Hansjorg Prettner, managing director of Steinemann Asia, looks back at 10 years of partnership with Southeast Asia’s panel manufacturers.
Mr Prettner begins by saying that Asia is his favourite place to be. He also liked that the wood-based panel sector was a closely-knit community where everyone knows everyone, “just like family.”
It was why he moved to Steinemann Asia in 2007, after some years in Europe’s oil and gas sector. After weeks of training in Switzerland, he whisked his family to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where he would live for the next 10 years.
When he arrived, there were many priorities on his checklist for success. Expanding brand presence was one of them, as was grappling with new challenges in an untapped market.
Swiss-made Steinemann sanders represent quality and state-of-the-art equipment. But they also had a hefty price tag. This did not go down well in a market that made purchase decisions primarily on price. They were also in direct competition with Chinese and Italian producers, which were considerably cheaper.
But Mr Prettner had one significant advantage: Steinemann Asia was the only sanding supplier that had a regional office in Southeast Asia. Being close to the market, his team exploited this advantage, spending time discussing solutions, quality and performance with customers.
Mr Prettner also offered more service time and packed in consumables and expertise. He promised that an engineer would always be present whenever projects were underway, to his customers’ delight. He himself was always a phone call away even on weekends. The team secured its first project with Vanachai in Thailand, a customer that still believes in the Steinemann brand till today.
Mr Prettner says that open, direct and clear communication is key during a project discussion. “You need to identify the pain points and difficulties. If you cannot deliver, you must admit it. I’m happy to say that we have fulfilled all our promises all these years.
“Relationships take time to build; nothing is achieved overnight. But if you do well, your customer will come back,” he says. “And then he becomes more than just a customer, he’s also a friend.”
This is why he is also known everywhere as Mr Hans.
Today Steinemann Asia covers the panel market from Pakistan to New Zealand. In some countries, it has almost 100 percent market share.
Mr Prettner still manages everything from customer service to technical and commercial know-how. Yet he attributes the company’s achievements to his family and team: “There is no success without a strong team. We have one goal in mind, that is, the customer always comes first.
“It is also a challenge giving 200 percent to customers and 200 percent to my family at the same time. Thankfully they are very understanding otherwise there is no way to do my job well!”
Beginning with only four people, the KL office has now more than doubled to nine. It is looking to hire more people, even fresh graduates as long as they are willing to learn and travel.
The team, he says, has moulded him in ways unimaginable. “Thanks to them, I’m less uptight and more relaxed,” he laughs. “We are like family.”
His leadership has influenced them to become rather “Swiss”—Straightforward, conscientious, punctual and precise like Swiss watches. He also encourages them to speak their minds and bring problems to the table for open discussion.
To maintain service levels at tip-top condition, all engineers undergo annual courses in St Gallen, Switzerland. New hires also spend three months there before a six-month period of training on-the-job.
One and a half years ago, Steinemann introduced Quartz Circle to increase its customer base and encourage return sales. Like a frequent flyer loyalty programme, Quartz Circle has gold, silver and bronze tiers. It has since received good feedback.
“Things are not the same anymore after the 2008/09 global economic crisis,” Mr Prettner says. “The machine business is doing well, but we still need to secure projects and market our consumables as an additional source of revenue.”
On recent trends in panel production, owners are now very open to paying more for machine performance to achieve high-speed production, quality and cost savings in the long run.
“The key to sanding is that you don’t want to destroy what you have painstakingly produced,” Mr Prettner offers. In fact, quality surfaces are now in demand because you can fetch a proper price from buyers who want to process them further for the high-end furniture market.”
Southeast Asia still represents great growth opportunities. In future, new lines in Vietnam and Thailand will come up to feed a population of 600 million.
Mr Prettner stresses that his team will continue to support this growth with the same friendship and service promised since the beginning. Investing in relationships was, and still is top of the list, as is trust.
This article was first published in the May issue of Panels & Furniture Asia.