Growing with a sense of proportion
The WSM brand is born
"We were a small shop. That was our advantage. We were always able to keep track of our costs and I always only did what I knew I could do. Slowly, slowly we grew. Every year it got better. If it stayed that way, we were satisfied", Walter Solbach narrates cheerfully.
"People always have to have work," adds his wife Maria. The "people"? For a long time that is five or six employees. They work hard and well, enjoy life, even together with the boss. If there is more to do, new colleagues are hired and trained to the company´s standards. Privately, the entrepreneurial couple live frugally. Whatever is left over is invested, including in warehousing. In this way, Solbach can deliver quickly and on time. Customer payment difficulties are bridged with their own bank overdraft. "That was a tough business", he remembers. At that time, borrowing outside capital is out of the question. Self-sufficiency and independence are important to him.
In 1973, the steel construction is moved to a much larger building in Waldbröl. In the same year, Solbach founds WSM - Walter Solbach Metallbau GmbH. Managing directors are Walter Solbach and Leopold Wendler. Soon, WSM is able to sell its first products throughout Germany via renowned trading companies. The turnover in 1973 is 1.23 million German Marks. This means that since the company was founded, it has increased a hundredfold!
1974 – the demand for shelters develops into the product area "modular room systems"
Room systems and international locations
In 1974 the legendary R-house saw the light of day. The room system is versatile and unmistakably striking thanks to its rounded corners. This is due to the rubber joints between the metal components, which make them much easier to connect. Walter Solbach succeeds in creating a design classic that is often copied. Transportable rooms for foreman offices, control stations, reception facilities and gatehouses are created. Mobile, modular room systems for indoor and outdoor use go into series production for the first time in 1980.
Yet there is more happening in Waldbröl. In 1986, the first WSM administration building is built. Six years later, the first high-bay warehouse system is installed, which significantly shortens the delivery times of products. Room and shelter systems are assembled in a new 6000 square metre hall.
The year 1989 brings the fall of the Berlin Wall. Many German companies are drawn to the East, to new markets and comparatively low labour costs ¬– a trend that is hard to avoid due to the competitive situation. From 1997, WSM produces particularly labour-intensive assemblies in the small Czech town of Březnice.
If you fully enclose a bus stop,
fit windows and doors,
you get a room system.
– Walter Solbach
Even in retirement
In 2017 Walter Solbach receives the Diamond Master Craftsman's Diploma of the Cologne Chamber of Crafts. One year later, WSM celebrates its 60th anniversary. For Maria and Walter Solbach an opportunity at an advanced age to look back with great pride on an astonishing life's work. The founder, who has spent his whole life taking photographs, creates a park next to the company's premises in Waldbröl. There you will find steles carved from wood that he commissioned. Sometimes you can still encounter him on the company premises.
With continuity into the future:
WSM was and remains a family-run company.
The generation change
Maintaining values, open for innovations
The generational change, a challenge for every family business, has succeeded at WSM. Today Peter Solbach and Werner Schenk are the managing directors. Peter Solbach is responsible for production, Werner Schenk for sales, Elisabeth Schenk and Eva Solbach for personnel issues. Strategic decisions are made together. WSM continues to pursue the goal of medium and long-term success.
WSM always has its finger on the pulse of the era. Like its founders, the company banks on new ideas, recognises trends and modernises itself. If a company grows through its own efforts and not through acquisitions by others, this is known as "organic growth". WSM is a living example. It is based on the four business areas which have emerged from Walter Solbach's ideas: mobile room systems, shelter systems, bicycle parking systems and information and display systems.
Everything from one source
WSM becomes an integrated solution provider
In its 60th anniversary year in 2018, WSM is an internationally active metal system manufacturer, organised as an international group of companies, with consolidated sales of around 27 million euros per year (2017). Six decades and 25 square metres of operational space have been transformed into 25,400 square metres of office, production and warehouse space in Waldbröl and Březnice – more than 1,000 times that when the company was founded! WSM has sales companies in Salzburg and south of London. Well-known customers rely on WSM, including Audi, Ford, Rewe, Abus, the Cologne and Düsseldorf trade fairs, Linde, BASF, Lufthansa and Procter & Gamble. The new Aldi pylons, widely visible at over 1,400 locations, are made by WSM.
Customers include transport companies, local authorities, project developers and private clients. New York's suburban railway also orders display cases for its stations from WSM. Strongly selling series products make the company an attractive partner for catalogue and mail order companies. In 2017, the company has around 22,700 orders on its books, of which around a third will be delivered by 24-hour mail order service. More than 2,100 different articles are on offer. Our own fleet of truck-mounted crane trucks and in-house technicians handle the delivery and installation of room systems and shelters. The Waldbröl industrial estate, where WSM was the first company to set up shop, supports the company's growth with its fast motorway connection.
The recipe for success
Strategically opening up new markets
It is unlikely that such success is due to chance or luck. So what is behind the immense growth of WSM? "A company needs not only good products, but also a strategy and a plan," explains Peter Solbach. "You can't just live day to day and wait for what comes tomorrow. After all, we know what products we have, and we have learned to place them again and again on the market through further development. The spirit of the times and the product must come together. We have become better and better at this over the years", adds Werner Schenk.
Further developments sometimes begin with a new look at what already exists: "For far too long we have called our shelters reception rooms", says Schenk. "When the statutory smoking bans came to Germany in 2005, we soon realised that we could also turn bus stop shelters into smoking rooms by replacing the previous sheet metal cladding with glass, printing a sign saying 'smoking room' or a symbol, installing an ashtray, and that´s it. This was the right product at the right time for a new market."
We make useful things for people.
– Peter Solbach
Products that fit the market and comprehensive service – from consultation to delivery – form the basis. A clear ethical compass provides orientation in everyday business life.
Like Walter Solbach, the second-generation management team also attaches great importance to independence. They don´t want to be talked into anything by anyone; whether investors, banks, suppliers or major customers. By the way, this is definitely not a hollow phrase: a business partner with whom WSM made almost a quarter of its turnover at the time proposed unacceptable conditions for WSM in 2007. Of course, the decision was not an easy one, but WSM remained true to its policy and discontinued work with the company. Years later, the business relationship has revived and is now better than ever before. The independence has proved its worth.
The WSM management also attaches great importance to fairness in dealing with business partners and employees. "We want to do business with our partners, not at their expense", emphasises Werner Schenk. The rule "Do not unto others that which you would not have done to you" cannot be expressed in numbers and KPIs, but it creates mutual trust and that always pays off in the end. This is also a legacy that is lived.
Independence from banks, suppliers and
major customers – that is kind of our mantra.
– Werner Schenk
Four specialist areas
Mobile room systems
Bicycle parking systems
Information- and displaysystems
Cyclical fluctuations and recessions are a part of business. Germany's economy, too, has experienced crisis after crisis over the decades. WSM masters them relatively well. Unlike many other industrial companies in North Rhine-Westphalia, there were no large-scale redundancies even between 2002 and 2007, when the state-wide unemployment rate was between 10.1 and 13.2 percent, and not even in 2009, when economic output slumped by 3.8 percent compared to the previous year. Because WSM takes care of its employees, it does not lose valuable knowledge that may never return once it is gone.
"The four specialist areas of mobile room systems, shelter systems, bicycle parking systems and information and display systems at WSM are like the four legs of a chair: it doesn't keel over so easily. That creates a certain amount of security," says Peter Solbach. "None of our competitors has such a portfolio.”
A company needs more than just good products,
but also a strategy and a plan.
– Werner Schenk
A benefit for nature, employees and customers
"Creation", as Werner Schenk says with Christian conviction, "must be preserved." For the medium-sized company this means using natural resources sparingly and polluting the environment as little as possible.
When a larger painting hall was put into operation in 2011, WSM switched to a new process. Instead of using solvents, from then on cleaning has been done with dry ice. This is environmentally friendly, as almost no harmful residues are produced. Simultaneously, the cleaning result has been improved. High-solid paints with a low solvent content are used – a benefit for the environment and the employees in the paint shop. Solvent residues and energy are largely recovered.
This is also an advantage for the customers: thanks to a homogeneously matched paint structure, WSM achieves a better result than with the simple powder coating that is otherwise common. Quality in metal also means quality in painting and corrosion protection. Because that which is better painted simply lasts longer.
Meticulous processing and long durability – this also benefits those for whom WSM products are ultimately made. "If you take a look at our range of products, you will see that we make useful things for people who use them every day," explains Peter Solbach. This applies to partition walls and machine enclosures, meeting rooms and foremen’s offices that protect employees from noise and other hazards, as well as for school children waiting for the bus or cyclists who want to park their expensive bicycle or e-bike as safely as possible.
Pointing the way forward
New directions in sales
"We can bring more dynamism into our business with dealers precisely when we know what makes their end customers tick. We are therefore happy to work intensively with those responsible for marketing, online media and sales," explains Werner Schenk.
Online marketing has become an important tool for WSM. The website not only presents the company and its products, but also offers useful information from the product worlds. In order to make WSM and its products findable on the Internet, the search engines of Google, Bing & Co. have to be constantly fed with new information. Most customers can be found on the net through attractive, target group-oriented content, written in a journalistic manner. The best example of this is the WSM´s e-book, "Deutschland auf dem Sattel. Facts and trends in cycling". It is very well received by all those involved in promoting bicycle mobility. Classic advertising is less in demand.
Trade fairs are also ideal for initial contacts with buyers and planners from industry and the public sector. WSM is therefore regularly represented with its own stands at international trade fairs.