Corrections or additions?
This article by Barbara Fox was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 19, 1999.
All rights reserved.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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."
Nick Ord, president. 800-843-7231; fax, 609-448-4343. Home page:
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.