What has made Hawa so successful?

Interview with the family Haab


The anniversary interview with family members about Hawa, the family company. Founding pioneer Otto Haab and his son Gregor join founding pioneer Karl Haab and his son Heinz to look back and explain what it is that defines Hawa’s success.

Why did you bank on sliding technology back in 1965?
Otto Haab: We wanted to develop a mobile partitioning system to divide a hall into partitions using sliding elements.
Karl Haab: To do this, we needed a hardware system. I got in touch with Fritz Walz. The 67-year-old had a one-man business in Uetikon am See. Instead of a hardware ­system, he offered us his entire company.

The company Hawa?
Karl Haab: Right. At the time, we had no money whatsoever and were dependent on support. Our father and a few friends lent us the capital.
Otto Haab: We started up business in Mettmenstetten, in a former painter’s workshop, where we began to produce the parts for our hardware systems. We set up the office, all five square meters of it, behind a partition wall. If the phone rang, they had to switch off the milling cutter so could take the call.

What did you want to achieve back then?
Karl Haab: We wanted to be able to feed our families. And we gave all we had to that end. When we ran into a critical financial phase back in the early days, our father gave us a promissory note issued for his farm which he had paid off so we could pledge it to the bank. Our parents would have suffered considerable financial damage had we failed. This advanced trust and confidence was unbelievably motivating.

In other words, you had to think twice about every penny before spending it?

Otto Haab: Yes. I was single back in the early years and did not receive a wage. I was able to live with my parents free of charge. We started right at the very bottom and worked our way up together. My brother and I trusted each other. That is what brought success.
Karl Haab: Otto took on commercial responsibility. I was therefore able to focus on the technology and develop the passion necessary to find better solutions.

What did sliding solutions look like prior to 1965?
Karl Haab: They were very simple and rather loud. No one would buy them today. Sliding doors were a stepchild of the industry.

What brought about the breakthrough?
Karl Haab: We quickly realised that we had to eliminate the noise from sliding. I hit on the bold idea of coating steel ball bearings with plastic.
Otto Haab: At the time it was a world first that heralded a new era. Today, the system is considered the “best demonstrated available technology”.

How important was the HAWA-Junior to your success?
Otto Haab: Without it we would not be what we are today. More than eight million trolleys of the HAWA-Junior family are in use around the world.
Karl Haab: A hardware system should be easily comprehensible to a tradesman. The ­HAWA-Junior model is simple and robust. We tested the HAWA-Junior 80 with 700,000 cycles. That equates to a lifetime of around 100 years.

What is the reason why partners around the world bank on Hawa?
Karl Haab: The quality of our products. Furthermore, we have worked together from the very beginning with loyal hardware retailers who believed in us.
Otto Haab: We also had good partners who marketed our products abroad. ­Partners like Häfele, for instance, who have been with us since the early 1970s. Our rapid growth was in part due to Häfele.

Heinz and Gregor Haab, you have grown up with Hawa. Why did you also decide to dedicate your lives to Hawa?
Heinz Haab: When I was in my early twenties, I wanted to train in a completely different professional field. However, I had some very good people in my life. One of them took me to one side and pointed out the opportunity to achieve something with Hawa. I seized it with both hands. Once I have set a goal for myself, it becomes the focal point of my life.
Gregor Haab: I trained as a cabinet-maker and then completed a degree in engineering. I made the decision to join the family company during my last year of studies. For me, it was a chance and a privilege to continue what our fathers had built up.

Everyone at Hawa is on first name terms. How did that come about and what effect does it have on the climate at work?
Otto Haab: The custom of using first names has evolved over many years. We knew our first employees at a personal level. We addressed each other by our first names. Later on, we started employing people we didn’t know. If we hadn’t addressed them by their first names, we would have created a two-class society.
Gregor Haab: There is little fear of contact between the different hierarchical levels. And every employee feels that he and his contribution are a part of the whole.

12 of Hawa’s 140 or so employees are apprentices? Why is that?

Gregor Haab: We wanted to be involved in the professional training of future skilled workers. After all, they are who we rely on. A number of our former apprentices now hold positions of responsibility at Hawa and elsewhere. That is a huge confirmation of our work with apprentices.
Heinz Haab: We have good and, in some cases, outstanding apprentices. Accompanying them on their way to adulthood is a part of our social responsibility.

What is the greatest advantage of a family-run business?
Heinz Haab: You always know who is behind a family-run business. That creates trust.
Gregor Haab: We can also make important decisions very quickly and with little red tape. Short decision-making paths are essential in today’s world.

How did you manage to ensure that development and production became ever more efficient?

Gregor Haab: Every year, we invest a considerable amount in our machine pool, especially in automated production. We use the latest technologies to optimize our production processes. We prefer to assign our employees to those activities that machines cannot carry out.

Have you ever considered relocating production abroad, where wages are lower?
Gregor Haab: As mentioned earlier, we invest continuously to keep production costs at a reasonable level despite our location in Switzerland. Furthermore, the complexity of our production processes means we are dependent on many skilled specialists. We can find them in Switzerland, where the quality of training is high.

How does one manage to regularly launch new developments in the market for more than 50 years?
Gregor Haab: We invest around eight percent of our turnover in research and development. Despite cost pressure, we have never scrimped on investing in innovation.
Heinz Haab: The greatest challenge lies in properly evaluating our ideas and then turning the right ones into reality. We do not want to manufacture products that the market is already screaming for, but rather develop a feeling for what the market will need in the future.

Can you name an example?

Heinz Haab: The latest examples are our pivot/slide-in hardware systems. We have made them sturdy and trustworthy. A product must be able to convince tradesmen within just a few seconds. They need to hold it in the hand and know immedi­ately how it should be installed.

Hawa acquired the company EKU in 1992. Since 2015, the two companies have put on a joint appearance. Why?
Heinz Haab: Because we want to make it clear to our customers that they are purchasing from the leader in the segment. Together, Hawa and EKU have the broadest range with solutions for every kind of sliding. Planners and tradesmen need to know that.

Will rooms still be designed and used twenty years from now as they are today?
Gregor Haab: The trend is moving towards compaction, customized room design and flexible use. A growing number of apartments no longer have rigid walls but rather flexible elements that can adapt to the needs of the inhabitants. We provide the innovations to make it happen.

What has impressed you most in the 50-year history of Hawa?
Karl Haab: That we were able to connect with the installers. Having spent 15 years in interior finishing, I knew how the tradesman thinks and what ne needs. We spoke his technical language. That met with a good response.
Heinz Haab: Last year in Oman, I met the head of manufacturing of a large interior construction company, an older man from India. I felt how much he appreciated the Hawa brand. He told me that he has hardly used any hardware other than Hawa systems since the early 1990s and that he is absolutely thrilled with the quality of the products.
Otto Haab: Hawa’s beginnings in Mettmenstetten impressed me most of all. The trust placed in us by our father and the friends who supported us. How we managed to scrape together the necessary means still seems like a miracle.
Gregor Haab: What impresses me is that the unusual constellation of two owner-families of equal standing can work so well for five decades. That is extraordinary.

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