Anyone who visits the television manufacturer Loewe in Kronach in Upper Franconia might initially think they got lost. Right behind the factory gate he came across an administration building that housed a complete middle school with 500 students. Opposite is a vaccination center. And on one of the production halls, it is not the logo of the world-famous TV manufacturer that is emblazoned, but the logo of an automotive supplier.
Loewe has gone bankrupt twice in the past ten years. All employees were laid off and the city took over the land. New life grew on the rubble of the fallen electric giant. The remaining production and administration buildings, in which a small group of steadfast Loewerians are trying to breathe new life into their company, now seem somewhat lost. For the third time. With old management and a Russian investor. And televisions. These electronic devices from an ending era that people under 30 supposedly no longer use. Can this be something?
“Everything here is going away,” says Christian Alber, pointing to aging buildings as he walks by. Thomas Putz enthusiastically remembers that the new headquarters will soon be built here for 25 million euros. He and Alber share the operational management and are a well-rehearsed team. In the mid-1990s, the two started at the same time as trainees at Loewe and then rose while the company went downhill. Millions in losses, wage cuts, mass layoffs. Bankruptcy, rescue attempt, second bankruptcy.
Alber and Putz don’t want to talk about what it was exactly today. Instead, they lead to production, where televisions are now being made again. In a small hall reminiscent of a workshop, maybe two dozen employees are standing at workbenches screwing together components from Asian suppliers. It is now the turn of 43-inch devices with a mint-colored back. “Loewe devices are always design objects. They look good from all sides,” says Putz. Against the mass-produced goods from Korea and Japan, the Franconians have little choice but to aim for the luxury segment with televisions costing up to 10,000 euros.
After assembly, each device is plugged in for test purposes and left to run for a few minutes. They still call it the “bang and smoke” department here, just like decades ago. It is rather strangely quiet and deliberate. Ingrid Franz, who has been with Loewe for 42 years due to the insolvency, looks and listens to each individual device in her own time, presses various buttons on the remote control. The 61-year-old manages the final inspection all by herself – only 130 to 180 devices leave the factory every day. Alber and Putz talk a little nice about the “manufacturing approach”. By the end of the year, the aim is to reach 80,000 devices, and a new production line is currently being set up.
The fact that televisions are being built here again is due to a WhatsApp message on a Saturday evening three years ago. In it, Aslan Khabliev expressed interest in buying Loewe. The Russian with a Swiss passport and an investment company called Skytec Group in Cyprus earned his money with electrical appliances and televisions. At that time, Alber and Putz were looking for takeover candidates in the insolvency administrator’s team, while outside the industrial recyclers were already looting the production facilities.
They immediately got in the car and then let themselves be persuaded that Khabliev didn’t just want to buy the brand. Loewe is now an owner-managed company. Khabliev is said to have invested 40 million euros to start with and accommodated three family members in the company. The boss is often in Kronach himself. Otherwise he relies on Alber and Putz. And they have big plans.
Modern times begin at Loewe a few steps behind the school. The research and development department is housed here. A dozen designers and engineers sit in a wild jumble of sketches, individual components and prototypes. Most don’t look like they’ve spent Saturday nights in front of a “Wetten, dass..?” screen anymore.
A vintage Loewe device stands on a shelf as a retro object. But the developers are working on completely different things. On a desk is a kind of oversized tablet, as big as a pillow. There are studies on various kitchen appliances. A designer has even driven an electric scooter to a workplace as a visual object and is brooding over design details. What’s going on here?
“We don’t see any growth market for the future in the classic TV set,” Thomas Putz explains. “That’s why we’ve started to expand our portfolio.” Loewe plans to launch a coffee machine by the end of the year. A fully automatic designer machine “with portafilter quality and a brewing group from the gastro”, adds Alber and explains why coffee is also far superior to the usual mass-produced goods. A Loewe e-scooter is scheduled to roll off the assembly line in the spring, “the safest scooter in the world,” says Alber. A wine refrigerator is also in the pipeline. And then there’s a project called “Vision X,” which is supposed to be about streaming, gaming, and a big partner.
Nobody knows whether the resurrection from ruins can succeed. What could help is the city. Kronach and Loewe were one for half a century. There used to be hardly a family in the city of 17,000 that didn’t have someone working at Loewe. Even mayor Angela Hofmann is an old lioness. The 54-year-old engineer worked for the company for almost 25 years.
Like many in Kronach, she experienced the downfall very directly. First, after the IPO, she only lost some money with Loewe shares, 3000 euros. Then her job. Last year, the CSU woman was elected mayor and now has to negotiate with the management about buying back the company space. “The pressure to keep Loewe is great. The connection is strong,” she says. There is a Loewe television in her office, as in most living rooms in the city. Despite the experience, the people from Kronach are loyal to the company. Now that it starts again, everyone is on hand. “The will to fight,” says the mayor, “is definitely there.”