Featured image: a mannequin with built-in simulators that provides a realistic reproduction of the acoustic properties of a human head and torso, at the company’s HQ in Struer, Denmark. Image courtesy of Sacha Maric.
Geoff Martin knows his noises. He hears things we cannot hear. Some of the time he sits in a fake living room (on a real sofa) and listens to music or watches television, alert to tonal impurities and aberrant vibrations. Some of the time he does his listening in a car, an Audi or Aston Martin. And some of the time he does it in ‘The Cube’, a 12×12×13m box, where he can listen and not have sound bounce back from the walls or get lost behind the sofa cushions.
Born in Canada, Martin is a tonmeister with a Master of Music in Sound Recording from McGill University in Montreal. He is a highly trained super ear, a man who can outwit electronic registers and tweak second-hand sound to come across as real as possible. And for over ten years, Martin has spent his time deep inside a glass corporate facility in a town called Struer on the remote and windswept West Jutland coast of Denmark, listening.
Struer is pretty much a company town. The company is Bang & Olufsen, established here 88 years ago, dedicated, then, as now (and the reason Martin is here), to the mechanics and magic of sound reproduction. It was founded by Peter Bang and Svend Olufsen, two young graduates of Aarhus Electrotechnical School. Bang was obsessed with the possibilities of radio technology while Olufsen understood the possibilities of Bang’s obsession and was happy to partner up and develop them. The pair setup shop at Quistrup, the Olufsen family estate near Struer, in 1925. It proved the perfect incubation spot for the fledgling business, keeping its founders far away from the distractions of Copenhagen and offering a ready supply of cheap local labour.
Bang & Olufsen opened its first factory in 1927 and produced its first radio, the revolutionary ‘Five Lamper’, in 1929. The company grew rapidly, becoming a pioneer both in technology– developing radios, gramophones, film sound-recording technology, cinema-soundsystems – and in branding and marketing. Its logo was devised in 1932, just as the company began using celebrity endorsements in its advertising.
The firm grew rapidly, though this growth was derailed when a Nazi saboteur blew up the factory at the end of the Second World War (Bang & Olufsen had covertly lent its technical expertise to the Danish resistance). But West Jutlanders are hardy and practical sorts and the factory was up and running again two years later.
A different challenge came a decade later when the Danish designer, architect and critic Poul Henningsen attacked the design of Danish radios, Bang & Olufsen’s among them. ‘One feels sick looking at so much lack of talent gathered in one place,’ Henningsen fumed. ‘The old-fashioned toilet door in its most vulgar form has been put to good use as a source of inspiration for the latticework in almost all the loudspeakers. The whole thing cries out to be fitted with a bucket and sheets of newspaper inside the box–which paradoxically accommodates one of the greatest technical wonders of our time. In short, it is an insult to people who value modern furniture to force them to buy these monstrosities in order to enjoy the considerable cultural asset embodied by the radio.’
Unsurprisingly, the criticism stung and Bang & Olufsen began producing special ‘architect models’ of its new products, conceived by architects and designers – Ib Fabiansen was the first among them. Three years later Denmark joined what was then called the Common Market with warnings of terrible consequences for the Danish radio makers who, so the argument went, would be terminally outgunned by their German competitors. Bang & Olufsen decided that advanced design and technology was now key to its survival. From now on, all of its products would be ‘architect models’. Taste and quality were more important than price, it insisted, a strategy it has stuck with since.
Fabiansen handled much of Bang & Olufsen’s product design until the late 1960s, but in 1965 the company also began working with the design studio of Jacob Jensen and his young British assistant, David Lewis. Over the next 15 years the duo, working with industrial designer Henning Moldenhawer, developed a unique design language for the company, applying an emphasis on formal elegance and functional minimalism which established a growing international reputation for the brand.
In 1972, the Museum of Modern Art in New York bought seven Bang & Olufsen pieces and in 1978 exhibited the company’s entire product line (only three other companies had been given their own exhibition: Thonet, Braun and Olivetti). Lewis became the company’s first-ever chief designer in 1980, and the company continued to develop sound and vision equipment that looked and sounded like nothing else out there.
Bang & Olufsen’s reputation, though, belies its size. It only employs 2,000 people, with manufacturing sites in Struer and the Czech Republic. Its radical design and technical innovation has helped it punch above its weight. But it has taken a few punches itself along the way, and walked right into some of them. Occasionally the company has been caught flat-footed, spending too long developing products while technology has shifted beneath its feet. New products have been developed only to be abandoned as obsolete.
A decade ago Bang & Olufsen began developing mobile phones, which seemed like a good idea at the time. But the project exposed just these weaknesses. It sucked up time and resources and the phones were a commercial failure. They were launched in 2006 and withdrawn two years later. 2008 was a bad year all round. Lots of people suddenly decided top end, audio-visual goodies were an indulgence that could come of the shopping list. In 2008-2009, the firm’s turnover dropped to DKK2. 8bn, down from DKK 4.1bn the previous year. Around 75 per cent of revenues came from within the Eurozone and the Eurozone was in trouble.
After a rapid-fi re-turnaround of CEOs, a young Danish McKinsey alumnus, Tue Mantoni, was drafted in in March 2011. Still just 37, Mantoni had engineered a dramatic reversal of fortune for British motorcycle maker Triumph. The company had been losing money for ten years and its factory had just burned down when Mantoni was brought in. He left having tripled the Triumph business and returning it to profitability. The Bang & Olufsen board was banking on Mantoni repeating that kind of rescue operation and quickly putting its slide into reverse.
A seemingly laid-back father of three with a serious ultra-running habit, Mantoni resists too much criticism of his immediate predecessors. ‘Yes, the company lost focus,’ he acknowledges. ‘It’s easy to look back and criticise certain decisions, but at the time mobile phones were a huge growth market.’ He will do things differently, though, and the first part of the turnaround plan, as it so often is, is a focus on core competencies. That means again dedicating the company to advanced sound engineering and distinctive product design. ‘The focus now is investing in great sound and design,’ he insists.
But he also acknowledges that the company’s physical remoteness had been matched by a certain corporate insularity: Bang & Olufsen had failed to profitably connect with the new players who had revolutionised the way sound and vision was delivered. Worse, it had barely registered they were there. Mantoni is forcing the company to look outwards and connect.
‘We have to recognise that the way consumers use products has changed,’ Mantoni says. ‘People no longer use just one brand and we have to make sure our product is part of their ecosystem.