Hidden champion. When you dive, you need air - clean and safe. The compressor manufacturer Bauer from Munich is regarded as the market leader and industry ace. A third generation woman guides him through an increasingly hostile environment.
The hole in the ice has a diameter of just one meter and a thickness of one and a half meters. Underneath: 4000 meters of ocean. Water temperature minus 1.8 degrees, outside temperature minus 30. Ulrich Freier, secured with a rope, wears a special suit, a face mask with two breathing connections, the diving bottle on his back, the plankton pump in his hand, optionally the film camera. Now he dives in, sees the crazy formed ice landscape from below, the spherical light, sees the krill: clouds of tiny cancer living beings, food for seals and whales and reason for all the effort that is done here.
Winter in Antarctica. A team of 50 researchers on a mission lasting several weeks on the subject of climate change and the food chain. On the aft deck of the "Polarstern", their icebreaker, are the Bauer compressors. They fill the divers' tanks with air, compressed to 300 bar. Very dry air so that the regulators do not freeze in this cold. Very clean air anyway: Carbon monoxide from the ship's propulsion must not get lost in the cylinder filling, and if it does, the compressor must switch off immediately.
"We regularly spend two to three months in an area that is actually not accessible, inside a gigantic ocean current, under extreme conditions," said Freier, 55, a biologist with a doctorate. "The compressors must be extremely reliable and offer excellent filter technology. Bauer is the world's leading supplier, and for a long time nothing has come after Bauer in competition."
Freier, who has already given a lecture on climate change at the company's Geretsried site in Upper Bavaria, praises the Bauer compressors not only because they are tailor-made for his mission and free of charge - after all, his tests under extreme conditions are good advertising for the company and also an expression of its commitment to the oceans.
Bauer is one of those technology-driven, early globalized middle-class champions who adorn the land of engineers. 280 million Euro group turnover, 1200 employees, world market leader for diving compressors with almost 70 percent market share and also otherwise in the compressor business in its performance class depending upon industry number one to three. A family business like a picture book, at the same time conservative and innovative, with a lot of we-feeling in the workforce, as the company motto "Quality. Our DNA".
In the world around it: growing competition from the Far East, political crises, the rule of algorithms. The difficulty: a large, complex product portfolio for a wide variety of industries, assembly line production alongside plant construction, major customers alongside very small ones. Not trivial either: the battle for the best employees, the most talented engineers and workers.
The third generation must manage the rapid change. After Hans Bauer, the founder, and Heinz Bauer, the charismatic senior boss, the company is now run by a woman.
Monika Bayat, born Bauer, 48, has a doctorate in art history, but she also studied business administration. She also married an engineer with IT experience: Philipp Bayat, 57. Above all, however, she had a typical entrepreneurial childhood: company questions at the breakfast table, shaking hands at the Christmas party, holiday job, internship.
Monika Bayat initially accompanied her father on business trips. In 2002 she started as his right hand in the company. Nevertheless, there was a certain scepticism about the approach to the entrepreneurial role. "I've seen from childhood how my father's life is dominated by his work," she says. There was also a lack of encouraging role models: "Women as entrepreneurs and perhaps at the same time as mothers are few and far between in mechanical engineering".
Nevertheless, she took the step after her doctorate. One couldn't go without the other, that was the condition. Those who want to make a profit in the family must also work for it: "The role of the pure partner was not intended for us children," Bayat said.
In the meantime she herself has three children and can read in the rich list of the "Manager Magazin" how wealthy she is. Father Heinz, 78, who took over the company from his father in the 1970s, handed it over to him in 2012. The senior is still constantly on the road in the factory and will probably not let it go as long as he is healthy. However, the daughter and her husband are responsible for managing the holding company.
Both praise Heinz Bauer: "My father is very diplomatic and still a strong source of ideas," says his daughter. "All three of us have a good, harmonious relationship." And her husband, responsible for control and sales at the company, agrees: "I have great respect for my father-in-law. That he won't talk us into it is actually atypical for such a thoroughbred entrepreneur. And that he gave up 100 percent of the shares in one fell swoop - respect."
Monika Bayat has chosen finance and marketing as her sphere of activity, and an Art Nouveau villa on the banks of the Isar in Munich as her office.
In a white costume, the businesswoman receives the guests at a very spacious meeting table under a coat-of-arms ceiling.
Aesthetics also seem important to her in the work outside in Geretsried. The canteen is designed by the Munich interior designer Design-Funktion: with hip furniture, sound insulation and discreet lighting. On the wall a picture of the senior boss, ingeniously assembled from tiny portraits of the employees. In the separate guest area there is an oversized photo of the entrepreneur couple with father.
As we walk through production, it becomes clear that Bauer does almost everything itself - a highly integrated company.
"This is the only way we can control product quality and ensure satisfactory production tolerances," says Monika Bayat. "Manufacturing technology is a core competence for us," Philipp Bayat quotes his father-in-law. Only in this way, there is no doubt for the entrepreneur couple that the high reliability of their own products is possible.
In the metalworking department of the in-house supplier "Uniccomp", the finest milled compressor blocks are produced in various sizes. Then comes the hall for the production of piston compressors: assembly, testing, storage. There's a lot of manual work, some production islands, some robots. The compressor block becomes a machine: hoses, valves, controls, cooling, filters, pressure indicators find their place. Around it there is a metal skin in blue or yellow, with a newer series a sleek shell in elegant grey.
It always revolves around compressing air or gas to a pressure of up to 500 bar, even 1000 bar is feasible if necessary. This compression takes place in several steps using pistons and cylinders arranged in a circle. Alternatively, the air can also be compressed with two tightly intermeshing screws - in a screw compressor. Technically, in both cases this is as demanding as with an engine. Friction heat must be cooled down with water or air, condensate must be separated from water and oil. Even the lubrication of the moving parts should always function despite the smallest tolerances.
The product range is impressive. It ranges from handy equipment for diving stations, fire stations or garages to huge equipment for ships and oil platforms. In between, there are countless industrial applications in various industries. Bauer can even supply complete natural gas filling stations.
Almost 90 percent of the business comes from abroad. An unusually large network of branch offices and service centres covers the world. In large customer markets such as the USA, China and India, there are further assembly lines for the compressors: on the one hand to ensure that they can always be delivered quickly, and on the other hand because the authorities make certain portions of local production and special product standards mandatory.
But the heart of the production beats in Geretsried, a small town in the picture-book landscape east of Lake Starnberg near Munich, the place drawn by the explosives factories of the last world war and the displaced settlements immediately afterwards. Here Bauer bravely recruits apprentices among the local school leavers and trains them personally in the "Bauer Academy". Here one hopes to get a small piece of the commercial area for further expansion, before the mayor lets everything fill up with residential buildings, because in this region the prices explode.
It all began in 1946 in Hans Bauer's living room in the south of Munich: the city was destroyed, the survivors hungry. Bauer, former engineer of the Sendlinger engine factory, son of a blacksmith and agricultural machine manufacturer, founded a garage company. The first small compressor was designed for tractors that tidied up the ruins and then had the pneumatic hammer with them. After that, construction compressors were the big business, according to the chronicle of the company.
With increasing success, more and more parts of the Bauer residential building were rededicated. The Alpinum had to give way, and so did the rest of the garden. In 1954, an interested party from Switzerland ordered a large batch of high-pressure compressors for the diving sport for a customer from the USA, delivery time one year. This was a completely new development and a great technical challenge. The lubrication of the last compressor stage in particular caused problems.
To top it all off, the customer jumped out of America. Nevertheless, in 1956 Bauer delivered the first model under the name "Utilus" (after the Latin word "utilis" for useful), which at the same time stands for the motto "Our divers always have air and safety". That set a standard, created a brand. Cult figures such as Hans Hass and Jacques Cousteau had one thing in common with their ships Xarifa and Calypso: Bauer compressors on board.
Sales exceeded the million mark. I couldn't do that in the garage anymore. In the 1970s, the move to a larger location in Munich brought the liberation and heralded the next phase of expansion under Heinz Bauer: industrial applications and an international presence. But even at the new place there was oppressive narrowness at last. The compressor blocks first migrated to a newly acquired commercial site in Geretsried in 2002. This was followed four years ago by compressor assembly - a EUR 15 million investment.
"The challenge now is to maintain technological leadership and always be a step ahead of the competition," says Monika Bayat, explaining the current challenges. "For example, with control of the devices via app and cloud connection as well as an integrated measuring device for air quality, which offers real added value."
Finally, illegal replicas from China are pushing prices down, as employees tell. Some customers also buy cheaper in Italy. "Customers are no longer so committed and demand very short delivery times," says Bayat. We have to deal with sanctions, with exchange rate fluctuations on the capital markets such as the recent devaluation of the Turkish lira, with the trade war between the USA and China and, of course, with Brexit.
There is also a need for optimisation within the company itself. The clientele is diverse, the variants in the already large product range are extensive. "That's why we need higher volumes. Modularization is the order of the day", says Philipp Bayat: more identical parts from which individualized products are then created. And digitization, i.e. the control of the entire value chain with modern information technology. The personnel department is no longer only looking for development engineers and masters in CNC milling, but also for software experts.
Philipp Bayat, formerly at SAP, is in his element: "We are in the process of bringing our enterprise software completely into the cloud as part of the digitization process. We are striving for a functional integration of ERP, PLM, e-procurement, CPQ, CRM and the webshop as a single source of truth".
Translated, this means roughly: All means of production, the individual production steps, the parts of the suppliers, the preparation of quotations, the communication with the customer, the sales via the Internet should be coordinated with the help of one and the same software and managed as a reliable database. And not on their own computers, but on external server farms.
"By linking the entire value chain, we can offer all our products, from a portable breathing air compressor to a complex natural gas filling station, to our dealers and partners via the web shop and thus significantly reduce our process and sales costs," Bayat continues. A tour de force, a total rebuild.
Bauer approaches these changes from a position of strength. This is because the family-owned company is still clearly ahead of the international competition. "I have worked at diving stations all over the world, there is a Bauer compressor everywhere," informs Alexander Hermann, Managing Director of Sub Sea, a water sports retailer with shops in Stuttgart, Frankfurt am Main and Munich. "The price of these devices is certainly more like a Mercedes than a Polo, but they run reliably and are repaired as quickly as possible in case of doubt. As a provider of diving sports, I simply cannot make any compromises", Hermann explains his preference.
When Monika Bayat is asked about her growth strategy, she answers quite conservatively: "Identifying trends and new market segments, discovering applications for which compressors can also be used.
She reports on ideas for more safety and environmental protection in the field of fracking in the USA. Or from new customers among French supermarket chains who want to turn spoiled goods into biogas for their own vehicle fleet.
It doesn't have to get nervous in view of an equity ratio of over 60 percent - a high value that often occurs in owner-managed businesses. Bayat does not want to become dependent on banks or investors. "This is important to me. We want to remain a family business," she says with a firm voice.
The woman in the white costume quotes Gustav Mahler. She does not want to "worship the ashes, but pass on the fire" to the still young children. "At customer meetings and factory visits, they have to make a spontaneous speech," reports the proud mother. They had also already completed a compressor training course.
Researchers like Uli Freier are counting on this next generation. Because his work in Antarctica revolves around the future of these children, ocean warming and ocean acidification, possibly breaking away food chains in the sea when krill crustaceans no longer manage to hibernate under the ice. "These were very moving hours at Bauer's," says Freier of his lecture. "What politics likes to ignore has touched these people in the plant very much. Rarely have I received such enthusiastic demands." ®
Author: Cornelia Knust
Photos: BAUER // Bettina Theisinger // Y-40