Like England's Wedgwood, which has become famous for its fine china, Villeroy & Boch in Luxembourg has molded itself a reputation in the porcelain industry. Fashioned over more than 200 years, V&B's reputation has helped to make it the largest European ceramic company, employing some 17,000 workers in Europe and 1,000 in the duchy. In 1979 the company had sales of almost $600 million, up 15 percent from the previous year. In 1980 the company expects sales to increase 10 percent. The company is privately held and doesn't report its profits.
The key to V&B's success, says Baron Antoine de Schorlemer, managing director of the Luxembourg factory, is its designs.
The company does not rely on art work produced by factory designers. Rather, it buys its designs from free-lance artists living in major cities. "The artist ," says the baron, "must have contact with the world and the freedom to create."
At the same time the company has discovered that the consumer not only wants a lively desing, but "dishwasher safe" porcelain as well. In fact, V&B was the first manufacturer to produce dishwasher-safe porcelains. And for the sake of the retailers and the customers. V&B guarantees it will continue to produce a pattern until a set date. For example, most of its patterns today are guaranteed until 1990.
V&B has singled out the "middle range" market for its products. "We can't produce the cheap products, like Korea, China, and the third-world countries," states the baron. Rather, it has aimed successfully for the customers of such stores as Bloomingdale's, B. Altman, Lord & Taylor, Neiman-Marcus, Macy's of San Francisco, and Gery's of California.
Diners at various restaurants and hotels around the US are also eating off V&B porcelain. "We are moving into the commercial markets," says Pierre Reuter, export manager, "and now have our products in various Hyatts and Sheratons [ hotes]." Both Kuwait and Iran Airlines also use the porcelains.
Outside Luxembourg the company also manufacturers sinks, toilets, bathtubs, and various other "sanitary tiles" as the trade calls them. In fact, the sales of sanitary equipment are larger than those of tableware and cystal, another product made outside the duchy.
The porcelain business has more hazards than the possibility of a dropped tray of dishes. For example, the success of V&B has inspired a host of other companies to produce imitations of V&B's best-selling designs. "Botanica, our most popular design, has a dozen copies on sale around the world," says Mr. Reuter.
The weakness of the dollar has also hurt the company since it bills many of its export customers in the US currency. With price changes occurring only once a year to keep a stable retail price, the falling dollar has cut deeply into export profit margins.
Changing consumer preferences also mean that tight management controls must be maintained. For example, the company noticed that its sales in Venezuela suddenly slumped. It turned out that the local distributor had stocked up on locally unpopular patterns and couldn't sell them. By drastically cutting prices, the company could sell the porcelains and restock with better selling items. One of the major reasons the company has remained successful in spite of these problems is its tendancy to reinvest its profits in the business. "We have the most modern factories in the Benelux," boasts Mr. Reuter.
Indeed, in a tour of the plant, a visitor can see how automation has allowed the company to produce 20,000 cups, 4,000 soup bowls, and 9,000 plates a day. With the introduction of a new kiln last year, the company was able to hire an additional 250 people and increase production by 60 percent.
In 1979 some 1.5 million articles were made at the plant. Even a fire that completely destroyed its warehouse -- and its inventory -- did not slow the company. (Fortunately, says Mr. Reuter, the company has a major amount of its best-selling pattern in production and could continue shipping the pattern to its distributors).
The company's roots date back to 1748, some 40 years after the Elector of Saxony and the King of Poland had instituted the making of porcelain of Meissen. Francois Boch decided to leave his job as an armorer and to devote himself full time to a pottery workshop he had set up as a hobby in Audun- Le-Tiche in Lorraine. From that humble beginning the company eventually grew into factories in Luxembourg, Belgium, and Germany. (In 1836 the company merged with a Belgian company owned by Nicholas Villeroy. Thus, the basis for the current name). Even through the various wars that wracked Europe, the company survived and managed to prosper.
V&B's largest customer is West Germany, followed by the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and France. The fastest growing export market is the US, trailed by Canada, Japan, Australai, and Venezuela. Products are sold in 71 countries.