The History and Downfall of a German Wholesale Company “Wollschläger” – Part 1
How one of the biggest German industrial distributors went down – 79 Years of the Wollschläger Group.
In 1961, a 14-year-old ambitious young individual, Frank, sat alone in a car near an industrial building. He was cold. The region around Bochum is chilly in winter, with temperatures below 5°C on average. Coming from Gdańsk (Danzig in German) two years ago, he was now waiting for his father.
Heinz Wollschläger, was a successful company founder and businessman visiting a new customer. He had founded his company in 1937, before Frank was born, in Danzig, close to the former Poland border. Like many entrepreneurs, his story began in a garage.
Heinz Wollschläger specialised in welding technology. He opened his first branch in Bochum in 1959. Located in the heart of the German industrial province of North Rhine-Westphalia, the city would become an essential part of his history.
When the father gets back in the car, the son, asks: “… and dad, how was it?”
It is the post-war years, during the “German miracle”. Their business is growing, and acquiring customers keeps father and son busy.
Frank Wollschläger is an extraordinary character. After years of visiting customers with his father, in 1975, at the age of just 29, he took over the business and its 25 employees. Like his predecessor, he became a proud family man at the helm of a family business.
Frank will one day employ his own son, Carsten, and other 1,000 employees, 600 of them in Bochum. He will be proud to serve customers worldwide, generate revenues for around 300 million euros, and trade with 700,000 articles. From taking over a small family business, Frank Wollschläger will build a gem of German, SME industrial wholesaler.
The 20 years between taking over the family business and the change of the century went exceptionally well for Frank. He married Brigitte, and his son Carsten was born. Shortly afterwards, he founded Wollschläger-Schweißtechnik GmbH & Co. KG, which was renamed W-TEC Schweißtechnik GmbH in 1986, also based in Bochum.
In 1987, Wollschläger took over the company Franz Aretz Schweißtechnik in Krefeld and founded another branch in Cologne. Frank opened the Wollschläger Universal Grinding Centre in Bochum three years later.
Wollschläger, translated to English meaning “wool beater”, is a historical profession from the production cycle of textile processing. Beaters cleaned the raw wool; still dirty clumped together after shearing and prepared it for spinning. The “wool beaters” would beat the yarn out of impurities to clean and prepare the natural wool.
In some regions, wool beaters expanded to take further steps in wool processing, such as combining the fibres, feeding the spinning wheel, and sometimes spinning the wool itself. It looked as if Frank Wollschläger had in himself the need to expand his business.
Similarly, prevalent during the Middle Ages, particularly in south Germany, the profession died out during the Industrial Revolution. It has survived only in family names, like Frank’s and his company.
His newly conformed Wollschläger Group expanded rapidly in the years 1990-1995. As his father has coached him, Frank likewise wanted to be close to his customers. He opened new stationary sales channels.
In the first five years after the fall of the Berlin wall, the Wollschläger Group opened branches in Krefeld, Cologne and Mülheim-Kärlich. In the years 1995-1997, the Wollschläger Group expanded to include branches in Koblenz, Freiburg im Breisgau and Heidenheim. Almost all new offices in Germany resulted from short-term acquisitions of smaller regional dealers. Being close to the customer sounded like a sensitive business idea. Maybe just an expensive one.
In the year 2000, the Wollschläger Group merged with his long-standing partner Industrie Werkzeug Vertrieb GmbH. And in the following five years, fuelled by lowering interest rates, Frank Wollschläger started exporting and opened his Herbrechtingen branch.
Opening new branches was not enough for Frank. Distribution companies should acquire other companies and create their own brands, was his opinion. The Wollschläger Group took over Dalhoff from Essen while bundling all company departments in Bochum. It launched its own product brands: Artec, Bickenbach, Primat, and Widex.
In 2001 Frank Wollschläger hired Frank Haberstock, to manage his newly open Hanover branch office. His namesake was a younger strategic thinker, courageous and hard-working sales talent.
Haberstock would be later instrumental in building up the then newly established Hanover branch and expanding the market presence in southern Lower Saxony, northern Hesse, and the new federal states.
Following Frank’s strategy, his recent Hanover office resulted from a partial merger with Camille Gergen GmbH & Co. KG. This consolidation created the Wollschläger Gergen GmbH & Co. KG, with headquarters in Dillingen. It also brought an additional branch office in Koblenz.
Also in 2001, Wollschläger merged with Georg Noll Werkzeug- und Maschinenhandel and opened Wollschläger Maschinentechnik in Bochum. Just a year later, the Hamburg tool wholesaler Kurt Siemer became part of the Wollschläger Group. Frank merged his offices in Cologne and Siegburg one year later. The latter was once a Bickenbach company.
Regardless of questionable integration processes, harmonisation approaches and synergies, Wollschläger kept growing. The takeover of the Bickenbach company in Siegburg, the founding of the Hanover branch, and his machine technology division completed the 2000-2002 period.
In 2005, Wollschläger took over Hoffmann & Schlage GmbH in Munich and created more than 100 new jobs, underlining an unstoppable growth, and expanding its activities in CNC machine tools.
Frank Wollschläger knew no “breathing pause”, not for him, nor for his company. In 2006 Wollschläger acquired the Cologne-based Hommel Group, previously part of the industrial organization ThyssenKrupp AG. This move signalled Wollschläger’s desire to expand into machine trade. In 2006, the company also celebrated its 70 years of existence.
The combined group reached an estimated turnover of 300 million euros.
Frank Wollschläger declared at the time: “The merger with Hommel creates synergies that bring our customers a clear advantage.”
Not every customer was to see that advantage.
Frank added: “the even larger product range, the joint use of service and excellently structured warehouse logistics, as well as the technological exchange among each other, allow us to respond even better and more specifically to customer requirements.”
Haberstock accepted the management of the Hamburg office in 2007. The same year, Wollschläger took over the established occupational safety manufacturer and wholesaler, Essener Arbeitsschutz GmbH.
What do you think? Were all these mergers and acquisitions a good idea? Find out in part 2 of the Wollschläger series.
Further Read (all sources in german language):