companies that are considered the backbone of the German economy.

The engineering firm is owned by its employees, who are the sole shareholders. No single shareholder holds more than 3 percent of the firm. Having a stake in the firm – which last year booked revenues of €47 million – no doubt contributes to the evident passion that the two engineers bring to their work.

As they placed their highly sensitive microphones around the hall to collect data, the acoustics experts could identify some of the problems. The domed hall produces echoes, while the ceiling over the stage area swallows so much sound that the musicians cannot hear each other.

The concert hall will close down for two years starting early 2020 to undergo renovation, part of larger renewal project, budgeted at more than €200 million, that started in 2011 and is expected to last 10 years.

The success of Müller-BBM is typical of Germany’s Mittelstand companies. These smaller companies, many of them family owned, don’t publish financial reports. But a recent analysis of aggregated data made available to Handelsblatt by the German Association of Savings Banks showed that these firms are more efficient than many listed companies, make their money go further when they invest and, as a result, are growing faster than public companies.

The data comes from 300,000 smaller firms out of the 3 million Mittelstand companies and partnerships in Germany. By contrast, there are only 550 listed companies. Revenue at the smaller firms has increased by a third since 2010, compared to only a quarter in public companies.

“Many Mittelstand companies are highly specialized in a few products and as a result, they are often global market leaders,” Jan-Alexander Huber, a consultant at Bain & Co., says. “This enables revenue to grow above average.”

The 48-year-old Mr. Kaufmann is, as the New York Times described him, “the most important, versatile tenor of his generation.” And no doubt his concert performances of Parsifal thrilled Sydney audiences. But it is the work of two unknown engineers from a small company outside of Munich who will make sure that he, and others, continue to thrill in the future.

Urs Wälterlin covers Australia for Handelsblatt. Ulf Sommer covers companies. Handelsblatt Global editor Darrell Delamaide adapted this to English. To reach the authors: waelterlin@handelsblatt.com, u.sommer@vhb.de.

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