Max Reiners shakes a test tube, opens it carefully and takes a sniff. “The smell is often crucial for our customers,” he explained.
The vial doesn’t contain a fine essence or liqueur, but an industrial lubricant — one of 290 formulas developed by Rhenus Lub, the Mönchengladbach-based family firm that Mr. Reiners heads.
The 63-year-old chief executive doubtlessly inherited the tinkerer’s gene from his grandfather – the iconic post-war chancellor of West Germany, Konrad Adenauer.
“No industry can do without us — except banks. ”
His mother Ria Reiners was born in 1912 — the eldest daughter of Adenauer. The former chancellor was also an ingenious inventor, who bequeathed to posterity such curiosities as soya sausage, an inwardly illuminated darning ball and an electric brush for pest control.
Today, his grandson Max Reiners is busy creating more useful products, with almost 50 members of his research and development team at Rhenus Lub.
The company and its 238 employees provide lubricants for rolling mills, oils for handling metals and even products to make electric toothbrushes run smoothly. Customers include companies like industrial giants Thyssen-Krupp, Airbus and Rolls Royce.
“No industry can do without us — except banks,” said Mr. Reiners.
His company has recently researched a technology that is so secret, even the 10 partners – mostly large companies – don’t want to be named.
“We’re committing fully to Industry 4.0,” said Mr. Reiners, refering to the buzz word which describes the digitalization of industrial processes.
One new development involves a common problem in industrial lubricants: Fungi and bacteria can grow in oils used for handling metal, which are mostly mixed with 95-percent water. If these growths get the upper hand, the cooling lubricants no longer function.
The next generation stands ready to take over, even though that could take a few years: Max Reiners pointed out that his grandfather only departed from the West German chancellery at age 87.
Up to now, industrial customers have sampled the bacteria themselves, with test strips that were shipped to Rhenus Lub laboratories. Frequently the information was out of date.
But Mr. Reiners said the company has developed a piece of equipment “that constantly analyzes the lubricating liquids.” Data concerning pH-value, conductivity and temperature are then sent online to monitoring headquarters, which can react immediately to change.
The company’s chief dismisses acquisitions and mergers as a way of holding his own in the industry, even while having annual sales of only €87 million. “That takes up too much managerial attention,” Mr. Reiners said.
He has also rejected purchase offers by larger competitors, including Evonik, which recently came knocking.
“We’ve drawn up a standard letter in such cases,” he said. “The short form says: ‘No.’”
The owner of Rhenus Lub prefers to invest money in research in order to improve the firm’s market position.
Together with the German Aerospace Center and Zwickau University, he plans to present a cooling lubricant that facilitates drilling into carbon- and other fiber-composite materials. This would simplify attaching doors to Airbus planes, for example, among other operations.
Without keeping up on these kinds of innovations, Rhenus Lub could quickly fall behind.
According to latest figures available, the firm achieved an operating profit (EBIT) of 10.3 percent of revenues in 2014. It also doesn’t owe a cent to banks.
But it nonetheless stands in the shadow of its overpowering rival Fuchs Petrolub. That publicly-listed company, whose subsidiary Fuchs Lubritech also produces special lubricants, is more profitable by half.
Another competitor, Kaiserslautern-based Lubritech, is scarcely larger than Rhenus Lub. But Lubritech belongs to a parent company that recently had revenues of more than €2 billion.
Still, Mr. Reiners isn’t worried about his company surviving. In addition, the next generation stands ready to take over, even though that could take a few years. Max Reiners pointed out that his grandfather only departed from the West German chancellery at age 87.
Several of his four children are interested in the business. His eldest daughter, Isabella Kleeschulte, already works in the marketing department.
Christoph Schlautmann covers the logistics and waste management sectors for Handelsblatt. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org