Freedom is our luxury.
Entrepreneurship. Klaus Haas (right) and Peter Räuber found their sports label Maloja in 2004 with extraordinary ideas. They resist rapid growth. They think pure profit thinking is outdated. And write a unique success story with it.
Maloja lies at 1815 metres above sea level at the end of the Upper Engadine, one of the most beautiful and fashionable valleys of the Alps in the canton of Graubünden. The pass of the same name opens to the south towards the sun and the warmth of Bregaglia.
But since 2004 Maloja has also been situated at 564 metres above sea level, nestled between Lake Chiemsee and its little brother, Lake Simssee, in Rimsting, an idyllic corner of Upper Bavaria. There, at Bach 1 to be precise, an unusual company produces very special products.
The only thing you could knit from these two pieces of information would be a wonderful legend. In Maloja in the Upper Engadine an enthusiastic snowboarder experiences a winter sports day of superlatives. Later he decides to found his own sports brand with a partner and calls it Maloja in reference to this special day. Since then Maloja has been going really well. It could have been like that.
In fact, it was like this: Peter Räuber, a creative who has been working in the sports fashion industry for quite some time, thinks that life is too beautiful to spend it exclusively on work. So he develops a plan. He wants to start his own company, for which he works in summer and then snowboard in winter.
What he lacks is an understanding of numbers. So he tells management consultant Klaus Haas, who himself owns a windsurfing school with an affiliated boutique in the Caribbean, about his vision. Ask him if he doesn't want to advise him. But Haas may not advise. He wants to be a 50% partner. Lock and key found each other.
Together they found the brand Maloja. And make it one of the most successful rising stars among the German sports labels. Maloja is now represented in 28 countries: In Soho in New York as well as in Seoul in Korea. 800 dealers sell the collections from Upper Bavaria worldwide. Year after year, sales are growing in the double-digit percentage range - most recently to 20 million euros in 2017.
In such a highly competitive market as sports fashion, this economic success is astonishing. Even more remarkable is that Peter Räuber and Klaus Haas could sell much more. But they don't want to.
They say things like, "We want to take our time growing." Or: "Profit thinking is outdated." Or: "It's not about making the maximum money, but about how the money is earned - preferably in such a way that there are only winners".
Idealists? I might. Philosophers? Very likely. Good bosses? Absolutely.
One thing is certain: Peter Räuber and Klaus Haas are congenial partners. Robber is the creative head, Haas the man of numbers. What is special about the duo is that, despite their differences, they both stand for the same values: Sustainability, respect, quality, responsibility. When two CEOs run a company, they probably have to agree. Overrule by majority vote does not work after all.
This is another reason why Maloja has long been more than just a brand name in mountaineering. Maloja is a statement. And a lesson about everything that can be done correctly when founding, building and managing a company.
Lesson 1: Try something new.
Peter Räuber is a kind of mountain bike pioneer. As a bike guide at Lake Garda, he not only knows the steepest trails, but also the challenges to the material. Through his work for various sports fashion manufacturers such as Sunshine, Matador or Chiemsee, he is also well networked in the industry and enjoys a lot of trust. "Again and again, the merchants have encouraged me: Peter, finally do something of your own."
So he sets himself a goal: cycling should finally become stylish. "At the beginning of 2000, the entire bike industry was enormously boring. Everything was black, a little white at most, a few shades of red were quite daring." That's about to change.
The two entrepreneurs move into their first small office via a power station in Bad Endorf. Its owner was also one of those people who used to say, "Hey, Peter, do something." This time he says something else: "You won't get any help from me. But money."
On the first day, the first employee knocks on the door - Philip Genghammer. He's still with Maloja 14 years later. "Whoever comes to us, gets life," jokes Klaus Haas. But it's not meant to be a joke at all. In 14 years of company history, only two employees have actually left the company for personal reasons. Maloja has no fluctuation.
The first collection Maloja will launch on the market in summer 2005 is a pure bike collection: about 60 pieces, mainly pants and jerseys. Everything is colourful, fashionable and somehow different. Räuber and Haas present them at the Eurobike, the trend trade fair for bike sports in Friedrichshafen. "People said: Thank God, finally something new," Klaus Haas says. Maloja can win 100 dealers as partners from a standing start. Thanks to Peter Räuber's good contacts, there are many important and renowned ones among them: Mountain bike shops on Lake Garda, road bike shops on Mallorca.
"We got off to a good start," says Haas. Soon there will be an increasing number of inquiries. Customers and dealers now also want a winter collection. Haas and Räuber rely on the two winter sports which, similar to cycling, place very high demands on function and material - ski touring and cross-country skiing. "There are many synergies." The first winter collection is launched in 2007. A nice success. With a little drop of bitterness. Because Peter Räuber's original dream has been shattered. Now he has to work summer and winter.
Lesson 2: Do your thing consistently.
Maloja produces 70 percent of its collection in Europe. That's unusual in the industry. Partners for cotton processing are located in Portugal. The cycling clothing is mainly tailor-made in Italy. Goretex products are manufactured in Ukraine.
Most of the functional clothing is manufactured in Bulgaria. Maloja has also set up its own factory there with 200 employees. "Only in this way can we implement what we want," says Klaus Haas. A separate factory opens up completely new production possibilities: experimenting with different materials, processing seamless textiles, developing dyeing methods that withstand the sun and sweat.
And a plant of its own also opens up completely different development opportunities. The production of sports fashion knows two major highlights in the year - when the winter or summer collection is produced. The rest of the time is underutilized.
Because Maloja has always been synonymous with the fact that high demands on the functionality of clothing can be combined with good design, it did not take long until the first requests came to produce additional functional clothing for others. This can be achieved thanks to our own factory. Today, for example, Maloja manufactures a 100-piece athlete collection for Red Bull.
"Race drivers train in many different ways," says Peter Räuber. "They run, bike, do yoga. And they need the appropriate outfit." In addition, the Oberbayern region produces high-quality collections for Audi's premium customers or for the Bosch e-bike team. And they dress the German national ski mountaineering team. The plant in Bulgaria is thus operating at full capacity throughout the year.
McDonald's also knocks on the door at Bach number 1: could the fashion designers not produce suitable work clothes? Though robbers and Haas refuse the order, the requested number of pieces is too large for them. But Peter Räuber designs a new uniform - for the first time since McDonald's existence no longer unisex. Two Maloja employees work for McDonald's for days to understand the needs of the employees.
"People wear a uniform like this all day. And of course they feel more comfortable if the garments fit well and if they can feel attractive in them. We like to wear what we think suits us and makes us feel good."
Meanwhile Maloja develops workwear for the coffee roasting company Dinzler, for Konrad Elektronik, for the tourism association Garmisch-Partenkirchen or Graubünden.
Anyone who takes a closer look at Maloja's production will soon notice how many thoughts Haas and robbers have about sustainability. Not only does most production take place in Europe, where higher environmental standards apply. In 2010, Räuber and Haas also entered into a partnership with bluesign. The Swiss seal is the world's strictest standard for environmental protection, but also for occupational safety and consumer protection.
75 percent of all functional materials used by Maloja are now bluesign-certified. Maloja uses a nylon fibre for his cycling shorts, which consists of 100 percent recycled raw materials. The water-repellent finish is largely manufactured without fluorocarbon (PFC), and Maloja intends to completely eliminate PFC by 2020. Since summer 2016 there is a product line made of organically grown cotton.
"To be honest," says Klaus Haas, "we don't talk so much about sustainability because it's part of our self-image. We also do not use it for marketing purposes." In fact, sustainability in the textile industry is not always easy. Although no pesticides are used to grow organic cotton, the water requirement of organic cotton is higher than that of conventional cotton. "This is why we are increasingly experimenting with hemp, linen and recycled materials," says Peter Räuber.
"We're not perfectionists," says Klaus Haas, "but we have the ambition to get better every year." They say in Rimsting after every year: "That was the best thing we've done so far." And they've been saying that for 14 years now.
Lesson 3: Be great, not just great.
There is this book, which is almost considered by small family businesses in the USA to be a kind of Bible. It tells of little giants who consciously choose to be great, not just big: "Small giants - companies that choose to be great instead of big." These entrepreneurs resist the pressure to grow at any price. And concentrate instead on more satisfying business goals. For example, to be uncompromising when it comes to quality standards. Or to create a perfect working environment. Provide first class customer service. To change the world a little bit for the better. And even becoming happy.
Maloja is one such small giant: "We deliberately placed great emphasis on selective distribution," explains Haas. Maloja works together with a few, mostly smaller, dealers, who, however, have great competence in mountain sports and can therefore also advise a very special clientele very competently.
Even the working environment is unique. The head office is an old farm. The desks were made from the floor boards of the old haystack. Part of the office furniture comes from the flea market. All this together results in a loving and homely atmosphere. "We are going our own way and we are going it very consistently," says Klaus Haas. "It's hard work. But it also makes us proud."
In Japan there is a term for the beauty of the imperfect. It's Wabi Sabi. "Much of what we encountered in this aesthetic concept from Buddhism we live from day one: Love of detail, appreciation for old, used objects, simplicity, honesty", Peter Räuber explains the idea.
It is also part of the philosophy of the two entrepreneurs to give something back to society. That doesn't sound new. But Maloja does this systematically. Each collection is dedicated to a different theme. In 2013, the models in the "Pachamama" series were inspired by the Andean peoples of Peru and Bolivia. "Hi Society" in 2012 was based on the lifestyle of mountain farmers in South Tyrol. And the current collection "An Alpan Way" is a symbiosis of alpine and Japanese tradition.
Robbers and Haas do not only create a homage to certain regions in the mountains. You then support them as well. For example, a children's project in Bolivia receives regular donations. A knitting group for disadvantaged Andean women gets orders to knit hats, scarves and ponchos for Maloja. And with the collection "Hi Society" they support the Bergbauernhilfe in South Tyrol.
The fact that this very special attitude to entrepreneurship suits them better was learned early on by the two of them on the rather hard way. REI, the largest sports retailer in the USA with 13,000 employees and 2.4 billion dollars in sales, added Maloja to its range. But already when the orders were received, the two company owners were scared and anxious. Far too much, and above all yoga clothes. "But we were specialists for mountaineering," Peter Räuber shakes his head in retrospect. After only one year, REI took Maloja out of the assortment again. And the Chiemgauers had learned their lesson. Better small, but fine. Or as Klaus Haas puts it: poor, but sexy.
Today Maloja is still established with 150 dealers in the USA and Canada, in places like Sun Valley, Portland and San Francisco. And if parts are sold out because dealers have ordered small quantities, then that's the way it is.
In this way, the two also manage the balancing act of being successful entrepreneurs and remaining true to themselves at the same time. On weekdays, on a beautiful winter day, Klaus Haas stands at 10 o'clock in the morning on the balcony of the farm converted into a company headquarters and waxes his cross-country skis to skate a few laps later. Work or no work. "For me, luxury doesn't mean making more profit, but having exactly these degrees of freedom."
Peter Räuber made himself a present for his 50th birthday. The farmers in his district traditionally do not work on Wednesday afternoons. So from now on he's skipping Wednesday afternoon as well. Sometimes it's impossible, though. Then it may be that his employees say on Tuesday: Today Tuesday is a Wednesday.
Maloja is not just a brand, but a way of life. If something's Maloya, then it's good. And makes you happy. ®
Author: Sabine Woodcutter