(Haigerloch, 2021-02-22) When founder Paul Schwenk registered the company “Spezialfabrikation elektr. Schaltapparate” in the Stuttgart commercial register in 1921, he never could have imagined the success story of the modern-day Theben AG. However, at the time, he laid the foundation for the family business, which now enjoys success on a global scale. What started with a patent issued in 1921 for the first staircase light timer switch has now developed into an extensive product portfolio covering time and light control, climate control, KNX building system technology, smart home and solutions for digitalising the energy revolution.
In this interview, Paul Sebastian Schwenk, CEO of Theben AG and great-grandson of the company founder discusses the history of Theben and reflects on the current and future challenges for the company.
When Paul Sebastian Schwenk was born in 1981, he was given the same first name as his great-grandfather and his grandfather in line with the family tradition. He always spent a lot of time with his grandfather, even when he was very young. His namesake gave him his curious, open and calm view of the world. As a board member since 2016 and Chairman of the Board and CEO since 2020, he wants to instill the courage to make a change in the family company.
Paul was born in 1889 and trained as a precision mechanic. When he returned from the First World War, he developed timers and started his own company in 1921. Thanks to his hard work and innovations, the business grew quickly. He died in 1944 after a long illness.
From 1958, a new factory was built in stages. It included an electronics department, which succeeded in creating a groundbreaking innovation with the Luna twilight switch. The change of name to “Theben-Werke” and creative marketing also contributed to the success and as a result, the first international branch was founded in France in 1971.
Multi-talented, Paul Eberhard Schwenk’s life’s achievements were truly remarkable. As a 20 year old, he took responsibility for the company in 1945 after the death of his father. Theben’s longstanding success story is down to him, with his strategic thinking, his energy and his determination. In 1976, he gave himself the freedom to find another way to leave his mark – his efforts as a castle owner and promoter of the arts have endured beyond his death in 2005.
In 1999, the new production site in Madertal, with more than 5000 square metres of space, was put into operation. In the same year, the KNX Association was formed, which developed an internationally compatible fieldbus standard for building automation thanks to Theben’s efforts.
Mr Schwenk, Theben is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. When and how did this success story begin?
Paul Sebastian Schwenk: The exact date was 22 February 1921, when the company was entered in the Stuttgart commercial register. Paul Schwenk was a skilled clock maker, who ultimately worked in a time switch factory. The way he worked has more or less endured right through to today: he perfected the product and developed the so-called staircase light timer switch. He also worked on display window lighting.
After starting in his father-in-law’s backyard workshop, the business grew nicely in the 1920s. He had 30 employees making time switches when he eventually decided to buy a large building in Stuttgart as the first factory. To escape the unrest caused by the Second World War, the company moved to the countryside, to Haigerloch. After the early death of my great-grandfather in 1944, my grandfather Paul Eberhard Schwenk took over the company, aged just 19. At this time it was scaled right back down to the very minimum after the war and continued production with just three people. When the economic upturn came along around the 1950s, we were in the right place at the right time with the right products. Germany flourished and Theben had the right solutions. Even in rural areas, there was much more demand for electricity and comfort. And that’s how Theben’s success story went on to develop over the next few decades.
When did you join the company?
Schwenk: I started on the Supervisory Board in 2005 – at this time, I was still a student. Once I had finished my education and had gathered my own entrepreneurial experience, I joined Theben at the start of 2016. After my mother passed away at a young age, in 2001, I was very quickly confronted with the company and with responsibility at just 20 years old. I found myself in the proverbial cold water but my ambition developed and I can now say that misfortune can have a positive impact, if you deal with it in the right way.
What product range defines Theben?
Schwenk: For over 100 years, we have focused on solutions to avoid wasting energy and to increase comfort at the same time. KNX was included from the early 1990s. Theben was one of the founding members and helped to develop this standard very early on. In 2003, Theben entered the market with the LUXOR living comfort control, long before the term “smart home” was established. Even then, LUXOR was developed with the intention of making it easier for installers to offer their customers an automated, comfortable system for controlling the building. LUXORliving was then developed from this a few years ago – an easy-to-use KNX-based smart home system. From the 2000s, the Detection & Lighting division has been a great addition and the logical next step in expanding our portfolio with presence and motion detectors.
What sets Theben apart and where is the company today?
Schwenk: The core idea and the original product are still strongly anchored in our thinking – switching time and light was my great-grandfather Paul Schwenk’s focus, in line with his motto of “energy at the right time”. Over the last 100 years, that has been a stable, constant and solid basis for us and is the reason we are still a modern, successful family-owned business today.
Over the past few decades, we have developed our company further, expanded the product portfolio and invested a lot in new technologies internally. What we have today, and want to reinforce further in the future, is our position as a provider of solutions. In the smart energy sector, our CONEXA 3.0 smart meter gateway is very much opening the door to the future. We are a company with tradition, history and a very stable, healthy foundation. My personal goal and that of the entire company needs to be to get the most out of Theben in terms of performance, growth and technology with our defined values and the right strategy.
How would you like to shape Theben’s future path?
Schwenk: With drive and respect. We have enough clout and are investing a lot within the scope of our possibilities. Within the last three months, we have hired nearly 20 new employees and we are always expanding our technological expertise. On the sales side, we want to tread new paths. There are major subjects that we want, and are able to tackle, primarily in the smart energy and smart building sectors and with regard to the bridge to be built between them. We developed the CONEXA 3.0 smart meter gateway, which has its roots in a German initiative but is being observed keenly in neighbouring countries. After all, the energy revolution and climate crisis are not just a German phenomena. If we at Theben can make a contribution to a successful energy revolution with a gateway for securely communicating measurement values, applications and additional information, then I will be very excited for the future. With our gateway and the added value platform, we want to become the “app store” of the energy world. We want to offer lots of different sectors secure access to the building and to the infrastructure of the building. We have the best conditions for this here.
We are also fine-tuning the digital business models: what sort of data can our products already generate, how can added value be derived from the data, how can we develop new products, new technologies from this? We want to proceed cautiously but decisively here. We will definitely be able to take some tentative steps with the smart meter gateway. As a result of this, we are already well established in the smart energy market and, when it comes to building automation, we also have 30 years of experience with KNX. In the smart energy sector, we are the only one of four German manufacturers to be at home with actuators and sensors in buildings and in building automation. We are the only manufacturer with a smart meter gateway. Our currently unique position is also attracting great interest abroad and more and more demands are coming from neighbouring countries. Added value and energy management in buildings is a real priority. Another exciting new development is a pixel-based contrast sensor. An innovation that is installed on the ceiling instead of a presence detector, for example, records people with a lens and can trigger activities in defined areas.
To continue to grow, we want to remain a trusted partner in the industrial customer business. I believe that the combination of our products and data processing expertise is a huge opportunity for us and is also necessary for our further development. We are a strong independent brand, but also open to partnerships and joint developments in all directions to successfully overcome the challenges of the future.