Rudolf Miele

Nick Ord

Thomas Rowe and Michael Graves

Mark Zeller

Ken Horowitz

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This article by Barbara Fox was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 19, 1999.

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A Sleek New Showcase for Miele Appliances

You can’t miss Miele USA. The white-with-red letters

on top of the bright blue and gold edifice on Route 1 North are visible

to 50,000 cars that pass daily. In the daytime, you see a dozen giant

columns rising two stories high. At night you see light shining out

through the columns as through a lantern.

The German kitchen appliance manufacturer is observing its 100th birthday

by moving from Somerset to be in the Princeton research corridor.

The building intends to reflect the company motto "Immer Besser."

Translated, that means "Forever Better" but it also asserts,

in effect, "Second to None."

Assertive indeed, this building resembles the vacuum cleaners that

Miele sells — boldly colorful on the outside and designed to the

‘Nth on the inside. Designed by Princeton architect Michael Graves,

a world leader in the neoclassical style, it also reflects how the

firm wants to refer — but not defer — to tradition.

It would be easy for Miele (rhymes with Sheila) to get bogged down

in tradition because its history is so remarkable, and not just because

the current chairman is the grandson of a founder. Three generations

of family management is unusual enough, but this company has had a

remarkable century of leadership from two quite unrelated families.

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Rudolf Miele

Rudolf Miele, the 69-year-old co-chairman of Miele Inc., grew up next

door to Peter Zinkann, the other co-chairman. Even as young boys these

two knew they would go into the family business together. In 1899

their grandfathers had founded Miele in north Germany in the town

of Guetesloh, just east of the Netherlands border. The pair, who made

their first tub washing machine in 1901, died in 1938 and 1939 respectively.

Their sons then presided over Miele and also died one year apart,

in 1985 and 1986, leaving one son apiece. Rudolf Miele and Peter Zinkann

are yoked like their fathers and grandfathers before them — Miele

on the marketing side, Zinkann on the technical side — and Miele

has been heard to joke, "We haven’t decided who will go first."

When Rudolf Miele was a boy, his mother — the grandniece

of opera composer Engelbert Humperdinck — insisted he spend long

hours practicing the piano. He still spends some time at the family

Bechstein, but tennis and golf are more favored pursuits. And his

business education has been acquired by self study and osmosis, because

with his father’s encouragement he went into the business in 1949

at the early age of 19.

In contrast, Zinkann waited to join the family firm until he had earned

his Ph.D. degree and could be addressed, according to European tradition,

by the "Doctor" honorific. "He studied, and I went directly

into the business," Miele explains in a luncheon conversation

at the building’s grand opening.

It was a tough time to start, in 1949, when the Marshall Plan was

just beginning to revive bombed out buildings and a parched economy:

"Our parents were old and had lost a lot of their lives in the

war," says Miele. "The army took over our houses and made

it into a military area." His father started the first German-American-British

discussion club and was later decorated by the Queen of England.

"In 1949," says Miele, "we were a very little company,

but we were young and had nothing to lose. We believed that, from

day to day, things would become better. We looked forward."

Looking forward meant innovations, and here are some of the recent

ones: In 1978 the company came out with the world’s first microcomputer-controlled

washing machines, tumble dryers, and dishwashers with sensor controls.

In 1987 it invented the first ovens with "auto roast" technology

to automatically adjust oven temperature. In 1994 it had the first

vacuum cleaner with the patented "Sealed System" and filter

combination. In 1996 it manufactured the first dishwashers with updatable

wash and dry programs that could wash just two of three levels.

Expansion to the United States had been one of Rudolf Miele’s dreams

ever since his first trip to this country in 1956, when he was a bachelor

and booked round-trip passage on two record-breaking ships, the S.S.

United States and the S.S. America. (Married now, he and his wife

Karin have one 30-year-old son, Marcus, who has just finished his

Ph.D. and is — yes — going into the family business.)

Overall market share in Germany is 15 to 20 percent, depending on

the category, and in the Netherlands it is as high as 25 percent.

But the market is still developing in the United States. Miele opened

a United States headquarters in 1984 and now has regional offices

in Chicago, Boca Raton, San Francisco, Beverly Hills, and soon in

Boston. In the past four years Miele has doubled U.S. sales without

adding markets. The firm has also spread out to 19 European cities,

including Moscow, and to Canada, Melbourne, Tokyo, and Hong Kong.

Worldwide sales are reported to be $2 billion annually.

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Nick Ord

From his vantage point in the third generation, Rudolf Miele can take

the deep-pocketed long view. "Mr. Miele always had this clear

vision of needing to take our time," says Nick Ord, the 40-year-old

president of Miele USA. "In the ’80s people were calling us up,

asking us to sell our product in Florida and California. But he always

said, as if quoting the Frank Sinatra song, `You have to make it in

the New York area, or you can’t make it anywhere.’"

The son of a Royal Air Force officer, Ord had a summer internship

at Miele and was hired right after graduating from the University

of London. When he reported to Miele headquarters in 1982 he found

a big brown box on his desk. In the box, he was told, was "everything

the company knew about the United States." His job was to decide

whether, when, and how the company should expand to the United States.

Two years later, he and two other people unloaded the first box of

vacuum cleaners in Somerset New Jersey. He and his German-born wife,

Gerlinde, have one preschool child and live in Kingston.

A frequent mistake made by European companies is failing to differentiate

between different areas of the United States and aiming to sell the

same way in Maine as in the Midwest. "We try to think locally

and be present locally," says Ord. His next big market is Texas;

he waited to go there because it is potentially the most difficult

market and yet one of the more lucrative. And yes, he’s hired a Texan

to be in charge.

Ord will bring in various groups from among his 950 dealers across

the country to the new building; it doubles as a showroom and training

headquarters. Ord is more than pleased with how the Michael Graves

design turned out. "We had distinctive requirements for the products

we wanted to show and the atmosphere we wanted to create, and the

Graves architects also had distinctive requirements," he says.

"With minor exceptions we were able to agree. The very first meeting

we had about the building, I asked Michael what his priorities would

be, and he said `That the people who work in the building love working


"And last Saturday," says Ord, "I got a voice mail from

an employee saying, `For the first time in my life I wish Sunday were

Monday, because I love to work in that fantastic new building.’ People

are walking around with smiles on their faces."

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Thomas Rowe and Michael Graves

The workers have moved from an ordinary 45,000 square-foot

office/warehouse to a 31,000-foot $7.5 million building designed by

Graves (with Thomas Rowe as the principal architect in charge) and

built by Durell Builders (U.S. 1, December 9, 1998). Warehousing operations

have moved off-site to Exit 10 on the New Jersey Turnpike. Two thirds

of the 80 employees work on the second floor and can look through

glass partitions to a bucolic view, as if they were living in a tree


"This client knew what it wanted — a multifunctional corporate

headquarters," says Rowe, principal architect. A 1985 graduate

of Catholic University who has his graduate degree from Princeton,

he was joined on this project by Mary Yun and Robert Fahr. "Our

task was to decide how much emphasis to devote to the display and

how to integrate that so that you understood the building as a whole

was almost a big house for Miele."

Neoclassical or postmodern structures (more so than modernist big-box

buildings) often feature very prominent entrances, and these 12 two-story

columns, each 20 inches in diameter and sheathed in Prussian blue

metal, are certainly formidable. The original design featured even

higher columns, but negotiations with the township reduced them by

12 feet, and instead of the usual Miele logo (white letters on a red

rectangle) the columns are topped by white cut-out letters edged in

red. "We were able to get a sign four or five times larger than

zoning allowed because the letters were an integrated part of the

architecture and you could see through them," says Rowe.

Rowe explains that, for entrances, Graves architects try to address

different scales. "One scale is the scale of the highway —

the portico columns and the sign on top that you can see at 60 miles

an hour." The next scale, geared to the level of a person on the

sidewalk, represents the size of the doors into the vestibule and

mediates between the outside and the showroom, with its displays of

vacuum cleaners, washing machines, stove tops, and dishwashers.

All of Miele’s showrooms have interior windows resembling an indoor

mall, but this design is different in several ways. For instance,

instead of a flat ceiling, three areas of the ceiling have big recessed

"coffers" that hide lighting, define different areas, and

add architectural interest.

Opening onto the showroom from the left wall are a training room,

and the workers’ dining room, and a demonstration kitchen that an

area chef hopes to rent for cooking classes. To the right is the service

bull pen, from which operators deal with phoned-in service questions.

Strung along the back of the building are the nitty gritty labs that

demonstrate Meile’s line of scientific equipment.

Upstairs is literally another story. "You come up into this large

glass room where you can see everybody," Rowe explains, "and

see over the highway. You have a sense of arrival, and it is a private

place for those who work there on a day to day basis."

The central area is a big glass box — from the blue pillars in

front all the way to the back wall, and everything in between —

the interior — is also glass. So much glass in such an open space

is not the usual Graves style, which leans toward more discrete rooms.

Yet Rowe believes that this area of the building invokes the precision

and high quality design of the appliances, or as he says, "the

clarity of the organization and the clarity of the detailing."

A conference room doubles as a balcony. Located in the center front

of the glass box, it peers over the showroom, ostensibly so that executives

making important decisions will always be reminded of the customers

they are trying to serve.

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Mark Zeller

Here in America the Miele customer is probably not the Sears Roebuck

customer nor the low-priced Hoover customer. Mark Zeller, a salesman

at American Sewing and Vacuum Center at Princeton Shopping Center,

has been selling Miele vacuum cleaners since they came to the United

States. He says his price point for Miele is around $500 versus Hoover

at $200 or $300. Oreck, Electrolux, and Kirby are among the upscale

competitors, "but close to 40 to 50 percent of our canister sales

are Miele," says Zeller.

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Ken Horowitz

When Miele first came to the United States, it rented space at H&H

Gas & Appliances in Windsor so that European-born consumers —

then the only buyers — could find the products on a showroom floor.

"The washer/dryers were absolutely phenomenal," says Ken Horowitz,

46, a second generation family member with H&H. "But back then

we never sold them to anyone who didn’t have an accent. They would

walk past every other model on the floor and pay me $2,500. Not until

I talked to the customers did we get interested and start to really

sell them."

Though Horowitz can now talk about how the Miele frontloading washers

save $125 to $150 on the annual water bill, and that they are kinder

to the clothes, the $1,600 Miele compete with Maytags priced from

$700 to $1,100. Therefore the Miele sales comprise just five to seven

percent of his washer sales overall and 15 to 20 percent of the upscale


In contrast, Miele ovens, ranges, and dishwashers have a better market

position. Often specified by architects, the dishwashers constitute

15 to 20 percent of H&H’s overall sales and 50 to 60 percent of the

expensive models. "They cost double what you would pay for the

top of the line KitchenAid, but they will load up to two times as

much as most machines," says Horowitz. "Those that have a

friend with a Miele dishwasher, they have to have it."

Miele takes pride in its celebrity appliance users: Michael Graves

is in that category. In the early ’90s, so the story goes, he was

perplexed by the directions for a frontloading washer and called the

service department. Recognizing the Graves name, the marketing manager,

Robert Loeffler, motored down to the Graves household to give a tutorial,

with the result that Graves began to barter testimonials in Miele

ads five years before he was chosen to do the headquarters design.

(In exchange for the testimonial, the Miele ads offer a telephone

number to call for Graves’ retail products.)

An unheralded celebrity user is Steve Jobs. In an interview for Wired

magazine a couple of years ago, Jobs waxed enthusiastic about Miele

washing machines, noting that even though they take longer to wash

clothes than their American counterparts, they use a fourth as much

water and treat the clothes more gently. "They are too expensive,"

says Jobs, "but that’s just because nobody buys them in this country.

They are really wonderfully made and one of the few products we’ve

bought over the last few years that we’re all really happy about.

These guys really thought the process through. They did such a great

job designing these washers and dryers. I got more thrill out of them

than I have out of any piece of high tech in years."

"When that story was published," says Horowitz, "all the

techies came in. Man, did that Jobs story boost sales."

Miele USA, 9 Independence Way, Princeton 08540.

Nick Ord, president. 800-843-7231; fax, 609-448-4343. Home page:

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