Branding. From the small Allgäu village of Meckatz, the Weiß family has been delighting beer connoisseurs from the region and far beyond for almost 160 years. Owner Michael Weiß explains how he has succeeded in doing so despite competition from over-powerful large breweries.
The largest investment in the history of the Meckatzer Brewery is about to be made. Michael Weiß is taking twelve million euros in hand and building a new fermentation and storage cellar in his home town of Meckatz. Despite crisis, despite Corona. Or perhaps because of it. It should be ready in autumn 2021. "With this, we are securing our high quality level and creating scope for moderate growth," he explains.
200,000 hectoliters of beer are produced today by Michael Weiß' brewery, which was founded in 1783. That sounds a lot, but it is not even 0.25 percent of what all 1500 breweries in Germany produce every year. The company has a turnover of a good 20 million euros, almost 90 percent of which is within a radius of 60 kilometres around the production site in Meckatz. "I am sure that consumers will pay more attention to quality in the future. They long for products that embody values. Because we do this, we have a great opportunity to grow nationwide. We are now setting the course for this", explains Michael Weiß.
The 65-year-old is a trained master brewer and has a degree in business administration. Having grown tall, lean and focused, he defines two major growth potentials for his brewery: "On the one hand, the upscale hotel, catering and specialist retail sectors throughout Germany. And on the other hand the expansion of our product range." Both are impossible so far - he is producing at the limits of his capacity. "We introduced the 'Hell' variety in 2017 and are also offering it in 0.33-liter bottles this year. This is a complete success and encourages us to go to market with further innovations. For example, we do not yet have a non-alcoholic cyclist - a lot is still possible."
Even more beer for Germany - the supply is already huge and the prices are tending to go down? "Right", smiles Michael Weiß. This is exactly where his chance lies: "At the top end of the quality and price scale there is room for more. The reason: Beers that used to be at the top, such as Warsteiner, have neglected their brand management. "Those who advertise with special prices of ten euros per crate offer a mass product and can't get away from these prices. These are not conditions with which high quality can be financed in the long term. Customers pay between 18 and 22 euros for a box of Meckatzer Hell, there are no special prices.
"If you want something special, brewed with a lot of time and the best ingredients, something traditional, you will gladly pay the higher price", Weiß is convinced. He is also not afraid of competition from the up-and-coming craft brewers. "With hoodie, tattoo and beard, they mainly market themselves." The market needs authentic, high-quality brands. "That's the case with clothes, cars, everything. That's where we see our opportunity."
Consistent brand management is the strategic issue that drives entrepreneur Weiß. "We are seeing price erosion in all industries. The reasons given are always a lack of customer money and declining brand loyalty. I don't believe that and I think it's highly dangerous."
If consumers were really only orientated on price, the whole effort around stringent price maintenance, selective distribution channels and intelligent advertising, which only has a long-term effect, would no longer be necessary. The product would then quickly be degraded to a mass product. "That's not where we want to go under any circumstances. We keep the brewery and raw materials at maximum quality, not minimum cost."
You couldn't produce good beer by the cheapest method. And you can't always want to use raw materials that are grown for maximum yield per hectare. "Classic maturing processes take four to five weeks. We've been doing it this way for generations." That's why the brewery was awarded the Slow Brewing Seal. For comparison: cheap beer is produced in ten days.
History: The brewery was founded in 1738, in 1853 Lena and Gebhard Weiß took over the business. When Gebhard died early, Lena decided to continue the business despite her six children. A woman at the head of a brewery is a sensation at that time. Her son Benedikt, Michael Weiß' grandfather, joins the brewery at the age of 17. Already in 1905 he protects the Weiss-Gold brand. "That someone from a small village like Meckatz applied for trademark protection was also very unusual. And very farsighted. Even today, Weiss-Gold still accounts for 60 percent of sales," the entrepreneur says.
Benedikt Weiß died in 1946 and handed over to his three sons - Josef, Edmund and Georg. They develop the company further, lease 40 inns in the region at the top and ensure a solid increase in turnover. In 1965 Benedikt, Josef's son, takes over the management of the business, and in 1985 Michael joins the company. The two cousins are very different characters, one reserved and technically oriented, the other rather effervescent and in search of a synthesis between modernity and tradition.
Working together is not always easy, but they share the same values and find a good basis: "We have shared appreciation for the company and the employees - and of course the idea of quality. His grandfather had already established and exemplified these values: "Even the outside handle of the cellar door is forged from bronze and decorated with a small lion. He attached importance to so many details - not by word, but by action. This is anchored in all generations," says Michael Weiß.
Even today he still feels connected to his grandfather: "When I have to make a decision, I always look over from the brewery's administration building to my parents' house, which was also his house, and ask him: Would you have liked that?".
In 1993 Benedikt died early, Michael Weiß now takes over the sole management. During this time, Meckatzer is strong in its home region, but there is hardly any growth - that's how many medium-sized brewers felt at that time. Because until the end of the 90s it is mainly the big breweries that massively increase their production. For example, industry leader Warsteiner grew from 1.5 million hectoliters of beer in the early 1970s to 6.2 million hectoliters in 1996: "In 1993 alone, their production increased by one million hectoliters - that's five times as much as we are today. What took us almost 160 years, they did in one year."
The growth of the big breweries during this period worries all medium-sized brewers. "There were rumours that the big breweries were planning to go towards ten million hectolitres - where would our niche have been then?" Michael Weiß is bombarding to reposition the brand. "In 1998, I hired a renowned Hamburg agency And unfortunately I listened more to their advice than to my inner compass. We changed everything, the outdoor ads to the trucks, the labels, everything." But in the process the typical Meckatzer style was lost, the square labels, which were considered modern, resembled those of Paulaner or Erdinger, his beer became confusable. "It was only later that I noticed that the agency also worked for all the other brands. I then wrote a nasty letter - but the damage was already done."
Weiß tells this because it shows what really matters for a family businessman: "We all operate in permanent insecurity. That's why we always call in external consultants. But the crucial thing is always to follow your own inner voice - it is the compass that guides you through turbulent times. Family entrepreneurs in particular, due to their often centuries-old tradition, have a more pronounced inner voice and, above all, a much longer horizon than outsiders could have.
At the end of the 1990s, consumer behaviour began to change, "People became more critical of globalisation. They increasingly wanted to know where the products they were consuming came from. This was our chance."
Chance helps. White reads the book "Corporate Management is Style Management". He's impressed. "I felt we had to get that across, then it would move on to a higher level." In 2002, Weiß has a market potential analysis done, which certifies that his beer has growth potential beyond his region. For the 150th anniversary, he had a retro label developed for the Weiss-Gold variety - based on the original design from the time of its foundation. The idea: "We honour the old with the new."
When the result is presented to him, Michael Weiß immediately realizes that this label corresponds to the brewery much more than the one established only four years ago. "I had already felt it, but now I knew I had made a mistake. I had to correct it," he says and remembers how upset he was - knowing that this mistake had cost a lot of money and that he would now have to represent it to his fellow shareholders.
Michael Weiß will never forget the next shareholders' meeting. At that time the shareholders had also worked on the shareholders' agreement. The old one was still from 1945 and stipulated that only the legitimate, male descendant of a general partner could become managing director. "That was too male-dominated. And there was no mention of qualifications either," smiles Weiß. With the help of a consulting firm, the contract was redesigned. On the last day of negotiations, Weiß informed the co-partners about the planned anniversary events for the coming weekend. "And I confessed that we will again present a new brand image with a logo" - he holds his breath and lets it out with a smile: "I was contrite, my co-partners were not exactly thrilled. There was a lot of trouble in the booth."
Michael Weiß has to use all his powers of persuasion, the project is in danger of failing due to the veto of the shareholders. The consultants present save the situation, the contract is signed and the new label is approved. "The bottom line was that it was right, my inner compass was right again. That's what everyone thinks today."
Michael Weiß follows his inner compass. He calls his leadership style a democrat with a smile. This was not only the case with the new brand identity, but also, for example, when he wanted to buy a brewery in the region. "The contract was ready to be signed, but I wasn't sure if the brewery would suit us. So I withdrew to feel my inner compass. Does it feel right to get in there?" It didn't. So he sought the opinion of his fellow partners and staff. Hearing their ideas and concerns helped him make the right decision. "My shareholders weren't thrilled when I finally decided against the purchase, but they supported the decision."
There are currently five shareholders, the contract stipulates that each must hold at least 12.5 percent of the company. "In the new structure, we can have a maximum of eight people as shareholders. Only in this way will we remain capable of making decisions in the future, because if too many decision-makers have a say, there is no clear direction for a company. He will therefore not be able to bequeath his share equally to his triplets. "Someone has an interest in the company. If the qualifications - also on a human level - are right and the other shareholders agree, he might become managing director at some point." But it will be several years before then. The siblings are 24 - "I wouldn't ask anyone to take over the management of the company until I was a good 30 years old".
Back to the story: As part of the new brand identity, Michael Weiß decides to combine the traditional buildings of the brewery with a very modern new administration building to form an ensemble. "I wanted the values of the brewery to be better perceived both internally and externally".
The brewery now becomes the image centre of the brand, the conservative disappears, the new complex becomes modern and elegant. He also listens to the opinions of his co-partners and employees for this decision. "We had chewed through the reorganization in the management team. We agreed on many things. But if there was no consensus, I had to make the decision - that's what the managing director is there for, after all." Here, too, his inner compass helped him: "This reorganization and new building was probably the most courageous and also the most radical thing I have ever done. It would never have succeeded if I had had the project as a whole voted on in advance," says Weiß. The new building sets a sign for the coming decades.
Michael Weiß explains his approach as follows: He has learned to think of the entire Meckatzer company as a brand that reflects the "true Allgäu enjoyment culture". Tradition, quality and modernity should be reflected in the product, in the architecture, in the ambience. The high entrance hall makes art exhibitions possible, a glass pavilion in the lounge shows the openness of the company. A regular gourmet market in the brewery courtyard is being planned to bind people even more closely to Meckatzer. "We even have a fan club with almost 10,000 members. They pay 17.38 euros annually - our founding year was 1738 - and receive attractive benefits in return. But these are not so important, what is decisive is to be part of a community that values what Meckatzer embodies for them."
The Allgäu is a region in which everyone still works mostly for himself. "We want to network them in order to make the Allgäu known as a place of enjoyment - like South Tyrol or Eastern Switzerland. In the long term, we will also benefit because our beer is accepted by connoisseurs", erklärt der Unternehmer.
And then came Corona. But unlike the hospitality industry, the breweries were not so badly affected. "The bottom line is that by the end of July we had a ten percent slump in sales. There were no more restaurant orders, no more celebrations. From April to May, the slump was as high as 33 percent. In retail, on the other hand, we even had a small growth."
Weiß stops budgets, scrutinizes all expenditures, announces short-time work and sends his people to the home office. He tops up the missing salary to 80 percent. He defers the rent to his nine tenants, sometimes waiving it altogether. "Hoteliers and restaurateurs are particularly hard hit. "We are partners with our business partners. And we think that in such an extreme situation, the less affected should support the more affected. That's what we did."
He sees the real advantages of a family business in this flexibility: "We decide quickly and we decide against our earnings for once because we want to protect our partners in the long term. We are also in the fortunate position of being able to cope with the loss of earnings to a certain extent. He was enthusiastic about the great fairness within the workforce during this time. "Those who can afford it went into short-time work and let those who urgently need the money continue working full-time. It was very moving."
The entrepreneur is now 65 years old and recently extended his contract until his 70th birthday. By then, he will have reached the maximum allowed by the partnership agreement. By the time he leaves, he wants to have the brewery operationally set up so that he himself is no longer needed. The management has already been arranged. A long-standing employee, 51-year-old Matthias Tomasetti, has been appointed managing director. He will reach retirement age when Weiß's son has been working for the company for several years. "In the next few years I want to create a management circle that really feels what is good for the company. When I notice that others feel it too, I can let go better," Michael Weiß smiles. ®
Author: Yvonne Döbler
(c) istockphoto/studiocasper // Meckatzer Löwenbräu Benedikt Weiß