While at Cologne ToolBUSINESS+HIRE got the chance to speak to Martin Strauch, President and CEO of Wera and Ian Walford, MD of Wera UK.
The perennially crowded, noisy and Gemutlich atmosphere of the Wera stand at the Cologne Tool Fair is a difficult place to have a serious chat with two important people in Wera about what makes the company tick. The two people concerned were Martin Strauch, President and CEO of Wera and Ian Walford, MD of Wera UK. Perhaps the reason why the interview worked at all was the interviewees showed enormous patience, incredible good humour and a sheer sense of mischief that helped us gain at least one key insight into Wera - namely that it is a serious company making seriously good products, yet one that doesn’t take itself too seriously. A paradox indeed, that may make more sense as we move on.
It all started as a chat with Ian Walford from the UK, who had promised us a cameo on life at Wera. He was in full flow, having ordered us food and drinks from the ever-busy Wera kitchen on the stand, when he spotted Martin, the CEO across the stand. Saying something like “You don’t need to hear it from me, hear it from the top man himself.” Martin was persuaded to join us and it was clear from the start that he was no stiff and starchy figurehead standing on his dignity, and very soon we were engulfed in a wide-ranging chat about many things – tools, Wera, invention, life and everything.
Martin’s starting point was Wera’s belief and aim that their tools “make life simpler, safer and full of joy for their users.” These are a set of company aims that underline the paradox of Wera in my view. Conventional companies might go for the “simpler and safer” bit but many would shy away from the “full of joy”, simply because its not corporate enough, or because they think that they can’t be responsible for its customers’ joy in using tools. The paradox was further underlined by the obvious expression of mischief in Martin’s face as he delivered the lines, and yet he took the work seriously too.
Some of this down to earth attitude might come from the fact that Martin is not a “business” person complete with MBA and accounting qualifications. He is in fact, a time served, qualified engineer with a profound understanding of the trades that are Wera’s customers, who understands that there can be as much creativity in solving an engineering issue as painting a portrait.
It is this creative approach that Martin says will make customers happier and “full of joy.” Wera’s approach to creativity is to be wide open to all and sundry ideas no matter where they come from.
It is fashionable in the tool trade to send out “field teams” to interrogate tradespeople about what they want and then translate these into new products. Again, with tongue firmly in cheek, Martin says that if Henry Ford had asked his customers what they wanted they would have replied that they needed “faster horses.” The point is that creative solutions often surprise a market, with consumers soon adopting the solutions on offer.
Wera’s creative approach has echoes of Steve Jobs’ mantra of “selling dreams, not products.” The new style of jet black packaging also echoes the distinctive, high quality ethos of Wera that makes the customers feel valued and proud to choose a superior product.
Martin also emphasized that Wera’s focus is relentlessly simple – “We focus on the screw,” so there is no fiddling on the periphery trying out ideas that are marginal to the Wera product offer. With a smallish team of engineers working full time on R&D, new ideas do not come only from them. All members of the Wera team are welcome to contribute their ideas for consideration. Ian pointed out that it was his idea to store the release pin of the new extension ratchet handle in the end of the handle itself and this is now in production (review in this edition)
The product design team also does a lot of work demonstrating their products at shows, thus completing the loop. They not only get to meet the customers who are hopefully “full of joy,” but may also pick up ideas that could lead to further developments.
Martin also had an interesting take on manufacturing. He argues that if Wera had a forging plant for instance, it would feel obliged to use the plant for production. But this might limit the possibility of exploring other manufacturing methods that may be needed to realize a range of new products. For this reason he told us that Wera is never constrained by production methods. As long as quality can be guaranteed, Wera is happy to outsource production, even outside Germany, in its search for tools that “fill us with joy.” This approach can have its downsides too, as sometimes the search for an appropriate manufacturing partner can take a long time, thus slowing the launch of a new product.
It was very clear from the reception and attitude of all Wera staff that not only do their tools try to “fill us with joy”, but they also enjoy working there. Martin confirmed that staff turnover is minimal and all are on board with the prevailing ethos.
Customers too, have their own joyous outlet for ideas and expression. Wera users are encouraged to join the Wera “Tool Rebels” website where they can share their own sensible, inventive, odd or eccentric ideas for using their tools as well as expressing their passion for the Wera philosophy. Again, this creates a great feedback loop for R&D, and becomes a forum for problem solving and idea sharing. The kind of feedback that companies pay valuable money for, and it sure beats focus groups.
So, next time you buy a Wera product, you might have a bit more of an insight into what goes into it – another loop completed, and yet still the same Wera paradox applies: - a fun company with serious products? Or a serious company with fun products? Or do they both exist?
To read Peter's Wera Reviews, click here.
For more information on Wera Tools, please visit www.wera-tools.co.uk.