50 years of textile printing company Mayer

50 years of textile printing company Mayer

Frogs, 100 working hours a week and textiles as a material: Heinrich Mayer and Claudia and Michael Steidle look back on 50 years of textile printing Mayer

Five decades ago, Heinrich Mayer founded his textile printing company in Unterdigisheim. On May 2, 1974, a Thursday, the shop in Unterdigisheim began its service. In their garage, Heinrich Mayer and his wife Elsbeth stood at a two-metre-long table and printed motifs on T-shirts by hand – until 180,000 frogs appeared on the scene.

Mr. Heinrich Mayer, you founded your own company in 1974? What prompted you to take this step?

I was dissatisfied with my work in the Meßstetter barracks. My department had been disbanded and I had been transferred to an administrative area. On the side, I worked for a relative who had a ready-to-wear factory in Tailfingen. I helped out there as a weaver and knitter. This uncle, Karl Blickle, gave me the idea of textile printing and motif printing. "They make money, the printers," he used to say.

How old were you when you decided to become self-employed?

I had already passed my 39th birthday. That seemed pretty old to me at the time.

How was the start then? How many employees did you start with?

In the beginning, my wife and I were alone, we had no employees – and no special knowledge of textile printing. We stood at our two-metre-long table and printed the first T-shirts by hand with stencils for sampling.

After that, it can take some time before the order is placed. For us, this went on for a quarter of a year, during which we had no work at all. That was bad: we often sat behind the house at nine o'clock; if there was still a bottle of wine in the cellar, we drank it just so we had something to do.

Apparently, the work came after all?

It really took off in October 1974: We started business with the Ernst Schöller company. By Christmas of the same year, we were supposed to print 180,000 frogs on T-shirts. We worked by hand. Together with former colleagues and numerous temporary workers, we were able to fill several shifts during the day and evening, so that we got the job done on time. On average, we managed 3,000 frogs per day. 

In the new year, 1975, more customers were added, as well as the first permanent employees. We needed more space, and of course our two-metre table was no longer sufficient, so we needed the first print shop extension. At the end of a year, we had five permanent employees and up to 50 temporary workers.

Did the successful development continue?

In the years that followed, the business developed splendidly: after ten years, 30 employees worked for us, plus 50 to 100 temporary workers. That was in the mid-80s. It felt like half of Nusplingen and Unterdigisheim came after work in the evening.

At that time, we already had two large buildings, equipped with large printing machines. We were one of about ten textile printers in the Zollernalb district.

In 1985, my daughter Claudia joined the office. Our main customer at the time was Sanetta, we were the "in-house printer" for whom they had high demands. We have grown from this: we have taken on complicated assignments that others preferred to refuse. In addition, Sanetta was still doing good business when many comapnies were already beginning to feel the exodus of the textile industry.

That's an important keyword. What crises do you remember?

For us, it was more of a change that we had to go through. In 1993, when my son-in-law joined the company, the textile industry in the region was declining. Sanetta opened a plant in Greece and withdrew the orders from us – along with the request to open a subsidiary in Greece ourselves. That's what we did in 1994; we then employed about ten people there. At that time, we had around 20 employees in Unterdigisheim.

What are you most proud of in business terms?

Building a business is always a feat of strength. In the early days, my working hours amounted to around 100 hours per week. The effort paid off, as we quickly took a leading position among the printing companies in the region.

We were able to buy our first machines without taking out a loan. We earned the money first – and then we spent it. When I retired from the company at the age of 68, I was also able to hand over a debt-free business to my son-in-law.

I also had the necessary portion of luck: our investments have always paid off.

Your son-in-law reports that it was easy for you to let go, that you were happy to transfer responsibility. Is that true?

Well, it was a long process, I gradually withdrew. I knew that the textile printing company was in good hands. I would never have been able to make the change that we have now made.

What do you appreciate about your son-in-law?

I appreciate his skills and knowledge as a master electronics mechanic and business economist. This was necessary to be able to convert the operation. He's ambitious, always a bit on the lookout.

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Ms. Steidle, you were at the opening of your father's business and the early years of your childhood and adolescence. What do you remember fondly – and what do you not like so fondly?

I was eight years old when my parents started the printing company. It was exciting for my sister and me: we were very proud that we were now self-employed.

What made you decide to take over the business? Was this always a plan or did it happen by chance?

Yes, I wanted to go to the company. As a young woman, I therefore did an apprenticeship as an industrial clerk at Paul Sauter's warp knitting and knitting mill in Meßstetten, at the "Pulli-Paul".

Then the only question left was who would be the boss. I still had to find the man, because it was definitely not for me. And that worked out great – although it was really the love and the business that really came first! We met in 1991 and married in 1993.

What was it about this challenge that particularly appealed to you?

What appealed to me most was being self-employed. Right, our company was in the textile industry. In the 90s, this was no longer an easy industry, but we have always managed to land new, profitable orders.

In 2002, you and your husband took over the printing company. What are your milestones?

The highlights were our foreign operations, which we maintained parallel to the headquarters, even if not all of them were crowned with success. The printing plant in East Germany near Chemnitz, which we opened shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, did not work. I would also describe our time in Tunisia as "mixed".

Definitely the best experience, both personally and professionally, was the printing plant in Greece that we opened in 1994. We have taken this step with Sanetta. After about 20 years, we moved the entire business to Bulgaria, again together with Sanetta. We sold this plant about two years ago – thus closing the chapter on foreign subsidiaries.

 Are there any experiences that you would have liked to do without?

The excursion to East Germany. We were too far away, there were always technical and professional problems. It was also difficult to meet the requirements of the authorities, sewage treatment plants, inspecting pipelines and so on. After five years, we withdrew.

What makes you particularly proud?

That we are still here despite the decline of the domestic textile industry. 

What do you admire about your husband and his professional achievements?

His innovations, his ideas. Without them, the company would no longer exist.

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Mr. Steidle, what can your wife definitely do better than you?

In any case, payroll programs and financial accounting! But seriously, she's very good at HR issues. She also keeps a cooler head than I do.

You came to the textile industry as a career changer. Where are your professional roots and what attracted you to the textile industry?

I completed my apprenticeship as an information electronics technician at Bizerba. After my military service, I passed the master craftsman's examination to become a master electromechanic and completed a degree in business administration, both part-time. During this time, I worked for two different companies as a workshop manager and as a production manager, the latter at the BSG company in Engstlatt, which dealt with electronics and white goods.

During this time, Heiner, who was already my father-in-law at the time, approached me and asked if I could imagine taking over his business. I was taken with the idea but asked for a trial period. 'We'll make up our minds after a year at the latest,' I said. I had set myself the deadline so that I could possibly return to my old job.

What were your first steps in the new industry?

The first thing I did was to take an intensive textile course in Reutlingen. I didn't know what a stitch was, didn't know that there was a difference between a woven fabric and a knitted fabric! The medium was simply foreign to me.

Nevertheless, it quickly turned out that this was my place. My father-in-law gave me a lot of freedom. I was aware of the responsibility, also about the fact that mistakes can happen. But that's exactly what I got into.

The individual printing techniques, the combination and exhaustion of the possibilities were appealing. That's why customers came to us with unusual requests: Marc Cain, for example. The products with higher production price allowed us to stand out.

They have turned the textile printing business upside down. What was the first big change you initiated?

I came from a different business world. The floor was spotless, no one smoked or drank beer while working. When I came to the textile printing shop, there were still four compartments with beer in the vending machine. I quickly got rid of that!

What are your milestones in your career at and with the textile printing company Mayer?

The most important one was the realization that we can never win a price war. Instead, we need to set ourselves apart through competence and innovation.

This was a painful process, because over the years we lost customers: first the contract knitters, then the lingerie people and the outerwear. At the same time, I was dissatisfied because we could only survive with this kind of pressure. After all, the technique of screen printing is so versatile.

With the first contacts in the automotive sector, there were requests to apply silicones or PUs to textiles – by means of screen printing. The turning point came when Interstuhl asked whether it was possible to apply a 3D coating to a work chair, a textile, with exceptional properties and technical character. Once we had solved this task, I believed that we would be able to transform into an industrial developer.

As a result, more and more technical projects came, requests for coatings of metals, artificial leathers. Today we live from technical textiles, textile printing could almost be described as a hobby. 

Another strategic decision was the commitment to the location by renovating our existing buildings and building new ones.

Are there any decisions you would make differently today?

No. Entrepreneurially, I wouldn't do anything differently. I would have liked to have spared myself the personal and physical sacrifices that many a decision entailed, such as our branch in Tunisia.

What makes you particularly proud?

That we managed to earn my wife's income and my own for over 30 years with this business.

I am also proud that we were able to set up the company in such a way that it was able to hold its own in a difficult market.

What vision, what perspective do you have for the company?

I would like to put the company on a basis that allows the generation after us to run a successful business with it for a longer period of time. I want someone to be interested in taking over the company. After all, I want to keep my wife's job; she has to work  a few years longer than me.

What do you personally want to achieve? 

The ambition to bring an idea into reality and to see it in a finished product.

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Please also visit our web pages "Our History" and "Milestones".

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