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July 2009
Deliberate Diversification
By Sam Boykin

     Ralph Daetwyler took over the reigns of his family business in January. With its U.S. headquarters in Huntersville, Max Daetwyler Corp. (MDC) has 14 locations worldwide, employs over 850 people, and for decades has been a market leader in the printing industry. Assuming control of such a successful and well-established company would be a daunting task for anyone, and at just 30, Daetwyler admits that he’s feeling the pressure, especially as he steers the company through the current economic upheaval.

     But rather than just sit tight and weather the storm, Daetwyler is looking to the future and ways he can expand MDC’s strength and expertise in order to stay competitive in a global marketplace. It’s the same tactic that his grandfather Max used after founding the company 66 years ago.


Flying High

     As a young man in Switzerland, Max Daetwyler apprenticed as a motorcycle mechanic working in his uncle’s shop. However, his passion was not for two-wheeled contraptions, but for winged ones. Even in his teenage years Max and his friends would make homemade hang gliders and take turns leaping off of hillsides.

     As Max became more proficient at small engine work, he picked up a job helping repair and rebuild airplane engines at an airport near Zurich. By then he was an avid pilot and well-versed in all aspects of small aircraft maintenance.

     In 1943 Daetwyler, took advantage of an opportunity to become independent and started the Max Daetwyler Corporation, rebuilding airplanes and manufacturing aviation parts. Several years later he branched out again, getting involved in the printing industry.

     “When a friend in the printing industry told him he needed some help manufacturing parts, my grandfather recognized it as yet another opportunity,” recalls Ralph.

     This was during a burgeoning time for the rotogravure (or gravure) industry, a printing process that involves engraving small cells or holes onto a copper cylinder which are then filled with ink and used to print everything from labels to magazines and newspapers. Max started out making acid etching machines, which created the small cells in the printing cylinders.

     But the company’s big break came in 1973 with the advent of its doctor blades which wipe off the excess ink from the cylinders during the printing process. MDC developed a new design that greatly improved printing quality, and today the company’s comprehensive steel doctor blades are considered the finest in the industry.

     To help market and sell the doctor blades, Ralph’s father, Peter, left Switzerland and started the company’s U.S. sales and service operations in Long Island, New York. Soon after this, MDC also developed the highly successful Polishmaster, a state-of-the-art product that cleaned and polished printing cylinders.

     The company now offers several of the industry’s most successful products for processing gravure cylinders, including plating machines and engraving machines that are the rotogravure industry’s most widely sold prepress machines.

     “The biggest kick to get us into the printing industry came with the doctor blade and the   Polishmaster,” Daetwyler says. “That’s when things really took off.”

     As MDC’s U.S. location continued to thrive, the company started looking for ways to  better service its customers in the U.S. and Canada. Daetwyler explains that the Charlotte area was an ideal location because of the airport and its proximity to many of its clients.

     In 1990, the company moved its U.S. headquarters to a 72,000-square-foot facility in Huntersville in 1990, where it continues to provide sales, installation and service for North American printing companies.

     In 1994, MDC pioneered an innovative four-year apprenticeship program. The apprenticeship program has been a great success, providing students with a college education while they work as a paid employee.

     Today, the program involves a consortium of North Carolina manufacturing companies including Ameritech Corp., Julius Blum, Inc., Pfaff molds, Sarstedt, Inc. and Timken.

     MDC made another strategic move in 2000 when it formed an alliance with Ohio Electronic Engravers, Inc. “This expanded our capacity,” says Daetwyler. “By combining the experience and expertise of the two companies, MDC became a single, streamlined source for the printing industry.”

     Yet it was also during this time that a shift began to occur in the printing industry itself. As more content became available online, the demand for printed materials like newspapers and magazines declined.

     Another shakeup occurred in 2005, when company founder Max Daetwyler died. “He basically ran the company until he passed away,” Daetwyler says of his grandfather.


Getting His Hands Dirty

     In 1979, during the company’s early boom days, Ralph Daetwyler was welcomed into the world. While born and raised in the U.S.—first in Long Island and then North Carolina—he spent many summers in Switzerland working for the family business, “turning wrenches and getting my hands dirty,” he says.

     Following his graduation from Providence Day High School in 1997, Ralph’s father, Peter, gave his son an option: “Go to school for one year in Switzerland, then decide if you want to continue your education in Europe or return to the U.S.”

     Daetwyler chose to return to the U.S., explaining that, while he loves Switzerland, he’s always considered himself an American. He went to N.C. State University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in business, and then returned once again to Switzerland. For nearly a year he worked for one of MDC’s customers in Germany that made cylinders for the gravure industry.

     “It was a detailed overview of what our customers worldwide go through to get product out of the door and, for me, it reaffirmed that this was the business that I wanted to get into,” he says.

     It also prepared him for his return to the U.S., where he earned a master’s in graphic communications from Clemson University in 2007.

     “I learned in the classroom then turned right back around and taught other undergrads how to do it. It was very hands-on. I had ink under my fingernails.”

     Rather than attend his college graduation, Daetwyler instead got married. The following week he and his new bride departed for an extended honeymoon/business trip.

“We traveled for nearly two years with the intention of visiting our customers and subsidiaries worldwide,” he says. However, the trip was cut short last December when, while they were in India, terrorists started bombing Mumbai.

     “The economy was tanking, bombs were exploding—we decided it was time to go. I returned to Huntersville, grabbed a paddle and started rowing. For the past two years it’s been non-stop. I feel like I’ve been catapulted into the industry.”


Solidifying Forces

     This January marked a momentous alliance for MDC. They announced partnership with Max Rid, a German competitor and owner of the companies Hell Gravure Systems, K. Walter, and Bauer Logistik, uniting their activities in developing, manufacturing, selling and servicing gravure cylinder making equipment.

     The partners named the new joint venture Heliograph Holding GmbH, which is now home to the newly founded Daetwyler Graphics as well as the corporations Hell Gravure Systems, K.Walter Service Corporation, Bauer Logistik, Schepers, Daetwyler R&D Dayton and their worldwide sister companies.

     Daetwyler explains that for many years Max Rid’s K. Walter Company was MDC’s biggest competitor. As the major gravure printing companies began to absorb many of the smaller gravure printers, it became evident that “there was no more room for two big players in the prepress equipment sector,” Daetwyler says. “So my father and Max Rid talked it out, and agreed to a joint venture.”

     In the U.S., activities and employees involved in sales and service of gravure cylinder-making equipment at Max Daetwyler Corporation remain in Huntersville, but now operate as K. Walter Service Corporation along with another office in Inman, South Carolina.

     When MDC announced this venture, it also named Ralph as the new president of K. Walter Service Corporation and Daetwyler USA. Ralph’s father Peter now serves as chairman of the board of Daetwyler Industries in Switzerland.

     With the gravure industry customers firmly established and MDC’s new merger, Daetwyler knew it was time to diversify, commenting, “Why limit yourself to one thing?”

Looking to expand, Daetwyler wants to apply MDC’s machine making capabilities to other industries and new technologies. Daetwyler is also focusing on “finding niche markets that are not just ‘me too.’”

     One venue Daetwyler is exploring is developing prototypes for companies or individuals that have an idea or existing product they want to bring to market. While MDCs’ facilities in Switzerland are designed for mass-producing machines, the Huntersville location, which has its own machine shop, is ideal for building “prototypes.”

     “We have engineers, machinists and assembly specialists who know high-precision, micron-accuracy but also put massive amounts of thought into how to build something with minimum cost,” Daetwyler explains. “Bring us a product or an idea and we’ll work with you to get it out the door exactly to your expectations.”

     MDC has also installed two Micro Waterjet machines. This technology, which is new to the U.S., is a high-precision device that uses patented Abrasive-Waterjet-   Micromachining technology capable of making very fine, detailed parts out of nearly any material, including steel, aluminum, glass and titanium. “The accuracy is unparalleled,” he says.

     Daetwyler believes such a device will become increasingly valuable as global industrial manufacturing continues to move toward smaller machines and components. And unlike laser cutting, which can damage materials because of the intense heat; Abrasive-Waterjet-Micromachining can be used on an unlimited range of materials.   Daetwyler says that in addition to being the exclusive worldwide seller of the Micro Waterjet, MDC is also using the high-tech machines to court the computer and medical, motorsports and racing, jewelers, and the micromachine industry in general.


An Energizing Future

     Of all the avenues Daetwyler explores as he maps out the company’s future, he is perhaps most excited about the company’s venture into the alternative energy field. Daetwyler facilities in Switzerland already manufacture machines for making windmill turbines which harness the energy of the wind as well as equipment that cuts and polishes ingots used for manufacturing solar panels. But now the company is delving into other alternative energy opportunities.

     In January, MDC launched Daetwyler Clean Energy LLC. “Clean and renewable energy is way beyond a fad. It’s a living, thriving industry and it’s the right thing for our environment,” Daetwyler says.

     Bill Taylor, former national sales manager for MDC and now Daetwyler Clean Energy’s vice-president of global business development, explains that this new corporation provides engineering, manufacturing and assembly services to the alternative energy marketplace.

     One of its ventures, Daetwyler Clean Energy, is currently in talks with a California-based solar energy company that is developing solar fields capable of generating electricity at lower prices than other forms of power generation. This company has developed the technology to build mirrors called heliostats that track the sunlight and concentrate its rays on a water-filled receiver atop a tower. The intense heat vaporizes the water and creates steam, which in turn drives an electricity-generating turbine.

      Earlier this year the California solar company entered into an agreement with a large utility company to build 11 solar power plants in the Southwest U.S. and 22 abroad.

     According to Taylor, Daetwyler Clean Energy’s role in this new venture would be to coordinate the supply chain to manufacture and assemble the heliostats that control the solar modules.

     Daetwyler Clean Energy has already defined a supply chain within the region to help facilitate the order once they’re given the go-ahead.

     Taylor says this would mean that Daetwyler would acquire a separate facility to assemble two million parts per year and hire up to 180 additional people—preferably all within the Carolinas.

     “It could profoundly impact the local economy,” says Taylor.

     While Daetwyler says that printing industry products remain the company’s “bread and butter,” he believes new initiatives like Daetwyler Clean Energy are key to helping grow the company and keeping it competitive in a global marketplace.

     “Our goal is to continue to uncover opportunities in the renewable energy market and help other manufacturers in our region who can re-tool and participate within our robust network of manufacturers.

     “I’m young, and I’ve only been president since January, but I’ve always paid attention. This company started with airplanes and went into printing, and now we’re exploring other opportunities. We have no sentimentality about what we do. As long as we enjoy doing it and it’s successful. That’s what’s important,” Daetwyler smiles.




Sam Boykin is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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