Portrait of a Founder
A Meeting with Wilfried Philipp
A vigorous man brimming with vitality, in his early nineties he is still a forceful presence. I instinctively stand up straighter, a little taller - it soon becomes clear why.
“As you know, I'm an engraver. In the world of engraving you need strength AND instinct to create beauty. An engraver draws on these qualities when guiding his tools, and I've always used this same approach when dealing with people. Choose the best, give them strong guidance and treat them well."
Rather than talking at length about management theories, he gets to the point quickly. He talks about his early years as an apprentice engraver, about the first machine, founding the business and, again and again, about ideas. “And do you know what I did then?” he asks – and the discussion turns to something new each time.
And even with more than three quarters of a century under his belt, his enthusiasm is still tangible and contagious. Enthusiasm for neatly solved problems, new techniques, clever minds and tenacious developers.
“Are you happy with it?” is his constant refrain during the weekly tour of the business. If the employee is happy, he is happy, because he knows his people are passionate about their work. And when you see the spark in his eyes, it's easy to see who lit that passion.
It all started ninety years ago in the Silesian mountains, in Hrubý Jeseník in what is now the Czech Republic, but was then Sudetenland. There, in Karlstal, the son of a simple woodsman went to technical school, quickly developing a passion for physics. Before the end of the war, he had completed his apprenticeship as a toolmaker and engraver.
He'd hardly finished his training when, at just eighteen years of age and not yet an adult, he had to deal with the trauma of forced migration. But once in West Germany, it didn't take him long to find work. He started out working in Mindelheim in Bavaria, engraving signet rings, devotional objects and many a weapon belonging to American soldiers.
After working in Schwäbisch Gmünd for a while at a damascening business, he traveled to Stuttgart, where he trained himself in steel engraving. It was this skill that led him to move to Switzerland under the aegis of the company Fischer-Metteli, where he worked in the most prestigious area of engraving, producing dials for beautiful watches.
When he set up his first business, however, he moved back to Stuttgart in the state of Swabia, which he now considered home. In 1956, with just 500 Deutschmarks, he set up his “workshop for freehand engraving” in the east of Stuttgart, providing printing plates for print shops.
Soon he moved to a larger workshop, using a loan from a friend to buy his first engraving machine. By 1961 he had moved to Feuerbach and had 3 engraving machines, and from 1968 he was based in Kallenberg with initially 10 and later 20 machines.
This was matched by a growing workforce: the one-man business had become a company with three, ten, twenty, twenty-five employees.
“I always chose to exploit the technology rather than the people,” says Philipp, and that remains his maxim today. And that's why he was able to keep his plans for his new machines completely secret during development: “Choose the best and treat them well. That's how you create a family that sticks together."
At that time, the team were mostly producing pressure plates and tools for minting coins. “Machine construction really came from our spirit of invention. We wanted to be better and do more than the others, be more reliable."
There was no plan to sell the machines themselves at that time, but they were open to the concept, and in the face of demand the first patented machines were sold to engravers in 1966.
This same spirit was responsible for Philipp's successful development of his new idea, silicone pad printing, in the 1960s. The goal was to be able to print on any surface, no matter what shape. After more than two years of development, he knew it would work. By using silicone pads, it was possible to print on surfaces of any shape – all that remained was to address speed, colors and precision. Five years of determined work later, it was ready for operation.
Philipp presented this first silicone pad printing machine on KraussMaffei's exhibition stand in 1971. The feedback was overwhelming: Philipp returned from Düsseldorf with 30 orders.
The rest is history: the process proved to be a quantum leap for the plastics industry. The “Wilfried Philipp Industriegravuranstalt” became “TAMPOPRINT AG” in Korntal-Münchingen near Stuttgart, with subsidiaries around the world and its own machine construction division, “ALFA TOOLS”, in the Swabian Jura hills.
But Philipp's innovation skills didn't go to waste: the use of lasers, printing using functional media (e.g. nicotine onto nicotine patches), the development of the bottle top division, the construction of the new company head office in 1990 and founding the public limited company provided plenty of scope for exercise.
The handshake when I take my leave is no weaker than when I arrived – not an intimidating handshake, but an encouraging one. I straighten my shoulders again. That's the last time I'll wonder why everyone in this company gives it their all.