Piega SA: Hitting the High Notes
For nearly three decades, Piega has been manufacturing loudspeakers on Lake Zurich that are nearly unmatched around the globe. How a passion for good music built a company with Swiss precision that stands up to the strong franc.
Tiny waves lap against the walls of the factory building on Lake Zurich in Horgen. As he often does in the early mornings Kurt Scheuch sits on the dock looking at the lake and the Glarus Alps while he has his first cup of coffee. It’s relaxing to sit here as long as there are no trains passing directly behind the building to disturb the peace and quiet. Quiet tones are Kurt Scheuch’s passion so are the loud ones as long as they are crystal clear. His business partner Leo Greiner feels the same way. It was the love of good music that brought them together 28 years ago to start producing Piega speakers. Both men had built speakers on their own prior to this and sold them to friends and acquaintances. Leo Greiner says: “We knew each other casually. Kurt Scheuch was known for his good speakers and I was known for my stylish speakers.” “Why don’t you go professional with it?” asked their friend Christian Schmid who was to become the third founding partner and co-owner of Piega. Greiner loved the idea but they had no money. That was no problem Schmid answered surprising even himself. His father worked for the Swiss Volksbank with startups and on May 1, 1987, the two men set up shop in Greiner’s basement. Three years later they moved into their current headquarters by the lake and soon they were independent from the bank with no need for any more loans. Greiner explains further: “Today we have a warehouse with 300 pallets stacked 20 meters high. We own every screw outright. Financial specialists advised us against this but we think it’s perfect for us. We feel comfortable.” Scheuch adds: “We always had reserves never bought a helicopter and never lived beyond our means that’s why we’re doing so well now.” When asked about the euro crisis Piega’s founders answer in unison that while it’s an important topic for them because forty percent of their products are exported primarily to Germany it’s never been a matter of life or death. The primary concern about the euro was not so much a drop in sales – there wasn’t one – but about Swiss customers who felt insulted by having to pay more than German customers. For this reason the Swiss prices were lowered by 15 percent.
Tweeter Ribbons – the Heart of the Company
There’s a simple reason that Piega remains unscathed by the economic ups and downs: Its speakers are simply among the best in the world. So what makes Piega speakers different from the competitors? “Primarily it’s the tweeter ribbonswhich are the heart of Piega speakers” explains Scheuch. Conventional speakers have a membrane in the cone that produces noise from vibrations. Piega’s ribbon system produces sound with an ultra-thin aluminum foil that is about 50 times lighter than conventional tweeter membranes so it starts to vibrate much more quickly. Greiner offers a comparison: “Imagine a 40-ton tractor-trailer with 100 horsepower. It would take forever to get to 100 kilometers an hourbut a small car with 100 horsepower would reach 100 kilometers an hour in just a few seconds.” Only two of the 20 employees have the right touch for handling the ultra-thin aluminum foil which is first etched with a flat coil in the Netherlands using a spraying process. “When I had this idea 20 years ago Leo and I traveled to Holland to meet with Philips and were shocked at the reception we got. We were standing there in our sneakers with eleven men wearing pinstripe suits in the VIP lounge of the company’s own football stadium” says Kurt Scheuch. What they wanted didn’t exist. However a few months later Philips made the idea a reality and Piega’s luxury tweeter ribbons were nearly on their way. Another key component of a loudspeaker is the drive which is made of magnets. Piega uses a neodymium alloy which is one of the strongest. Greiner says the magnets are so strong that “sometimes people walk by one of our speakers with their keys in their pocket and whoosh! The keys are stuck to the speaker.”
Top Quality for Stability
The employees have grown used to the unusual material and keep their watches mobile phones and credit cards at a safe distance. Of course this is to protect their own property but also because the careful handling of such costly materials has become second nature to them. “Not only does the sound of our speakers need to be perfect so does the appearance because we deliver to countries with a keen sense of quality” says Greiner. However customers around the world are happy to pay a premium for this combination of precise Swiss technology and timeless design. Apart from Switzerland and Germany, Holland, Belgium, Denmark, and Austria are key markets as are Japan, Russia, and China. Piega is seeing heavy growth overseas at the moment thanks to Manuel Greiner Greiner’s oldest son. Both of his sons have been working with the company for a number of years so that they can gradually take over the management. The new generation has the same mission that Leo Greiner and Kurt Scheuch had 30 years ago: to make listening to music better and better for their customers and themselves. “Last year I came through a police checkpoint” says Scheuch. “I rolled down the window said hello and the policeman responded ’You make great loudspeakers Mr. Scheuch – really excellent – you can keep going.’ And that is exactly what we are doing.”