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Digitalising the trades

Painter, baker and cabinet maker: three skilled trades, three pioneers.

Volker Geyer, master painter, leaves the painting to other people

Volker Geyer, a master painter and decorator, had just uploaded a photograph to Instagram showing one of his employees applying a smooth render finish to a pillar when a customer texted via WhatsApp, wanting to know whether the pillars were metal. Geyer confirmed they were and received a new order that very day: to render not just a few pillars but an entire spa zone, a contract worth about €10,000.

Nowadays, Geyer makes about 80% of his turnover on contracts awarded over the internet: through his Facebook page, which has drawn more than 27,500 people; through his blog, which gets 10,000 hits a day; through his newsletter, which goes to 10,000 subscribers; and through Google, where the 59-year-old is high in listings for search terms such as “decorative concrete” and “lime render”. It is something he has worked very hard for and now he spends little time on construction sites – life centres around search engine optimisation and online marketing.

This makes Geyer something of an exception in his industry: many tradesmen are making heavy weather of digitalisation. In a survey carried out by the digital industry association Bitkom and the German skilled trades association ZDH, most businesses said they were open to using digital technologies, but only a few actually did so. And more than half saw digitalisation as a major challenge.

For Geyer, it means more freedom. Last winter, he spent six weeks in Barcelona while his business carried on uninterrupted. Contracts are often awarded without visits to customers. When Geyer is approached for a estimate, he asks for a photograph of the space or a floor plan. Depending what customers want, he sends them links to relevant blog entries and videos. If the contract is awarded, the work is carried out by one of his five employees.

He never actually wanted to become a painter, he explains. “I’m an aesthete, really.” At 17, however, he was thrown out of high school and started working in the family business. Within two weeks he realised that he was not made for painting; he preferred to be the boss, like his father. By the time he was 22, he was. With hindsight, Geyer believes the firm’s bankruptcy in 1998 was in fact an opportunity for reorientation. “I knew there were better painters around than me, but not many good strategists among the painters.” He trained in marketing, got a degree by correspondence course, and made a fresh start in 2005.

He called his company Malerische Wohnideen (Picturesque Home Ideas). He was not interested in customers who just wanted white walls and who had found him by googling “painter in Wiesbaden”. Geyer wanted customers with special design requirements, attracted by his new website.

That was the beginning of his online activities. Today, the painter writes a blog several times a week about experiences at work, about the advantages of textured concrete or even restaurant recommendations in Barcelona. “It is important that you always tell a story, even if you are actually writing about a wall.” He devotes at least two hours a day to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Geyer is amazed that there are still tradesmen who do not even have a website.

Stefan Dümig is another entrepreneur for whom this is unthinkable: the 54-year-old baker even sells his spelt specialities on the internet. Pre-baked and shrink-wrapped while still hot, they remain fresh and sterile for several days; customers can finish baking them in their own oven at home or freeze them.

Dümig’s spelt bakery receives orders from all over Germany. Many customers find him on Google, for example, when they turn to spelt because of a wheat intolerance or some other allergy. Online sales currently only account for 1%- 2% of his turnover. “But I see incredible potential there,” says Dümig.

He is the third generation to be running the family bakery, which was established in 1930. Three branches in the Bavarian towns of Haar, Ottobrunn and Vaterstetten now employ a workforce of 43. Their boss is a technology fan who likes trying out new things. So the bakery communicates with its customers via Facebook, introduces new products on Twitter and has its own app to post news. There’s free Wi-Fi in the shops for customers, and screens suspended from the ceilings show the production of plum slices or Easter loaves in the bakehouse. Dümig shoots and edits the videos himself. “Nowadays, it is no longer enough to be good,” he says. “Lots of bakers are good. As a business, you also have to show that you are modern and innovative.”

Offline presentation – Volker Geyer in his showroom

Networking the bakery

Since the 1990s, Dümig has dreamed of networking the bakery online. This year, he came a step closer: customers at the three branches now pay using a digital cash register, notes on the right and coins on the left. Reckoning up now takes care of itself, but more importantly it is part of a network of devices, all communicating with one another. When Dümig comes up with a new spelt recipe in his office, the till automatically displays its ingredients; the recipe itself is sent to the computer in the bakehouse. The scales then request the ingredients, one by one, and will only move on from the flour to the salt once the right amount has been added. The kneading machine in turn only starts up once all the ingredients have been weighed and the water, having reached the right temperature, has been added to the dough. Only then do the bakers themselves take over – all the dough is processed by hand.

Dümig says his employees are happy to get help from machines in the bakery for routine tasks but he admits there were difficulties to begin with. “But everyone very soon realised that this would make life easier for them.” The aim is not to make the whole process automatic, says Dümig. “But, of course, I am always on the lookout for machines that can do something just as well as human beings – or even better.”

A study by Oxford University in 2013 examined the extent to which different skilled trades might be automated in the future; in the case of bakeries, it was almost 90%. Already, machines can carry out almost all of the tasks performed by a baker and artisanal businesses are increasingly being displaced by cheaper chains and bread factories as a result.

Dümig is not worried about the future of his skill, yet he realises that the craft of baking will change. He predicts that the demand for big producers and specialists will continue, “but the middle ground will become extinct”.

Alf Nagel has already seen one colleague after another give up. In the 1970s he started building bespoke wooden loft beds and installing them in flats in refurbished old buildings in West Berlin. A trained timber merchant, he originally just wanted to use a hobby to pay for his business administration degree, part of an adult education programme. But demand for the “King of Loft Beds” became so overwhelming that Nagel opened a shop in 1984 and started designing tables, shelves and cupboards too.

Back then, Nagel recalls, Berlin was full of small workshops and furniture shops like his. Most of them have closed down over the years, he says, choked by online business and Ikea.

However, his business, Holzconnection, still exists 33 years later – and now has 18 branches throughout Germany. This is partly due to the radical transformation that the company prescribed itself. Nagel’s son Denys had a role in this: as a boy he used to supplement his pocket money by doing small carpentry jobs for this father, and in 2007, having just finished high school, he had an idea: to put Holzconnection on the internet. “Back then, everyone said, ‘no one is going to buy furniture worth €1,500 online’,” Denys Nagel recalls. In the first month, sales topped €50,000.

These days, Holzconnection makes between a quarter and a third of its turnover – now almost €20m a year – via the internet. Instead of putting ads in local magazines and papers, the company has for some years concentrated on online advertising. Targeting local Facebook users was particularly effective: the ads addressed users living near the shops, which suddenly recorded 30% more visitors. Sales quickly grew by 25%.

Holzconnection describes itself as practising Carpentry 2.0. Before buying a set of shelves, customers can see what they will look like in their home, either using a virtual reality app or a 3D animation. The finished draft is then sent to one of the cooperating workshops, where all the machines are interconnected. In future, customers will be able to monitor in real time whether their new table is being jointed or drilled.

Word of the father-and-son business success story got around, eventually reaching California, where Facebook employees drew the attention of their boss, Sheryl Sandberg, to Holzconnection. Several meetings followed and in January Sandberg came to Berlin. Alf Nagel still goes into raptures when talking about the visit from the “internet goddess”. His son is very enthusiastic about the possibilities offered by the platform. He is now on Facebook’s advisory council for small and medium enterprises – an important clientele for social networks because digitisation is often still in its early stages there.

The digital transformation has also changed the way Holzconnection communicates with customers. The Nagels agree that it is important to respond to inquiries as quickly as possible. A digital assistant is to be launched soon to handle customers until a human sales assistant can take over.

Many of Holzconnection’s customers visit the shops for advice but end up ordering online. Because of this, the high street sales assistants get a share of the commission for online orders – assigned to the branch closest to the customer’s home. In the long term, says Nagel Sr, the shops will be primarily showrooms.

Geyer opened a home design showroom in Wiesbaden half a year ago, so people can see the advantages of jointless floor coverings, bespoke wallpaper or outdoor carpeting. The inquiries he receives now come from far further afield than the local Rhine-Main region and have long exceeded his own capacity. He has therefore developed a franchise model for painting businesses that work on similar lines to his but lack the marketing skills. Geyer provides the knowhow and the platform, and in return makes money on contracts awarded in Hamburg or Regensburg. Meanwhile, he has 18 franchisees in Germany, Austria, Luxembourg and Switzerland, with a new one being added every month.

The master painter-decorator himself hasn’t wielded a brush for years: “I don't miss it at all.”