A star pupil of a company

Millions of schoolchildren and students have sat on them – chairs made by VS. The family-run company produces high-quality school furniture as well as office furniture – and Hapag-Lloyd transports it all over the world. Time for a visit to Tauberbischofsheim.

Right behind the train station stands a clear expression of what the company VS Vereinigte Spezialmöbelfabriken represents: the glass façade of the its headquarters reflects the production facilities opposite, while the building itself houses a canteen with a modern design. The first and second floors are reminiscent of spacious display areas. This is where transparency, dedication to craftsmanship, and an understanding of good design converge. Architect Günter Behnisch, who achieved fame for his design of the Olympiastadion in Munich, is one of the many renowned architects that long-standing Managing Director Dr. Thomas Müller was able to engage for his company. Behnisch designed not just its headquarters, but also some of its office furniture products. They continue to be manufactured in Tauberbischofsheim today.

Design icons working for VS

With 1,500 Employees and an annual revenue of over 250 million euros, VS is one of Europe’s biggest school and office furniture producers and exports its products to around 70 countries worldwide. Schoolchildren were learning while seated at legendary “Rettig benches” more than 100 years ago, while iconic designers like Egon Eiermann and Verner Panton shaped and continue to shape the international reputation of VS. Among today’s designers are Frenchman Jean Nouvel, whose “Jumper” chairs feature in the company’s catalogue, while past designers include Karl Nothhelfer, whose skid-chairs have now been sold around six million times since being designed in 1950.

“Our furniture is virtually indestructible, which is the be-all and end-all for schools,” says Managing Director Philipp Müller, explaining his company’s success. In 2016, he became the fourth generation to run the company. VS recently won an enormous contract for Italy, where new tables and chairs were purchased for schoolchildren throughout the country. 600 trucks made the journey from Tauberbischofsheim across the Alps.

VS Managing Director Philipp Müller

1,500 containers to the USA annually

A walkway to the loading ramps between the workrooms – just a few metres from the main building: here, a spick and span Hapag-Lloyd container is awaiting its cargo. Logistics manager Manfred Weihbrecht beckons us into the warehouse with a friendly gesture. In a few minutes, space-saving flip tables will be loaded here for delivery to Charlotte in North Carolina. From the loading ramp, the truck will take them to Aschaffenburg. From there, they will travel by rail to Hamburg, where the Hapag-Lloyd container will be loaded onto a ship. Around 1,500 containers make this journey to the USA every year.

“The shortest route will get the furniture there in just 15 days,” explains Weihbrecht. The head of the service centre has worked at the company since 1985. Few people know its logistics as well as he does. And he needs to, because just as there is an elaborate system for stacking containers at the port, it is a similar situation with the internal logistics of VS. Every part must be at the right place at the right time so that it can be loaded. Weihbrecht: “The contents of a container are worth between 30,000 and 50,000 euros, so everything must be calculated properly to make sure that it is all worthwhile.” With Kühne +Nagel as a freight forwarder and Hapag-Lloyd for shipping, he says that VS has found partners which offer the right price and quality and which it can rely on 100 per cent.

VS Logistik Manager Manfred Weihbrecht

“I always know exactly where our containers are”

Reliability, regionality and sustainability are not just words for Manfred Weihbrecht: “A good team, professional communication and a strong corporate culture – all of this belongs together here,” is how the man with the powerful voice summarises the spirit of VS, before adding some praise for the shipping company: “If I order a container from Hapag-Lloyd for seven o’clock in the morning, it’s here on time!” He believes that security also plays an important role: “Many shipping companies have been hacked in recent times. Hapag-Lloyd fares comparatively well in this regard. And the tracking is reliable. I always know exactly where our containers are during their journey.”

Weihbrecht regards the introduction of the shuttle concept as a logistical milestone in recent years. He says that having a contingent of containers available at all times is an unbeatable advantage: “Our staging area isn’t huge, but it’s very busy here in summer. If we didn’t have the opportunity to load right around the clock, we would have problems.” Has anything ever gone wrong during shipping? “A container with important sample parts went overboard in the Bay of Biscay one time. They’re now lying at the bottom of the sea somewhere. However, that happened with a different carrier – before we switched to Hapag-Lloyd,” he adds with a smirk.

Incredible design possibilities

Since 2016, the company’s present and future have been the responsibility of Philipp Müller, the son of long-standing Managing Director Dr Thomas Müller. The 39-year-old, whom we meet in the afternoon on the top floor of the company’s headquarters, joined its marketing department in 2013: “Before that, I was at VW in Wolfsburg for four years. My father never put any pressure on me to follow in his footsteps. However, as time went by, I realised what incredible design opportunities I have here,” he says.

While seeming somewhat matter-of-fact, the Managing Director has a strong emotional connection with the products: “I sat on our company’s chairs myself at school.” Of course, he admits that in his teenage years he found the furniture somewhat uncool, as well as school itself. “On the other hand, we all associate this furniture with an incredible range of experiences: from our first love to our worst math test. The furniture was always part of it.”

The deeper meaning of the company

Currently, Philipp Müller is proud of the three-legged lightweight “Stakki”, created by designer Martin Ballendat. The monobloc chair, with its three-cornered seat, received the Red Dot Award twice in 2020. However, it is not just awards and profitability that motivate the man, who has a two-year-old son, but also the deeper purpose of his company: “Education enables people to make something out of their lives and thus play a part in shaping our society. Although we don’t supply the pedagogic concepts, we ensure that schoolchildren are sitting in the best-possible way when they are learning. Since we talk about lifelong learning today, this applies to the modern workplace as well. The fact that Hapag-Lloyd is there to support us logistically – even better!”

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