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Simplon 2016

Simplon 2016

05.06.16 21:11 2.020Text: Reini HörmannPhotos: NoSaneAn Austrian traditional company in an optimistic mood. A factory visit to Simplon one year after the entry of new partners, strategists and bosses.05.06.16 21:11 2.020

Simplon 2016

05.06.16 21:11 2.020 Reini Hörmann NoSane Dieser Beitrag ist auch in Deutsch verfügbarAn Austrian traditional company in an optimistic mood. A factory visit to Simplon one year after the entry of new partners, strategists and bosses.05.06.16 21:11 2019

The Vorarlberg bicycle brand Simplon has represented innovation and superior quality since its foundation. Until the record year 2007, the family business recorded whopping sales increases every year. After the economic crisis, the traditional brand quietened down. The entry of the Hannover Finanzgruppe into the business gave rise to rumours in 2014; still, during our factory visit, the team of bosses beamed from ear to ear...

History of the company

But first, we look back into the past. In 1930, Josef Hämmerle started with a bicycle shop; later, in the 1950s, he started to build quality bicycles together with his sons Kurt and Heinz based on their own ideas. In order to bring their own quality standards to the outside world, they needed a meaningful name. They opted for "Simplon", named after a Swiss Alpine pass, as Swiss quality is world renowned back then as it is now. This fact was expected to be conveyed with the name. The company was founded in 1961, the start of a truly remarkable success story, athletically crowned with the Austrian Tour victory by Gerhard Zadrobilek in 1981.
The sale of Simplon bicycles to Germany and Switzerland also started with Austria entering the EU. Year by year, Simplon strengthened its revenue as well as the number of units sold. Through constant innovations of superior quality in the high-end sector, the Hämmerles developed an excellent reputation not only among customers. The media spared no praise for the super light and stiff classy racers from Vorarlberg. Even nowadays, connoisseurs of racing bicycles rave about the Vision, the Pride or the Pavo. These devices were all ahead of their time: They all were among the best that money could buy at that time. Not much less spectacular was the development of mountain bikes. Names like Mythos, Gravity and Cirex remain unforgotten by off-rode riders.

 "During interviews of employees, I pay special attention to the character. You can learn almost anything business-related, but not the character." 

Visit from an old friend

Readers who have been part of the discussion in the Bikeboard forum for some time know the author's close connection with Simplon. From the mid-1990s, I did not ride any other bicycle brand for more than ten years. Heinz Hämmerle, who led the business extremely successfully, was responsible for this. “A promise is a promise" - nobody who I know fits this saying better, and this characteristic ran like a red thread through the entire business: Down to earth, humble and yet visionary. All the more reason that for our excitement over our visit, to see what had changed since the entry of the investor from Germany in 2014.

Shortly before 1 p.m., we rang the door to the showroom. A moment later, we were greeted by a man who welcomed us not just with words. It was all smiles, and his eyes were laughing as well. Stefan Vollbach started at the business' managing director on Jan. 01, 2015. The fact that he also invested financially in the Simplon brand should show anybody how firmly he believes in the business and its future.
Ralph Kessler, the manager of the marketing department, also joined the following, very detailed discussion. He was brought into the team by Stefan Vollbach, the two knew each other from their common activity at the sporting goods manufacturer Head, also based in Vorarlberg.

 "Simplon is and remains an Austrian brand; its location in Hard has never been questioned." 

'Born and raised in Austria' is not on the 2016 product catalogue by chance
New principal shareholder

The world economic crisis did not stop at Simplon - a medium-sized, family-run and well managed company. The number of units sold and the revenues declined slightly in the following years, and a major client was lost with Intersport Eybl. Nevertheless, Simplon still made a profit. But national media also quieted down about the brand.
In 2014, it was announced that the Hannover Finanzgruppe, an investment company specialising in medium-sized companies in all industries, would enter the traditional company with a majority of shares. Rumours of financial problems followed, while sparse information about the facts left room for speculation.
Stefan Vollbach explains: "The entry of the Hannover Finanzgruppe as majority owner was neither the takeover of an ailing business nor the result of any capital weakness. The Hämmerle family wanted a reliable, strategic development partner for the Simplon brand. "

The business was headed by members of Hämmerle family since its foundation. In the near future, however, no successor is in sight. In order to secure the future of the brand and its competitiveness, it seemed appropriate to bring a financial partner into the business, but to hold on to significant company shares.
Although no longer purely in the hands of Hämmerles, the new management intends to maintain or to cultivate the family management culture within the business. The drop in sales after the economic crisis as well as the decreasing presence in the Austrian trade media could have been handled better, however, in the opinion of Vollbach and Kessler. The same could be said for external communications during the entry of Hannover Finanz.

Simplon in numbers

11,000 Bicycles
20 mill. in revenue
49 employees at the Hard location
2015, the built bicycles were allocated as follows to the segments: 17 percent racing bikes, 30 percent mountain bikes, 32 percent trekking bikes and 21 percent E-Bikes and frames. E-Bikes go in the direction of 25 percent, assembled with Bosch and Alber Neodrive.

Off to new shores

According to the new strategies, what is needed to move Simplon to its former strength and beyond? In a first step, the German-speaking customers shall be immensely inspired by the bicycles from Vorarlberg. In the medium-term, Vollbach and Kessler also want to venture to new countries with Simplon. The logo of the brand has already been changed slightly to illustrate the targeted modernisation.
The development potential exists in principle. Hard near Bregenz has the capacity to produce 20,000 bicycles. This mark will need to be reached in the coming years without becoming a mass provider.

It applies to all projects: High quality and individually manufactured bicycles are the goal. In the premium sector, the goal is to move back to the top; the individual system will be further expanded for this. Keyword: Composing Bikes.
Through this (already practised in the past) individual system, Simplon wants to stand out from the competition even more. The customer thereby chooses from a variety of possible components, colours, etc., and receives his dream bicycle through his dealer within a few days. Currently, there are almost 100,000 different options available.

Product development and manufacturing

In the field of research, development and manufacturing, changes were also made, which included staff changes. Rainer Sebal, formerly a journalist in terms of bicycle sports and an active cycler, is now responsible for the design and quality of the bicycles.
In principle, true to the history thus far, the racing bicycle segments, MTB and Active Lifestyle are served. Recently, E-Bikes supplemented the portfolio. Nothing shall change in this regard. Rainer Sebal wants to focus more on the wishes of the customer during product development and “to look for innovative solutions to enhance the bicycle experience even further."

Even though at the cutting edge, this will not mean reacting to every new trend. The theme "Fatbike" for example, was intentionally omitted entirely. According to Simplon there were the first manufacturer in Europe who built flat mounts on racing bicycles.

 "Lightweight construction yes; recklessness no." 

In order to achieve the highest quality frame frame construction, all components are subject to extremely tight tolerances: Simplon buys exclusively from the High End Carbon supplier Toray.
The use of 3D printers is also promoted in the field of research and development, in order to become faster and more flexible and to be able to perceive a new frame haptically in the early phases.

As the reputation and performance of a manufacturer are often measured by its products at the top level, the goal is to associate with the achievements of earlier times (Pride, Pavo). However, lightweight construction should not become a risk. In-house testing methods are thus all above the ISO standard, additional external EFB tests provide additional safety reserves.
At the top of the Simplon "To-Do" list are enhanced customer surveys at selected events, as well as closer cooperation with the dealers, in order to better understand the needs of the cyclists.

 "We do not just build simple bicycles; we create compositions based on customer wishes." 

Conclusion

Our factory visit was characterized by good humour, open conversations with deep insights into the company structures and phenomenal hospitality. The previously cited, positive optimistic mood could be felt in all departments of the factory, yet one has also recognised development potential internally in many areas - and this is a good thing. One can only wish the new team that the many ambitious plans can be implemented accordingly...