Curiosity and vision creating a future for proven craftsmanship. Eva Jaisli, PB Swiss Tools AG, manufactures precision tools for the whole world.
PB Swiss Tools: Tools with cult status
All over the world people use screwdrivers, hammers, and other tools produced by PB Swiss Tools, even though similar products made by other manufacturers are less expensive. How has an SME that produces its entire output in the Emmental region achieved this feat for decades?
There's one in almost every tool box in Switzerland – a screwdriver with the familiar transparent red handle. The words "PB Swiss Tools" and the serial number are stamped on it in small white print – or the previous company name "Paul Baumann" if the screwdriver dates from before 2006, which is quite possible because the company stands for top quality.
Screwdrivers are the best-selling products
CEO Eva Jaisli walks through one of the production halls in Wasen in Emmental: Blue machines and robots, precisely aligned alongside each other, produce metal shafts in different thicknesses and lengths. It's warm and there's a smell of motor oil and metal in the air. The boss says a friendly hello to every employee she meets, greeting them by name. "Of all the tools we produce, the screwdrivers have been the uncontested best-selling item for around 70 years," she says, looking at the shafts, and adds: "They're not only available in red at the moment, but also in various materials and colors."
Textbooks from the US
These days, the family firm has 180 employees. Founded as a forge in 1878, the company underwent its first big growth spurt during the Second World War: The borders were closed and good tools were in great demand in Switzerland. Paul Baumann, the father of Jaisli's husband, grasped the opportunity. "My father-in-law's ambition was to develop his area of expertise. He was fascinated by mass production in the US. He ordered the relevant textbooks from the US, and had them translated by the village schoolteacher because he didn't speak English," says Jaisli.
Shortly afterwards, the family firm started industrial batch production; in 1982, PB Swiss Tools was the first company in the Canton of Bern to use industrial robots, and the fourth company in Switzerland as a whole.
Always one step ahead
When you meet Eva Jaisli, the question as to why she and not her husband Max Baumann is the company's CEO almost answers itself: She clearly shares her father-in-law's pioneering spirit. Nevertheless, she responds patiently to a question she is frequently asked: "As an engineer and developer, my husband works in the company as the CTO. I specialized in organizational development and international marketing, among other things, and, combined with my experience in corporate management, I had the ideal qualifications for the role of CEO."
Pioneering spirit and innovativeness are crucial for a company that manufactures all its products in Switzerland, but exports 72 percent of its output, because the global market for tools is tough. "People are always copying us. It's not worth having our ideas and products protected with patents because we would be involved in endless litigation. It's better to put this energy into new innovations and position ourselves as trendsetters in the market," says Jaisli with a shrug of her shoulders: "We always have to be one step ahead of our competitors."
New ideas for established products
The company is prepared to pay to keep one step ahead: A quarter of the workforce is employed in innovation and development. This is where new and improved ideas come into being, but it's also where existing systems are fine-tuned. "Our brand-name products are never invented in their finished state," says Jaisli. The 70-year-old screwdriver is the best example of this. "The hand tools and medical screwdrivers must be easy to hold, even if your hand is wet or oily. The shaft must be neither too soft nor too hard, and it must fit perfectly into the screws," Jaisli explains. The most modern tools and instruments for screwing even have built-in mechanical or electronic components, meaning that they can be used with exactly the right torque. Since 1953, the screwdriver handles have been made of cellulose acetate butyrate (CAB for short). "CAB is a material developed from cellulose. For us, that was an important step towards sustainability," the CEO explains.
Entering a new market
PB Swiss Tools took a big step toward greater innovation and diversification a few years ago when it entered the medical technology market. "We produce medical instruments for traumatologists and orthopedists to remove implant screws from bones. On the long road to the new product, the Emmental developers had numerous discussions with doctors and implant manufacturers. The most common screws can be efficiently loosened so that implants can be safely removed," Jaisli explains.
Credit Suisse as a sparring partner
Eva Jaisli is just as precise as her tools – or at least this is what her nuanced choice of words suggests. When asked about this, she replies: "Too much precision can be a risk in day-to-day business. With some decisions, you must be prepared to accept a degree of uncertainty, otherwise you find you are lagging behind developments." In such cases, Jaisli also picks up the phone to exchange ideas with her relationship manager at the bank: "Time and again in recent years, there have been situations in which Credit Suisse gave us information we didn't have. It was often about currencies and the associated hedging, because 50 percent of our revenue is in euros; that's why such matters are of vital importance to us."
Next succession on the horizon
Credit Suisse also assisted with the management buyout a good 20 years ago when Jaisli joined the company: "I recently turned 60 – succession management is an issue again," she says with a smile. With four adult children supporting the ownership strategy, there's a good chance that PB Swiss Tools will remain an autonomous family business.
Vocational training and agility
The entrepreneur believes that the company will continue to be located in the Emmental region. "The necessary environment for continuing to develop our competitiveness in terms of universities, universities of applied sciences, and vocational training exists at a high level in Switzerland. We have been investing in professional development for 140 years. But at the same time, we need to remain very agile and travel away from the narrow Emme valley to our clients worldwide. We want to understand clients' preferences so that we can offer innovative new solutions," the entrepreneur explains – the core skills for competitive solutions are certainly available.
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