In a village that few have heard of there is a factory which makes metallised fabrics. Why does one UK firm buy from here rather than from a UK supplier? Malcolm Wheatley finds out.
"Meitze?" queries the taxi driver, as I tell him where I want to go. "Wedermark," I offer, indicating the collection of villages to the north of Hanover, of which Meitze is one. He still needs to check a map, but eventually sets off, pausing - or more disturbingly, NOT pausing - to check it several more times en route.
Once in Meitze, the factory is not hard to find. Nitex sticks out like any other 22,000 sq m factory complex in a community of a few hundred souls. Turn left at the farm - why are even German farms so incredibly orderly? - and we are there. The taxi driver departs, still peering worriedly at his map.
I am here to try and find out why a British textile company insists on buying its metallised fabrics from Nitex here in Meitze rather than from suppliers in the UK. Metallised fabrics? Well, if you marry ordinary cotton fabrics to aluminium you get a material with all the handling characteristics of cotton, but all the durability and heat-reflective characteristics of metal. This can then be made into products like those dull-grey, heat-reflective ironing board covers that outlast and out-iron the ordinary ones, and oven gloves that really don't let your fingers burn.
And it is not exactly new technology. Nitex started making the stuff here in 1958, although it now makes luxury bath mats and latex foam materials as well. Plenty of time for UK companies to build themselves an unassailable position. But no. The UK's biggest importer of the stuff buys it from Meitze because it cannot get the quality and service at home. What is more, its customers sometimes even SPECIFY Nitex. Why? I am here to find out.
Christa Strunz, the export sales manager, is cautiously pleased to see a journalist on such a mission. We start with the basics of the company, Frau Strunz carefully checking and noting each fact as it is handed over and recorded in my notebook. Although metallised fabrics form only around a third of the turnover, their share of the export sales is much higher. Foreign buyers say that they can make their own bath mats - it is the metallised fabrics that they are after.
Sales of bath mats ARE booming, though, in Poland's renascent market economy. There is an unprecedented demand for luxury bath mats, a development which Frau Strunz confesses herself to be gratified but puzzled by. Poles may be going through a hard time at the moment, but the siren song of a soft bath mat to step on to is obviously long lost on those of us who take them for granted. Perhaps your feet take a higher priority if you have spent a lifetime queuing on them ...
But we digress. Why DO companies insist on buying from Nitex, even though cheaper metallised fabrics are available at home? Frau Strunz, who has been exporting Nitex's products around the world for 15 years, patiently explains how the company operates. I listen carefully, but hear no magic bullets. Instead I hear how the competition is knocked out by the sort of magic sledgehammer long familiar to management gurus like Tom Peters.
For Frau Strunz tends not to speak of overseas customers. She tends instead to speak of the company's overseas partners. She emphasises how the company works hard to serve those partners, striving diligently to meet the delivery dates that it has promised. She talks also about how important quality is, and how it must be consistently high, and not just "usually" high. And she speaks of the company's focus on finding and developing the products that the marketplace is asking for, holding up as she does so a pair of recently introduced brilliantly coloured metallised oven gloves to illustrate the point. Investment is important too. The company spent £300,000 last year on a new thermo-combustion furnace to eliminate atmospheric emissions.
I slump back in my chair, swamped by this tidal wave of corporate virtue. But more is to come. Frau Strunz suggests a tour of the factory, and we set off. Outside of the electronics and food industries, it is the cleanest factory I have ever seen. I meet the production manager, Herr Hollander, who explains the various processes, and obligingly pretends to adjust something while I photograph him.
While we have been walking around the factory, people have been riding past us on bicycles. Not just one or two people, but in fact most of them. Herr Hollander explains that it is quite customary: one of the joys of having a large flat factory is that one can bicycle around in it. And they do. Frau Strunz explains that the factory maintains a fleet of around 100 bicycles for workers to ride around on. She is too polite to comment as I photograph some of them propped up against a wall in a sort of "help yourself" bike park. I do not even ask why they don't get stolen.
It is clear that I could spend a week here and be no wiser. But I have seen enough to know what it is that gives Nitex the edge, because I have seen it before elsewhere. It is that indefinable something shared by most companies that consistently do well: excellence in lots of little things, and a genuine commitment to make and sell only the best.
A lot of British companies are very good. But a lot more still have a long, long way to go. On their bikes, perhaps?
(Malcolm Wheatley is a freelance writer.)