Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur

 

 

The Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur, or Royal Porcelain Manufactory, is one of the few privately run porcelain manufacturing companies in the world. Great German artists and architects such as Schinkel and Schadow designed porcelain here in the past, and the vital craftsmanship has hardly changed in over two hundred years. The porcelain manufacturer is a national treasure that still exists today thanks to Jörg Woltmann – and his gut feeling.

An appointment to meet the champion of the Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur, or KPM, can only be made for the morning hours. Jörg Woltmann is only available from eight to twelve thirty at the offices in the 140-year-old brick building with its large windows and impressive cobblestone courtyard. Since 1873, KPM has been located on this quiet, seemingly forgotten street, Wegelystraße, situated directly between the large Tiergarten park and the famed boulevard Straße des 17. Juni. Woltmann loves this place, saying it’s always a fresh source of inspiration to him, although he can only be here in the mornings. In the afternoon he has to tend to his other business – his bank.

He has kept up this rhythm since February 27th, 2006, the day the entrepreneur and banker took over the Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur Berlin as sole shareholder. After 244 years of manufacturing history, Woltmann had twenty vital minutes to make a crucial decision. He could either buy now, or wait for the national institution to file for bankruptcy and then buy it, the way his financial advisors had advocated. Jörg Woltmann did what he always does. He went with his gut feeling, which said: buy, and buy now. And so in 2006, a turbulent era finally came to an end. An era whose beginnings predate 1763, the year Frederick the Great took over the works, thereby allowing the porcelain manufacturing company to add the word “royal” to its name. In the late 20th century however, mismanagement and continual changes in leadership weakened the meanwhile largely state-owned KPM and led it to the brink of bankruptcy. Even the Prince of Prussia, to whom Woltmann was advisor in those days and who wanted to close a gap in his family history by repurchasing KPM, turned his back on the proposition after two years of fruitless negotiation.

How often do you get the opportunity to take over a national treasure?

Jörg Woltmann, a trim gentleman in his mid-sixties, is wearing a dark suit and tie with a light-colored handkerchief tucked neatly in his breast pocket. He explains rather bluntly that, until he bought KPM, he had been busy making “foul, soulless cash.” He experienced his first financial successes as a corporate and financial advisor in the seventies. And in 1980, he established the Allgemeine Beamten Kasse Kreditbank, a credit bank that numbers over a hundred thousand clients today. Then in 2006, it was finally the right moment for him to dedicate himself to these – as he puts it – “magnificent porcelain products.” Porcelain has always been the epitome of beauty to this native Berliner. He fondly recalls dining as a child with his mother and grandmother on Sundays, the table set with Kurland porcelain – KPM’s classic porcelain line whose design dates back to the 1790s. Woltmann’s finances were in good order and his wife said: “If this is right for you and Berlin, then go ahead and do it.” And he thought to himself: “How often do you get the opportunity to take over a national treasure?”

According to Woltmann, his decision to buy was entirely patriotic. He wanted to keep the company in the city and to groom it into shape so it can take the next one hundred years or so in its stride – all in the interest of the manufacturer of luxury goods and its tradition of fine design. Woltmann goes on to explain that he has built “all of this” and points to a black, modernistic cube displaying a large window front that contains the KPM café as well as to the museum and salerooms located beyond. By creating these public spaces, Woltmann wanted to remind Berliners of the manufacturing company and to get them interested in coming back.

The heyday of porcelain manufacturing lies in the distant past. The livelihood of porcelain manufacturers like KPM is based on a formal table culture, on people inviting each other over and showing off their homes to their best advantage. And it relies on people who are prepared to pay one hundred euros for a single plate. “Beautifully set tables have been replaced by a coffee-to-go-culture,” says Woltmann. After the nineties, nobody was ready to spend a lot of money on porcelain as a luxury product. “In principle,” says Woltmann, “There is not one significant manu­facturer who makes a profit.” Recently, a slow change in values can be discerned. Craftwork and artisanal manufacturing are experiencing a renaissance; people are starting to invest in sustainability and quality again. According to Woltmann, the “cheap is sexy” mentality is on the decline. All the same, large profits can never be achieved with artisanal manufacturing of this kind. We reach capacity limits,” he explains. “If the whole world suddenly started ordering KPM, we wouldn’t be able to deliver.”

Craftwork and artisanal manufacturing are experiencing a renaissance; people are starting to invest in sustainability and quality again.

His point becomes very clear during a tour of the production site with a total of 170 workplaces. This is the moment, says Jörg Woltmann, when he starts to feel very humble “in the face of everything that is created here.” Most of the production methods haven’t changed significantly during the last two hundred years. Whether in the glazing, painting or sorting department, employees today work pretty much how their colleagues did in past centuries. Everything is produced by hand, and every single item is checked three times before it is deemed to meet the company’s exacting standards. Accordingly, KPM boasts an extremely low rate of complaints – a mere 0.05 percent – something they are very proud of. The mantra practiced over each step in the process is: porcelain tolerates no mistakes. Every mistake, however tiny, is discovered immediately, and the faulty piece is sorted out. Trying to speed up the process will never work under KPM’s roof.

There is a feeling that time moves at a different pace here. This sense is conveyed in part by the quiet concentration in the air. After all, fine porcelain isn’t created by nervous fingers or absentminded craftspeople. The atmosphere is, however, also linked to the employees’ life stories. People who apply with KPM sign up for the duration. Change of employer for strategic reasons, flexibility and mobility – all those so-called essential qualities in modern businesses – are not sought-after traits at KPM. Recently, Woltmann relates, they celebrated a leaving party for an employee who was retiring after fifty years. Meanwhile, Woltmann has been concentrating on meeting his business targets. In the short term, the goal is a “black zero by the end of the year.” In the long run, he wants to achieve “an optimal operational size and a positive balance.” His intentions are for KPM to be recognized as the best porcelain manufacturing company in the world. To get there, KPM is focusing more on export and entering into partnerships with brands such as luxury car producer Bugatti and Italian fashion company Bottega Veneta.

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Since his takeover, Woltmann has increased turnover by approximately twenty percent to ten million euros annually, but he’s convinced he can do better. Nonetheless, he rejects resorting to strategies that might include outlets or sales. As sole shareholder, Woltmann isn’t accountable to anyone, something he sees as his biggest advantage. His motto is “good things take time,” and before the time is right, he has no plans of retiring. He is driven by curiosity and his enjoyment of shaping events. “I love my work,” he says. “What else would I do? Walk around in circles on the golf course?”

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