One Family Business over 3 centuries- The Story of Klotzli Knives

One family controlling a business into its 6th generation defies almost all the odds. Typically few family owned businesses succeed or exist beyond the third generation.

Hans Peter Klotzli says ” it’s very difficult; we’ve had very challenging times”… when asked about the ingredient to successfully sustain a family owned business into the 6th Generation. The family has been making and retailing knives since 1848.

Hans Peter Klotzli

Klotzli Knives of Bern, Switzerland, is a particular craftsman of quality, precision knives, cutlery; and you might say all fine items with a sharp edge.

Klotzli Designed and Manufactured Knives

To talk with Mr. Klotzli, the 60 something owner who represents the 5th generation, the passion and pride for the fineness of the family made brand of knives draws parallels to the famed watchmakers across Switzerland.

I was in Bern on holiday with my family. As we’ve done before for other family members we were on a search for the classic Swiss Army knife to give to my son. We happened into Mr. Klotzli’s store to search for the well recognized Victorinox knife.

Our initial retail experience looked problematic. We couldn’t get the retail salesperson to understand that we wanted my son’s initials engraved in a particular way. Somewhat disappointed we left, sans knife, to break for lunch. We returned an hour later determined to better explain our needs for the knife. We sorted the purchase out when I noticed a small brochure under the counter glass. This was a history overview of the Kotzli family business.

I recognized the current family owner in the store. We had a great conversation. He described how in 1991 he almost lost the family business. A terrible recession, dollar weaknesses along with a sharp decline of sales in the U.S. market put the family on the brink. A loan from his mother helped the Klotzli family over a critical few months helped give time to cut costs and change the business.

He then showed us a variety of beautifully made knives of all sorts that bear the Klotzli brand. I admit knowing very little about knives except for the Swiss Army knife. In a brief time he demonstrated the balance and the particular sounds the knives make on opening and closing. Each knife has a unique handle or materials to hold and cover the knife blade. I could easily appreciate the fineness and how precious these particular knives compare to Victorinox, and the many cheaper brands his retail store is forced to carry.

Like a quality watch, or pen each knife had a particular use or personal quality of design and aesthetic to appeal to its owner.

The way he talked about his product and craft inspired a desire to own one of his knives.

He added that it’s very hard to cultivate interest among the next generation to learn and take over the business. He explained he was always interested and by age 8 had made his first knife. Later he worked at Victorinox for 4 years making knives before joining and then taking over the family’s business. Two of his children recently joined the business to lead the next generation. Unfortunately, at present none know the trade of developing and making knives.

Some observations:

  • Even a small business is exposed to global shifts and risks;
  • Train the family and non family staff to tell the family business story of Why the business exists;
  • Define customer service in terms of the family’s values for hospitality;
  • Constantly be on the watch for new people to recruit for the next generation of talent and develop- family or non family;
  • Figure out how best to transition the business, and what’s best for your ownership, and the legacy you may want to pass on;
  • Allow time for the transition. Perhaps 2 to 4 years to properly organize the business, and to develop the next generation.

Not everyone cares about their family legacy so they may decide they don’t want to bother. On the other hand I can tell you from this experience that my impression of the store completely changed for the better. His story makes for a much better retail and brand experience that differs from the usual tourist shops along the Bern street just selling another Swiss Army knife. A better experience translates to a business with better sales.

Even though our purchase was modest I learned something about being a master craftsman and the effect that has on the value of a brand. My awareness and consideration of Klotzli is now high, and I will look for their products for future purchase.

KKnives Sep 2014

Family Legacy of 6 Generations

They have a good website to display their brand products along with others.

Peter Klinge works to help owners of private companies execute strategies and plans to achieve their desired growth potential. In addition to Klinge associates he is also the founder and President of Providence Partners International, Inc.

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