Cutting Edge

How knifemaker Zwilling stays sharp

Zwilling knives, knife, cookware, knives
Sharp and ready to cook. Source: DPA

The cradle of German knife making is the small city of Solingen, in North Rhine-Westphalia. The city just south of the Ruhr area, known for its steel culture, is home to Zwilling J. A. Henckels, one of the world’s oldest and largest knife-makers and cookware suppliers.

One might expect a company founded in 1731 to be a bit outdated, but 287 years later the company is thriving, generating sales close to €700 million in 2017. It’s seen growth (including acquisitions) of about 8 percent per year since 1995, when sales were about €130 million. As the company plans to increase the number of its stores from 350 to 500, it’s getting ever closer to hitting the billion-euro mark.

Zwilling CEO Erich Schiffers follows a clear and simple strategy: Make the knife manufacturer a market leader, expand the product range to include cutlery and cookware, and diversify. ”We are open to inorganic growth,” said Paolo Dell’Antonio, chairman of the supervisory board and CEO of the family-owned parent company Werhahn KG, which bought Zwilling in 1969. That means acquisitions are always on the company’s radar.

Zwilling, which translates to “twins” or the astrological sign of Gemini in German, has already acquired Italian manufacturer Ballarini for its aluminum pans and French manufacturer Staub for its heavy cast-iron cocottes — heat-proof individual dishes also known as Dutch ovens. Plus Belgian’s Demeyere for its specialization in induction cookware, German cutlery manufacturer BSF and Japanese knifemaker Miyabi.

In the past, Zwilling generated 90 percent of its turnover with knives; today it’s only 40 percent — the growth is driven by cookware. This plays perfectly into Mr. Schiffers’ plans, coinciding with an uptick in interest in food trends and cooking culture. Savvy expert and beginner food enthusiasts are turning to Zwilling’s higher-end knives, pots and pans. And they’re happy to show their kitchen gadgets online: About 350 food bloggers have posted photos that feature Zwilling products on their websites and social media platforms.

“Instagram and the like are a huge opportunity for small- and medium-sized businesses.”

Erich Schiffers, CEO of Zwilling

Currently, online sales account for 15 percent of overall winnings. “Instagram and the like are a huge opportunity for small- and medium-sized businesses,” said Mr. Schiffers. In 2017, 80 million posts featured Zwilling products, and 50 million of those carried the Staub brand. For Schiffers, marketing doesn’t get any cheaper.

Zwilling also recruits restaurant chefs to act as brand ambassadors; they have at least 400 in Germany. One is Cornelia Poletto, a star chef from Hamburg who is opening her own restaurant, The Twins, on the second floor of a newly opened Zwilling store in Shanghai. Ms. Poletto developed the concept with Zwilling, and the company is keen to adapt the model in other cities. In China, Zwilling products are considered a status symbol and are more expensive than in Germany. “The Chinese are also interested in Western recipes, especially mixtures of Asian and Mediterranean cuisine,” Mr. Schiffers said.

One of Schiffers’ main goals is to open a new world of experiences for Zwilling customers. Zwilling’s Instagram channels feature video recipes from bloggers and brands to help the company reach customers. But Schiffers is happiest when bloggers, chefs and restaurant customers post pictures of food and include Zwilling products. The CEO knows that image sharing works more authentically when not controlled by the company.

Anja Müller writes about family and small- and medium-sized firms known as the Mittelstand, which form the backbone of Germany’s economy. To contact the author: mueller@handelsblatt.com

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