The comeback of the traditional wet shave in many places is a blessing for a German firm that's become the market leader in the production of wet-shaving accessories. Hardy Graupner reports from Saxony's Ore Mountains.
Nestled deeply in the hills of the Erzgebirge region in the Eastern German State of Saxony, the Hans-Jürgen Müller company is not so easy to find, living up to its reputation as a hidden champion even in the literal sense of the word.
It's a long and winding road that takes me from the highway to the small community of Stützengrün where the firm behind the Mühle brand is located. A few forests and meadows on, and no one around to ask for directions, I finally spot a squeaky clean production facility virtually appearing out of nowhere.
An array of display cabinets in the entrance room gives me a first impression of the company's product line, leaving no doubt that shaving brushes feature prominently alongside all sorts of soaps and moisturizing creams, oils, mirrors, razors and everything else you could possibly want for a wet shave.
Managing Director Andreas Müller holding one of the company's high-quality shaving brushes he's so proud of
Not a pesky chore
It's in here that I'm starting to understand the company's self-proclaimed ambition of cementing wet shaving as a pleasant experience rather than for people to see it as a laborious task. The firm wants to get more and more men to turn shaving from a daily nuisance into a celebrated ritual again.
Global statistics seem to work in its favor, as co-owner and Managing Director Andreas Müller points out.
"Globally, the market share of electric shavers has gone down over the past 20 years or so, if compared with wet shaving accessories," Müller says.
"Of course, not everyone will use a proper shaving brush, but wet shaving in general is on the rise again due above all to very good new razor systems that athletes and other young and dynamic people have come to promote in various ads."
The medium-sized enterprise now has about 80 employees after logging its turnover peak three years ago and being able to maintain 2016 levels ever since. Roughly 70 percent of the products the company makes are exported.
"We've been doing brisk business with Russia for many years now," Müller explains. "The Scandinavian countries are also a very good market for us, with Norway seeing the highest market penetration of our products."
Müller also points to excellent business opportunities in Asia where his company is particularly strong in China, with the Asian giant experiencing an unparalleled rise of its middle class — and with it a surge in people's purchasing power. While business with Japan and South Korea is also strong, China has become the Saxon firm's largest export market.
Among the company's best-selling items has been its handcrafted badger hair shaving brush that's famous for its resilience and elasticity. Meanwhile, the company has developed two synthetic fibers, though, whose properties are even better than badger hairs, raising the pressure on international competitors to go for synthetic alternatives as well.
The charms of a handmade product
Above all, it's the handmade products that have helped the firm get a foot in the door in many markets abroad, says Müller.
"We've noticed that the 'Handmade in Germany' label is highly valued in the world; you get some credit of trust from people ordering such products from Germany — people know that they will get good quality, and often a good design to boot."
The company's recent development has been anything but a sure-fire success, though. The family-run business, now in its third generation, was started by Andreas's grandfather in 1945. In the mid-1960s, the company exported to 36 nations. Following the death of the founder in 1965, Andreas' father took over.
Following several rounds of fresh investments, the company was nationalized in what was East Germany, to be reprivatized in 1990 after the country's reunification.
But reprivatization didn't mean immediate recovery. With old markets in Eastern Europe collapsing basically overnight and only few skilled people at hand to risk a new start, Müller's father was left stranded without a proper marketing concept and a daily mental fight over whether to throw in the towel or not.
Well, he didn't, later enabling his sons Andreas and Christian to take the firm to new levels and turn it into the market leader, the hidden champion it is today.
Green production matters
The company is not only remarkable for its meticulously manufactured products, but also for the way it cares about the environment. It's a proud member of the Environmental Alliance of Saxony, meaning it's willing to stick to green standards in the production process.
It's got a big photovoltaic system on the roofs of its production halls that generates a good deal of the energy the company consumes. There's an efficient LED light control system in place to save energy. For short-distance trips, the firm uses all-electric vehicles, which can be recharged with the in-house PV installation.
According to Müller, the enterprise also pays attention to keeping procurement routes regional as much as possible. As far as packaging is concerned, the firm is moving to predominantly use paper and card boxes, aiming to gradually do away with foils and other plastics.
The Hans-Jürgen Müller company boasts a large array of precision machines to speed up production workflows
Growth isn't everything
Müller almost gets philosophical when asked about the company's growth perspectives.
"It's been my conviction that constant growth everywhere in the world will eventually kill us all; we'll be dead in a hundred years, if we continue like this," he remarks. "Of course, we too want to make money and create employment for people, and yes, we too consume resources. But it's definitely not our target to become bigger and bigger," Müller points out.
"Rather, we want to focus on ensuring top quality and thus ensure consumer satisfaction. We want customers to get excited about our products — that may eventually lead to some further growth, but if things remain at the current level, it's also definitely OK with us."