Family tradition creating a successful company out of thin air and passion. Tobias and Christoph Meyer, Seven-Air Gebr. Meyer AG, produce top-class ventilation systems.
Seven-Air: Seven ways of handling air
For over 30 years, the family firm Seven-Air has been the market leader for ventilation systems in Switzerland. Brothers Christoph and Tobias Meyer talk about their strategy, the beginning of innovation, and timing a market entry perfectly.
The Prime Tower in Zurich, the Lucerne Culture and Convention Center (KKL), and the Monte Rosa hut in Zermatt. What do the three prestigious buildings have in common? Fresh air from Seven-Air systems circulates in them. "Our equipment is not seen by visitors, residents, and guests of the buildings, because most of the time, it's located in the basement," said Christoph Meyer, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Seven-Air Gebr. Meyer AG, the full name of the company. His brother Tobias, the company's CEO, added: "In 2018, we won the Prix SVC at the KKL in Lucerne. This award led to many people becoming consciously aware of us and our sector for the first time. As we talked on stage, they were astonished to learn that ventilation slots were located beneath every seat at the KKL."
Market leader since 1985
But in the construction and ventilation sector, Seven-Air's green-colored systems are anything but unfamiliar. Since 1985, the sector-leading SME based in Lucerne has defended its position as market leader in Switzerland and today has 400 employees. What are the secrets behind Seven-Air's success? "Ever since our father founded the company in 1971, we have had an excellent product, which we constantly improve and develop further. It's like the Rolls-Royce of ventilation systems," replied Christoph Meyer. "But not as expensive," his brother added dryly.
Communicating without words
Referring to their functions and cooperation, the brothers jokingly call themselves the interior and foreign ministers. Christoph Meyer is responsible for the interior as Chairman of the Board of Directors, while CEO Tobias Meyer is responsible for foreign matters. They have been leading the business together since 2004. "We know each other so well that sometimes we don't even have to look at each other in meetings to know what the other one's thinking," said the CEO. “Naturally there are situations when we don’t agree with one another. But we always find a solution after half an hour at the latest,” his brother added. Tobias Meyer nodded and summarized: “As heads of a family firm, we have an obligation to our family; we greatly respect that.” The heads of Seven Air agree that family-led companies are better than management-led companies, and Tobias Meyer explained: “We never accept losing a contract. In the rare case that we do lose one, we meticulously analyze why down to the last detail.”
Strategy: Everything from one source
There are seven ways Seven-Air's systems handle air: filtering, heating, cooling, circulating, humidifying, dehumidifying, or recovering energy. "Our strategy is to provide everything from one source and to also manufacture it all ourselves. It's the only way we remain in complete control of the quality," explained Tobias Meyer. Even the metal housing of the equipment, including powder coating, is produced at Seven-Air production facilities in the Hitzkirch municipality of Lucerne. Because these sheet-metal processing systems are very expensive, it has resulted in a new area of business: Seven-Air processes orders for third parties as well. "This allows us to make more use of the machines, pay them off faster, and be more competitive when compared to foreign providers," said Christoph Meyer.
Seeing potential for innovation
When their father acquired the powder-coating system in the 1990s, he refused to operate it as described by the manufacturer. Tobias Meyer explained, "The powder applied to the sheet metal is burned in at 200 degrees Celsius in an oven. According to the manufacturer, this energy would then be released, unused. Our father didn't see the point of this. Using our own equipment, we developed a system to draw off the heat. We use it to warm the service water and heat the entire facility." Nowadays, the two brothers still shake their head when they consider the energy that would have been wasted. Christoph Meyer summed it up: "With an additional investment of CHF 300,000, which was paid off after only two years, we have saved 900,000 kilowatt hours of power per year since then."
Better – or just as good, and cheaper
To ensure that heat does not escape during the various processes, the equipment must be perfectly insulated. "We developed an insulating foam, which performs almost 40% better energetically when compared to mineral wool. Furthermore, it is much denser, it takes up less space, it’s more stable, it's not respirable, and at the end, it can be disposed of as usual – in the refuse incinerator."
The brothers get their inspiration from discussions with clients and visits to trade fairs. Once an idea exists, it will be researched and tested. "We bring new developments to the market, but only if we are significantly better or just as good as and cheaper than our competitors," said Christoph Meyer.
Potential for take-off
The SME is currently researching a project that could really "take off" – special air conditioning equipment for airplanes, to be used on the ground between landing and the next flight, are in development: At most airports, the aircraft must keep one of the engines running in order to operate the air conditioning system. This results in CO2 and noise emissions. The company developed a system for Zurich airport decades ago that is connected to the aircraft on the ground. "This allows 90% fewer CO2 emissions to be produced at Zurich than at other airports," explained Tobias Meyer. Seven-Air is now collaborating with another Swiss company on a project to be able to offer such solutions worldwide. Tests and negotiations are already underway at the world's largest airports.
No time for unnecessary bureaucracy
"For projects of this magnitude, we sometimes need borrowed capital, even if otherwise we always finance everything ourselves," said Christoph Meyer. For as long as the brothers can remember, the family firm has been a client of Credit Suisse. "We value the personal connection and straightforwardness when dealing with our bank. We don't have time for unnecessary bureaucracy. For example: To get financing, we presented our plans to two banks. We gave the advisors 20 minutes and then came back. Credit Suisse's advisors sat there and nodded as we came in. The other bank asked for a bunch of other documentation, a business plan and so on," reported Christoph Meyer, and his brother continued:
"If someone looks at our results from the last 30 years, a lot should be clear to them right away. Credit Suisse understood this immediately, and we appreciate that."
The brothers exchanged a look and Tobias Meyer continued: "In these situations, our father always said, 'Business plan? I've got it all up here!'" and tapped his forehead with a chuckle. Becoming serious again, he continued: "I imagine it would be quite challenging as a bank to be able to read the variety of entrepreneurs, because that's what it's all about in the end. Precisely because the bank too bears a certain amount of risk. Credit Suisse leaves us with this message: We trust you."
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