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Business

Painting the World's Landmark Buildings

Keim has made the paint that graces the facades of many of the world's most famous buildings for more than 100 years. The Germany-based company has mastered the art of mixing paint -- and politics.

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Keim paints make the White House white

Keim's client list reads like a who's who of high-profile buildings: Buckingham Palace, the New York Stock Exchange, the Bolshoi Theater and the White House. The company's high-quality paint -- manufactured in the tiny village of Diedorf in the southern German state of Bavaria -- is in high demand around the world.

Now celebrating 125 years in business, Keim managers say they have mastered the art of mixing paint. The politics of dealing with buildings rife with symbolic value, however, is a bit more challenging.

125 years in the business

The humble potter Adolf Wilhelm Keim was inspired to create the original formula in 1878 by none other than King Ludwig I of Bavaria. A huge art buff, King Ludwig was a fan of the Italian frescoes, and -- hoping to achieve the same aesthetic quality in Germany -- he called on his subjects to develop colors as fresh and vibrant as those he saw abroad. On a practical note, he demanded that they withstand harsh German weather conditions.

Keim heeded the call and toiled away on his formula for more than ten years before traveling to Münich to register his creation with the patent office in 1878. Thus, a paint dynasty was born. Today, though Keim has become an international player with subsidiaries in eastern Europe and Asia, the basic formula has remained almost unchanged.

Recipe for success

What sets Keim apart from its competitors in the ever-more-competitive paint business and how does this tiny company with just 400 employees fend-off up-starts vying for its high-profile client list?

First, and foremost, says Keim CEO Peter Neri, the company's paints are all-natural -- i.e. no solvents are used in the production process. Basically, they're nothing more than stone and earth mixed together with the binder potassium sodium silicate, which, despite its complicated-sounding name, is also all-natural and non-toxic.

To underscore the point, Neri says one of his employees, who was teaching a class of incoming apprentices about mixing paint, drank the binder. "It didn't hurt him at all," says Neri. "Of course, people shouldn't normally drink the stuff, but you get my point."

The advantages of an all-natural formula are many, but chief among them is the fact that these paints -- compared to others that just coat the outer surface -- actually bind with building materials and, therefore, last for much longer. And, of course, all natural means it won't harm the delicate surfaces of national treasures like Buckingham Palace.

Politics and paint

But in 125 years of dealing with such high-profile clients, Kleim has, at times, been confronted with the shifting tides of international politics, most recently in the days leading up to the US-led invasion of Iraq.

American policy makers unhappy with the anti-war position of European countries like France and Germany not only took aim at the French fry, insisting that it be renamed the "freedom fry" in government cafeterias, they also questioned Keim's contract to provide the paint for the Pentagon.

Congressmen decided that -- in such times -- the paint on America's highest military headquarters should come from an American company, despite the fact that Keim had already started making good on the order. "Nevertheless," says Neri, "we can still say that the portion rebuilt after the horrible attack on Sept. 11 is covered in Keim paint."

Brightening-up the White House

Despite the cancelled Pentagon contract, overly zealous policymakers did not decide to extend their logic to the White House, and Keim is continuing with its ongoing renovation of US President George Bush's temporary home. This project is also not without its complications, says Neri.

"We can only work when the president is away on vacation or traveling, or when there are no visiting dignitaries," he says. "Of course, we can't change the course of international affairs in order to proceed with our work -- it's all about coordination."

And some think it's just paint.