Family Ties Bind Businesses

3/16/2010

This is an unpublished article I wrote from a recent overseas trip, detailing how a personal touch can make the difference in an evolving business relationship.

The Christmas season connects two family-owned businesses with German heritage, thousands of miles apart. The partnership between Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland in Frankenmuth, Michigan and Krebs Glas in Germany has survived the cold war, hot wars and economic downturns through three generations.

Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland is an unforgettable landmark. Traveling an hour and a half north of Detroit, Michigan, Bronner’s springs out of the landscape on M-83 in Saginaw County’s Frankenmuth. The organization, founded in 1945, occupies 27 acres of Christmas landscaped property. At the center is a showroom with the equivalent of 5.5 U.S. football fields under one roof.

Krebs Glas-Lauscha occupies a large property at the crest of a hill, near a crossroads in Thuringia, an hour or so south of Erfurt. While the Krebs showroom features samples of many ready-for-market products, the majority of the site is dedicated to the hand-crafted ornaments which built the operation’s reputation. The Krebs family acquired the site in 1992, but inherited a nearly four century tradition of artisan quality glass work from the community of Lauscha glass blowers. Bronner’s had worked independently with Krebs and the Lauscha site prior to theacquisition.

At Bronner’s, Wayne Bronner represents the second generation of his family involved in the CHRISTmas Wonderland. His office is in the heart of the operation through a seemingly endless variety of Christmas themed items. Visitors also pass a multi-lingual multitude of signs with greetings and Christmas wishes in dozens of languages. These displays are a reminder of the store’s founder, Wayne’s father Wally Bronner, whose background was in the design of signs and who had a lifetime love of foreign languages.

“When people come to Frankenmuth, Frankenmuth is a German community, of course, so they expect to see German products,” Wayne Bronner explained about Bronner’s partnership with Krebs. “Reflecting way back, when Wally first had the idea to import German ornaments, he went over, and it was not too long after the war, and visited lots of factories and so forth. Germany was number one as far as ornament production so that was really the start of our glass ornament business here at Bronner’s.”

Bronner’s hosts an annual demonstration of live glass blowing, featuring the artisans from the Kreb’s facility in Lauscha. The Christmas-themed partnership started at a time when the East German government, to put it mildly, did not favor religious themes. However, the Lauscha facility managed to maintain its production of glass Christmas ornaments regardless of official policy.

Gerd Ross’s relationship with the Bronner’s organization dates to the 1970’s. “Our customers wanted to talk to the producers,” recalled Ross, the Merchandising Manager of the Kreb’s Lauscha site. “Government bureaucrats could not sufficiently describe what our products were like, so we had a chance to travel to promote our products.” Ross nurtured the relationship through the 1980’s and early 1990’s, when the Krebs family purchased the Lauscha site in the aftermath of German reunification.

The Lauscha operation’s partnership with Bronner’s has changed over time, responding to the changing marketplace and ebbs and flows in the economic landscape.

“In a marketplace where televisions and clothing are produced all over the world, now, it’s just the same with glass Christmas ornaments,” Wayne Bronner explained.

“They’re produced in Germany, of course, but also Italy and Poland and Hungary,

former East Bloc countries where the cost of production is lower. And an increasing number of manufacturers are having their items produced in China, where the cost of production is extremely low.”

Krebs recognized this shift in the global marketplace, based on feedback from companies like Bronner’s and responded with a unique program. They would become a clearinghouse for non-German products to meet the demand of their existing clients.

“We have good relationships with Eastern European factories, in Russia for example,” Ross noted from his office at the Lauscha Glass Works. “Our clients trust us and our reputation for good quality glass ornaments. We know production. We know quality. So we can pick good suppliers from all over the world for our clients, even from China.”

For a company like Bronner’s, Wayne Bronner explained that while customers may look for less expensive products which are not manufactured in Germany, there will always be a place for German glass ornaments for some consumers. “The price point may go up for these kind of products, so they might not sell in the quantities that they used to, but I think there will always be a demand for hand-crafted German Christmas ornaments,” he said.

And Ross recalls how Bronner’s found a way to continue the partnership through one of the darkest economic periods in the past century. “When demand for our products went down so extremely after September 11th 2001, Bronner’s was one of a very few who kept on this relationship that we had established in the past.”

Ross indicates that Bronner’s serves another important role in the business relationship in the marketplace after last year’s economic crisis. “Bronner’s has direct contact to the private person, the consumer, all over the United States (through its vast customer platform.). So he can show us what demand is like across the whole country.”

As the second decade of the 21st country approaches, these two family owned businesses are finding a way to find the value in their relationship, despite the changes in the global marketplace which might have driven them apart.