Katharina Lehmann Chairman of the Board of Directors Blumer-Lehmann AG CS Entrepreneur Success Story

Blumer-Lehmann AG: On the Way to the Top

Until a few years ago, its timber constructions would have been considered technically impossible. But through a great deal of courage and intellect, Blumer-Lehmann AG in Eastern Switzerland has reached the summit in the world of timber architecture. And Katharina Lehmann, President of the Board of Directors, is not resting on her laurels.

At the Lehmann Group site in Gossau in the Swiss canton of St. Gallen, rows of long, neatly sawn planks of timber are piled up between the numerous buildings and warehouses. Geese are chattering away on a small green and there is a scent of sawdust in the air. Katharina Lehmann crosses the site with purpose, greeting employees warmly as she goes. The Erlenhof plant employs 260 people, and everyone knows each other. Passing her former childhood home – which nowadays serves as a cafeteria – the entrepreneur enters a building that is taken up almost entirely by a huge CNC machine. Sawdust immediately gathers on the sleeves of her elegant black trench coat. She brushes it away without looking. 

As designed by famous architect Sir Norman Foster: The impressive timber grandstand at Hotel Kulm in St.Moritz was developed in conjunction with the renovation of the ice pavilion. 

Utilizing the Value Chain

“The sawdust and wood shavings are later turned into wooden pellets. This forms part of our sustainable approach,” explains Katharina Lehmann. It is not so much the wooden pellets, briquettes, and chippings that have brought her company international acclaim, but rather the imposing, organically formed timber constructions created by famous architects like Herzog&de Meuron and Shigeru Ban. Nevertheless, the first thing this entrepreneur mentions is the products produced from scrap wood: “Wood is able to grow back, so it embodies the concept of sustainability. We maintain this sustainable approach by putting all parts of the wood to further use in a complete cycle. Our wood chip power plant at the end of the value chain supplies sufficient power to the local electricity grid to offset our energy footprint.” One of the company’s driving forces is to take an ecological approach to handling its timber resources. But it is just as important to achieve the highest possible degree of added value. “The competition is merciless when it comes to mass-produced goods. We, on the other hand, produce and utilize as many products as possible on the site, so there are no transportation costs. This is what keeps us competitive in these areas,” says the entrepreneur.

There are always those moments when we are being pushed to the limit and I ask myself: Will it all work out?

Free Forms – Pioneering Work in Korea

The construction of an elegant golf club house in South Korea – designed by the famous Japanese architect Shigeru Ban – catapulted the Swiss SME onto the international stage in 2010. The main building at the exclusive golf club consists of a high space with a roof supported by a timber construction that is reminiscent of both a Gothic columned hall and a sparse forest. The timber pillars reach upwards where delicate beams, almost like the veins of a leaf, are interwoven high above. Depending on the angle of view, you can make out stars in the network that they form. Architect Shigeru Ban was looking for a timber manufacturer that was able to put his ideas into practice.

Moscow, Seoul, or Oslo: The employees value the variety that international sites bring. This picture shows the construction of a picnic pavilion in Cleveland, Ohio.

The Swiss company Blumer-Lehmann AG was recommended to him: “Not that we had ever produced anything of its kind before. And I don’t know of any competitors who had already had experience of this at the time either, but we were known for being able to manage complex projects by working with our network,” recalls Katharina Lehmann. Blumer Lehmann AG accepted the order in June and the entrepreneur knew that the construction would have to be completed by the end of February. In the meantime, the company would have to purchase a new CNC machine, construct a building for the machine, and produce parts that the company had never produced before. This was followed by two months of sea transportation and then the construction itself in Korea. “It wasn’t the only time that I have had sleepless nights before making a big decision. But once I’ve made a decision, I don’t look back,” says Katharina Lehmann, before adding: “We didn’t buy the machine for this project alone. We believed that it would help us to develop.”

Responsibility and Ambition

After pioneering “free forms,” as the asymmetric organic wooden structures are known, the company has now become a specialist in this field. Over the last few years, Blumer-Lehmann AG’s constructions have included the Tamedia building in Zurich – again designed by Shigeru Ban – as well as the new opera house in Kristiansand, Norway, and recently the Chäserrugg summit building for Toggenburg Bergbahnen, which was designed by Herzog&de Meuron and is also featured in this issue. Blumer-Lehmann AG’s current projects include the grandstand for Hotel Kulm in St. Moritz, a mosque in Cambridge, the Swiss Embassy in Moscow, and the new Swatch building in Bienne – all highly complex constructions. In the last few years, risk has become Katharina Lehmann’s constant companion: “There are always those moments when we are being pushed to the limit and I ask myself: Will it all work out? And when there are delays, will our banking partner’s patience hold out for a few more months?” explains Katharina Lehmann. For one of its current orders, Blumer-Lehmann AG needed a new CNC machine and a new building to house it. The entrepreneur deliberated for some time about how to finance this large investment. She eventually decided on a leasing solution from Credit Suisse after the bank had presented her with a very attractive offer. She explains: “When our client advisor made this proposal to me, I still wasn’t sure whether we would receive the order that we needed the machine for. But Credit Suisse had a real understanding of the issue. They understood what our position was, and that if we didn’t use the machine now then we would use it for the next order – and that it would help us take the next step in our development.”

Her most amazing troubleshooters are her general managers, sales team, and project managers, says Katharina Lehmann. Most of them originally completed an apprenticeship in carpentry and then undertook further training in engineering, architecture, or IT. 

Zeitgeist and New Job Descriptions

But acquiring a complex machine did not mean that the hard work was over. Free-form architecture is characterized by organic, symmetrical structures like those at the club house in South Korea. Recently, the company has also developed completely asymmetric structures, such as the new shopping area at  Oslo Airport. This consists of five pavilions that look like a gentle, hilly landscape when viewed from above. Each component of the construction is customized in terms of its dimensions. “We draw a close link between design, production, logistics, and assembly, but that’s nothing new in the field of timber construction,” explains Katharina Lehmann and adds: “We are also very far advanced in relation to digitalization in our profession. We have been working with CAD-CAM for decades.” However, what is new are the job descriptions created by working with free forms. “There is no training available anywhere for the skills we need, which is a mix of architecture, IT, and practical carpentry. We have some real experts here who have acquired this knowledge themselves,” states the entrepreneur proudly. She adds: “For certain projects, we bring in experts who have specific knowledge that we just don’t have ourselves. This is in keeping with the zeitgeist; that’s how we work nowadays.”

Taking Real Responsibility

Always setting herself new challenges has been a constant theme of Katharina Lehmann’s personal career path. Now aged 45, Katharina was just 24 years old when her father had to give up the reins of the company from one day to the next for health reasons. A student at the University of St.Gallen at the time, Katharina became the fifth generation of her family to manage the company, and completed her studies while running the company. Nowadays, this is all ancient history to her. And she finds any questions about her being a woman in a man’s world to be totally unnecessary. There is something else she prefers to emphasize: “To be allowed to take on real responsibility at an early stage in one’s life is tremendously valuable. You have a lot of energy and are open to new things. Today, when I see 40-year-old juniors who aren’t able to take on any responsibility in a company, it makes me uncomfortable.” In her own company, she tries to involve her employees wherever possible, and she stresses: “It’s about taking real responsibility. This means that I don’t check at the end how a problem has been solved. This is the only way the team can grow.” She views her greatest personal responsibility as being toward her employees. This becomes clear when talking to her: “I like people and I trust them. Safeguarding jobs is the focus of every decision I make,” she explains. When making strategic decisions, she turns to the Board of Directors, whose members she describes as critical, professional, and impartial: “I need them to challenge me. It shouldn’t be a nice chat over coffee, even if it can sometimes be tough.”

Snapshot of Success

The experience it has gained over recent years through its innovative work gives Blumer-Lehmann AG an advantage over the competition. But Katharina Lehmann is aware that the industry never sleeps. “As a Swiss company, we always find that we are too expensive. And whenever we feel that we are attractive at an international level from a price perspective, along comes a currency crisis and we are back to square one,” says Katharina Lehmann. In silo construction, another of the family group’s business areas, the company has managed to use batch production to keep costs low enough to make it competitive internationally. Even when it comes to the free forms – where Blumer-Lehmann AG occupies pole position through its expertise – price pressure is so great that the company often partners with foreign suppliers instead of considering Swiss companies. This is the case for steel connecting parts, for example. Katharina Lehmann walks back to the cafeteria building a little more slowly than before. She stops for a moment by the geese on the green, and says: “We’ve always had geese here. My father still comes every day to feed them and let them into the pen in the evening before the fox comes. For me, and probably most people here, the animals give a feeling of continuity. Especially when you come back from an international construction site, it really hits you. At the same time, it’s obviously an incredible feeling to see how our timber from Eastern Switzerland is being used to build unique structures in Moscow, Korea, and Oslo. “But success is very fleeting. It is a snapshot. As an entrepreneur, I am always conscious of that fact.”

Success is very fleeting. It is a snapshot. As an entrepreneur, I am always conscious of that fact.