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How our family business partnership has lasted more than a century

Founded in 1899, German appliances giant Miele now turns over more than £2.5bn annually - and is still fully owned and run by its two founding families.
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No matter how successful they are, partnerships can often be fraught. Working with the same person every day and relying on them to have your back is always going to be a recipe for tension.

But one enterprising duo from has kept their success going for more than 100 years and across four generations of their family – resulting in a company which turns over more than €3bn (£2.5bn) and operates across the globe.

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Appliance manufacturers Miele, best-know for their washing machines, began life in Herzebrock, Germany, as a manufacturer of butter churns.

Carl Miele thought his design had the potential to improve the process but he lacked the commercial acumen to fully exploit the market. Enter Reinhard Zinkann, a salesman. The rest is history.

More than 100 years later, has 17,000 employees and is still fully owned and managed by the 4th generations of the Miele and Zinkann families.

Dr Markus Miele, Carl’s great-grandson, tells me his relationship with with his opposite number, Dr Reinhard Zinkann, isn’t likely to dissolve any time soon.

“We do know we are in a kind of marriage that can never be divorced,” he says. “We have a joint understanding for the business and joint will to keep it going.”

“As we received it from our father and forefathers, we want to hand it on as part of the chain stronger than when we took it over.”

He says the key to maintaining a healthy relationship is understanding where your partner is coming from.

“You have to respect each other. If he says “No I don’t like the project or the product,” he doesn’t say that because he doesn’t like my nose, he says it because he has the experience.

“I think the most important topic is that we make use of each others’ strengths, and accept each others’ strengths.”

As well as being wholly owned by the families, the company is entirely auto-financed. The only time it has taken on debt was to get things reinvigorated during the post-WW2 period.

Miele says the fact the company is run as a family partnership has been “one of the cornerstones of our success.”

“Why should we take in any other shareholders or seek outside finance?” he says. “We don’t need it.

“We love what we do. Why should we step out of something that we love and why should we give up a successful partnership? Why break up a winning team?”

With an eye on the future, Miele adds: “When we look over the world, it reminds me of the starting days. 

“When Miele and Zinkann were trying to improve the butter churn there were already 30 companies producing butter churns within a small radius of around 30-40km around Herzebrock.

“The world has changed quite a lot but the competition is still there and we have to be a little bit smarter, a little bit faster than the competition, come up with more ideas and more user benefits, and this is what keeps us running all the time.”

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