Saxon Survivor

Meissen Porcelain Manufactory

Three years ago, the 300-year-old porcelain manufacturer Meissen was about to bite the dust. But now, thanks to a rapid brand extension, from jewellery to furniture, the state-owned company is back on the luxury label list
Wallpaper* magazine issue 153

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Three years ago German business strategist Christian Kurtzke was offered a “mission impossible” challenge: to turn a loss-making, national manufacturing treasure into a global luxury brand with no additional financing. The treasure in question was the state-owned Meissen Porcelain Manufactory. At 300 years old it is Germany’s oldest and most esteemed porcelain firm and the symbolic heart and soul of the state of Saxony; rich in tradition, heritage and standards of excellence. But in 2008, after years of stagnation, Meissen was in trouble, choking on the dust of its own antiquity and bleeding millions. The challenge that tempted Kurtzke, was not just about blowing off the dust, implementing new entrepreneurial structures, launching new products and setting up new business areas, but also the opportunity to “reinvent the company from scratch whilst remaining loyal to its DNA”. The catch was that being state-owned, and therefore according to European law, this turn-around had to happen using purely operational capital. “That really was a ‘mission impossible’”, says Kurtzke, so naturally enough he accepted.

The problems facing the European porcelain industry, not just Meissen, are well known. For Kurtzke the first problem Meissen was facing when he took over as managing director in 2008 lay in an over concentration on the saturated and declining tableware market. The second was that internally the company was filled with highly skilled craftspeople yet had barely changed structurally since the war: the GDR ended over twenty years ago yet “the Wall came down for Meissen just three years ago” he adds. Kurtzke’s third problem was that he took over as managing director of the company right in the middle of the global financial crisis. Nevertheless, he managed, through a radical shake-up of staff and structuring and some surprising diversification to generate “double-digit growth within two years”. “I changed everything so that everything would stay the way it is – I had to”, he adds. This included causing a scandal by smashing skiploads of unsellable stock and also dismantling the entire design team in favour of a global network of external designers (“Meissen is unique in craftsmanship but don’t ask us to design”). There then followed the lightning development of a new Meissen architectural tile range, new flagship stores in China and Taiwan, a second HQ in Milan to be called the Meissen Villa, a jewellery range, an “Art Campus” for guest fine artists and now, previewed for the first time here in Wallpaper, a furniture and furnishing fabric collection called Meissen Home.

“The speed of it all sometimes scares me,” says Kurtzke, “because I am violating every rule in every management book. Normally you have to be really cautious with this kind of brand diversification: slowly introducing new products and lines over years not months, but I don’t have the time. To cope with crisis you need to create diversity and you have to reach a critical speed; like with a stuck car you need to gain momentum to get out of the rut”. So far, his breakneck velocity approach seems to be paying off:  “The nice thing is that the market is reacting well to it – our new silk scarf line, for example, sold out within three months” and, he says, the company with its 600-strong staff is already in profit again with a revenue of some 40 million Euros. But Kurtzke has the future to think of and they are not quite out of the woods yet: “the revenue needs to be at least 80 million so the company sustains” and this, he believes is only possible through diversity in order to absorb knocks that the markets might throw at it…