We want to be the best in sheet metal working. With quality and humanity. Stefanie Schwarz-Keller, Strategic Managing Director of Keller Laser AG

Keller Laser AG: Laser-sharp precision

Balcony railings, cloakroom lockers, coffee machines: Many day-to-day items consist of metal parts that may well have been made in the Rhine valley village of Trimmis, in the canton of Graubünden. Here, Keller Laser AG has processed sheet metal in every conceivable way for more than 20 years. Stefanie Schwarz-Keller is the young woman who recently took charge of the laser beams and flying sparks.

Five laser systems – each as large as the average Swiss living room – form the heart of the company Keller Laser AG. Like a knife through butter, the laser beam cuts the programmed cutouts and cavities into a steel plate. Managing director Stefanie Schwarz-Keller points to one machine: "This system doesn't just cut, it also punches. But we're specialists across the entire metal processing spectrum. As well as lasers and stamping, that means laser marking, edging, flattening, deburring, welding, powder-coating, assembling, and bonding."

"We are a family business and view our employees as members of our extended family." - Stefanie Schwarz-Keller

Managing director in a man's world

Keller Laser's managing director walks purposefully through the plant: She's young, and she's a woman – in an environment that has traditionally been a male domain. But at Keller Laser it's no big deal: "I've been with the company for ten years and took over strategic management on January 1, 2018. Operational management lies with Shkumbin Elshani, who is responsible for the technical decisions. And my mother, Barbara Keller, is our CFO and in charge of finance," explains Stefanie Schwarz-Keller.

Light beams and flying sparks

The route continues through a production hall that is divided into individual rooms by thick, purple-red plastic curtains – there to protect the eyes of employees and visitors from the light beams and flying sparks. Two-thirds of all products produced by Keller Laser are series parts for the machinery and rail vehicle industries, as well as medical technology and appliance manufacturing. One-third is individual orders: "We also produce balcony railings, staircase stringers, company nameplates – the possibilities are endless," says Schwarz-Keller.

At the end of the welding hall, a roller shutter opens as you approach it. The temperatures behind it are markedly higher. On the ceiling there's a rail system, on which metal parts hang from chains using hooks. On one side are the spray booths for powder-coating parts that have not yet been treated. Looking like beekeepers due to their protective clothing, employees push the parts into the booths for spraying. "The color particles adhere to the steel components thanks to electrostatics," the managing director explains. Still hanging up, the coated pieces then go into the large furnaces, where the applied powder is fired at 160 to 220 degrees Celsius and distributed evenly across the metal surfaces.

On her way through the plant, Schwarz-Keller frequently exchanges a few words with the employees; her genuine interest in the people who work here is clear to see.

Big ambitions: Market leader in German-speaking Switzerland

Indeed when asked about what drives her as an entrepreneur, it's the employees she mentions first. "We provide jobs for about 100 people, and being an attractive, stable employer means a lot to me." She's proud of the company's ISO 9001 certificate, awarded in 2008 for its full-service sheet metal working, as well as other certificates for welding and bonding. Says Schwarz-Keller: "Keller Laser AG in Trimmis should be the first thing that springs to mind when you think of metal processing. Within the industry we're currently positioned among the top five in German-speaking Switzerland. Our aim is to be the number one."

A safe start for the firm

The company was founded in 1995 by Schwarz-Keller's parents, Bruno and Barbara Keller. Bruno Keller had previously worked for the Trumpf company, which manufactures the large laser systems currently seen on Keller Laser AG's shop floor. Barbara and Bruno Keller found that almost all machinery was exported and decided to create their own sheet-metal processing operation. So, the couple proceeded to set up the firm with just one employee and one machine. The financial risk was considerable, but the company grew quickly. In 2006, Keller Laser moved into its own operating facility; this was followed in 2011 by an extension, doubling the space.

Stroke was a turning point

Whereas Stefanie Schwarz-Keller's brother had been interested in mechanical engineering from an early age and his professional career was focused on the company, Stefanie Schwarz-Keller did not yet harbor any clear ambition to follow in her parents' footsteps. She, too, nevertheless joined the company and underwent continuous training. "My path was less well sketched out. But my parents roped me in, too, right from the start, and I accompanied my father on client visits. He gave me the space I needed to develop a sense of the world around me," she says. Then six years ago her brother died. "At that point it became clear that responsibility now lay with me," the current managing director recalls. She did, however, take plenty of time to make sure she was making the right decision.

Support from Credit Suisse succession planning specialists

Keller Laser AG began the actual succession process a year ago, because Bruno Keller wanted to step down from the business. "We were basically overwhelmed by it," says Schwarz-Keller, "as my mother explained to our Credit Suisse client advisor." Shortly thereafter, a team of Credit Suisse succession specialists, lawyers, and tax experts visited Keller Laser AG in Trimmis. "They showed us options which we'd never have come up with ourselves. If we hadn't had the specialists from the bank to guide us, we'd still be in the same place today. It meant my father was able to step down on January 1, 2018, and I could take over the helm with my mind at ease," says Schwarz-Keller.

Ready for any eventuality

Order books for the sheet metal processing firm have been at bursting point for months. However, the young Managing Director knows the economic situation can change very quickly. Keller Laser experienced this before, during the 2009 crisis, when the company was forced to bring in short-time working for the first time in its history. But right now that's not the way things are looking, with today's challenges of a different sort: "We have a very low unemployment rate in this district, meaning it's not easy to find qualified personnel," says Schwarz-Keller. Finding suitable space for any expansion of the business is also an issue, she says. Yet behind Keller Laser's production site lies a large, green meadow. Schwarz-Keller gazes toward it: "I can certainly imagine seeing another building with the Keller Laser logo here in a few years' time."