100 years of Theben: Evolution from a time switch specialist into a provider of complete systems for intelligent, networked buildings

(Haigerloch, 2021-02-22) By the time Paul Schwenk founded his “specialist factory for electrical switching gadgets” in Stuttgart on 22 February 1921, he was certainly very well prepared for this new stage in his career. Born in Heidenheim on the eastern Swabian Alb in 1889, he had already trained as a precision engineer with a church clock maker in Ulm and had then spent many years working for a time switch manufacturer in Stuttgart, earning his title of master craftsman in the process. The masterpiece of his career turned out to be a “3-minute timer for staircase lighting”. In 1919, he had developed a “remote time switch” that warned people on the staircase that the light was about to switch off. This was patented in 1921.

The customers quickly flocked to him, mainly in the form of municipal utilities and electric companies, although there was also demand for his staircase time switches and tariff time switches from wholesalers. Other factors that contributed to the company's rapid growth were its early establishment of sales agencies, good-quality and meaningful advertising material, and catchy brand name of “Theben”.

In 1928, Paul Schwenk purchased a five-storey commercial property on Reinsburgstraße in Stuttgart. It was here that he perfected an important principle that the company still follows today: each and every time switch must be thoroughly put through its paces by undergoing an endurance test prior to dispatch – when it came to quality, Paul Schwenk was not prepared to leave anything to chance.

Time and time again, he managed to come up with groundbreaking innovations, such as the “Elpa” automated staircase switch. This device was unveiled in 1930 and patented in 1934, making it one of the first building automation products to arrive on the market. For proof that Paul Schwenk was also very creative outside of the world of staircase time switches, you need look no further than the “Elpa fan”, a hand-held portable fan for ladies with refined taste.

Paul Schwenk was fascinated by the Egyptians, who had water clocks for measuring time 3500 years ago. They also had obelisks to act as a kind of sun dial. ​When you consider the immense impact that the innovations from that era have had on human life all the way up to today, it is easy to see why Paul Schwenk opted for an Egyptian name: Theben, which is the German for “Thebes”. ​Thebes was the capital of the ancient Egyptian empire and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Paul Schwenk was a democrat through and through. As a result, he came into conflict with the National Socialist authorities on multiple occasions after they assumed power in 1933. After the start of the war, he no longer felt that Stuttgart was a safe place for production. In light of this, he took the decision to relocate his company to Haigerloch, purchasing the former “Rose” tavern there in 1940.


1941–1957: Handover to the next generation and a fresh start in a former tavern

Following extensive conversion and renovation work on the building, the first machines were put into operation in the “Rose's” former party room in the summer of 1941. At the same time, Paul Eberhard Schwenk, the son of the company's founder, started a training placement at his father's company.

In 1944, Paul Schwenk suffered an untimely death at the age of 55 while his son, Paul Eberhard, was away serving as a soldier on the front line. Having sustained injuries here on multiple occasions, the latter returned to Haigerloch at the end of 1945 after a long stay in the military hospital. By then, the firm was idle but he got production up and running again all on his own, although this did call for a good dash of improvisation on his part. Among other things, he used leftover materials to make cigarette lighters.


In parallel with this, he found himself fighting for the company's survival. With a great deal of effort – and the help of his sister, Esther Procter – he was able to prevent the factory's demolition by the French occupation authority. In addition, he found himself facing restitution claims by the former Jewish owner of the “Rose”, who – before she emigrated in 1938 – had been forced to sell the tavern to the person that Paul Schwenk eventually bought it from at far below the true market value. However, they ultimately managed to come to a mutually agreeable settlement instead.

When the Deutsche Mark was introduced in 1948 and Germany's “economic miracle”began, production at Theben accelerated rapidly. It started hiring employees again from 1949, the first of whom was – incidentally – Paul Eberhard Schwenk's sister Ellen. Known as the “good soul” of the company, she helped shape the business for decades. The first company outing took place the same year, with the first Christmas party following a year later. The whirlwind development of the business – whose turnover increased tenfold between 1949 and 1959 – meant that production at the “Rose” tavern was soon bursting at the seams.


1958–1971: Innovation leads to expansion on greenfield land

Paul Eberhard Schwenk found a new home for his expanding company just a stone's throw from the existing location. On the outskirts of Haigerloch, there was a site on Hohenbergstraße that offered potential for expansion and so Theben decided to buy it. Starting in 1958, the factory there got completely rebuilt in a series of construction stages spanning years. On completion of the final stage in 1970, Theben ended up possessing a total floor space of more than 5000 square metres.

The expansion was necessary not only because of Germany's “economic miracle” but also as a result of Theben's never-ending capacity for innovation. For instance, it was way back in 1958 that the company set up an electronics department with its own laboratory – a groundbreaking move that was well ahead of the times. The “Luna” twilight switch was unveiled the same year. This autonomous and independent device marked another important milestone on the journey towards what would ultimately come to be known as “building automation” solutions.

The company was also creative with regard to marketing. In 1960, it started playing an active role in trade fairs and launched an advertising campaign based on elaborate and attention-grabbing brochures. These advertised an ever broader range of products. In addition to the innovative “d universal time switch” and all kinds of automated staircase switches, these also included numerous special time switches for applications such as display window lighting, cooling systems, traffic lights and even hen houses. It should therefore come as no surprise that the 1960s saw a sevenfold increase in turnover, with the workforce growing to more than 300 employees. Thus, it was with a great deal of optimism that the company celebrated its 50th anniversary in big style over the course of several days in 1971.


From Haigerloch to the whole world with a consistent internationalisation strategy

However, while all this was happening, the team in Haigerloch had its sights set much further afield. And so Theben founded its first wholly owned distribution organisation outside of Germany in France, thereby laying the foundations for an internationalisation strategy that continues to this day. From this point on, Theben began exhibiting at international trade fairs more and more frequently; by 1973, the export ratio had already reached 40%.

Further foreign distribution companies followed in Switzerland (1983), Italy (1993) and the UK (1996). In 2010, Theben opened a branch in Holland. It has also had a presence in the vigorously expanding Asian markets since 2013 thanks to its branch in Singapore. Even more branches and subsidiaries were set up in 2017 in Sweden, Finland, Norway and Australia. In 2020, Theben became part of a joint venture in India. Then, in 2021, the family-owned business from Haigerloch acquired the trademark rights of the former market player Grässlin. The proof that this internationalisation strategy is the right approach lies in the figures, such as the sobering fact that Theben AG now generates 64% of its annual turnover outside of Germany.


1972–1998: Successfully transitioning to the world of digitalisation

At the beginning of the 1970s there were several trends influencing product development at Theben: the standardisation of time switches and their miniaturisation to make them suitable for control cabinets; the increased use of plastics; and the abandonment of traditional, spring-operated mechanisms. It was for this reason that the subsidiary called “PEZET GmbH, Planzeit Spieltechnik” was founded in 1973, although it did offer its plastic products to external customers as well. Two years later, the spring mechanisms inside the timers were replaced by quartz-controlled stepper motors.

The beginning of 1976 marked the end of an era: Paul Eberhard Schwenk withdrew from his operational management role and moved across to the supervisory board of the company, now trading under the name “THEBEN-WERK Zeitautomatik GmbH & Co. KG”. His brother-in-law Werner Herl stepped into his shoes as managing director. However, this did not leave Paul Eberhard Schwenk with nothing to do. Far from it, in fact, because he had bought Haigerloch castle back in 1974 and so was able to dedicate himself to renovating it, which he did with a passion. Through years and years of hard work, he turned the castle into a lively hub for gatherings, communication and art. As a connoisseur and collector of fine art and a passionate pianist, he developed Haigerloch castle into a popular venue not only for exhibitions and concerts but also for conferences, conventions and celebrations. He even included a hotel. With its high-class dining experience, this was perfect for entertaining Theben's customers and international distribution partners in style.

1976 was also the year when Theben launched a product on the market that quickly proved to be a massive hit: the “theben-timer” was the first plug-in time switch that absolutely anybody could operate without any prior knowledge. By 1980, a million theben-timers had been produced and the best seller was patented a year after that. It is still being produced today – albeit with some minor changes – with a total of more than 33 million units having been sold to date.

In the 1980s, electronics became even more important and, as a result, so did plastic components. From 1983, PEZET GmbH (as it was now called after becoming a Group company in its own right) began producing these at a modern new factory building just a stone's throw from the Theben plant on the Madertal industrial estate. That same year, Theben launched the first digital time switches to feature microprocessor technology in the form of its “termina” series.

Continuous innovation and a reputation for highly functional, high-quality products brought the family-owned business continued success in the 1990s, with turnover crossing the 100 million mark for the first time in 1997. However, once again growth led to a lack of space. Therefore, in 1998, the decision was taken to move the whole of production to a new building right next to the PEZET factory on the Madertal industrial estate.


1999–2021: Evolution from a time switch specialist to a provider of complete building automation systems

The new production site with a floor space of more than 5000 square metres was put into operation in 1999. Theben also set about preparing for the new millennium by restructuring itself organisationally, defining key sectors as part of a key account management structure. In addition, the newly created “tts – theben technical systems” sales unit was able to position Theben as a highly capable company in the area of high-quality control technology. In 2007, Theben acquired the Swiss company High Technology Systems (HTS), which not only helped to bring in new customers for the newly established company “Theben HTS AG” but also further expertise in presence detectors and energy-saving products.

Other factors that played an important role in the company's development were the change of corporate form that the family-owned business underwent in 2002 by becoming Theben AG (a public company limited by shares) and the establishment of an internal PCB production facility. This meant that innovative digital products could now be produced in-house, such as the LUXOR living comfort control, which – from 2003 onwards – enabled even private homes to benefit from exceptional control systems that offered energy savings, convenience and security.

In 2004, Paul Eberhard Schwenk stepped down as Chairman of the Theben AG Supervisory Board, passing away a year later at the age of 80. He was succeeded in the role by long-standing Theben Managing Director Gunther Hellberg, with his son-in-law, Thomas Goes, continuing as Chairman of the Board of Management. These two figures consistently drove the company's transformation into a provider of complete building automation systems, during which energy-saving and environmental aspects became increasingly significant. The company received a fresh boost of energy in 2013 with the appointment of Thomas Sell as Head of Sales and Marketing, and then another in 2016 thanks to the newly composed supervisory board headed by Werner Knies.

That same year, Paul Sebastian Schwenk – an industrial engineer and the grandson of Paul Eberhard Schwenk – became the fourth generation of his family to join the ranks of the company. As a director, he was responsible for digitalisation, IT, HR and the new business area of smart energy. Within the space of a year, Theben was ready to present its new LUXORliving smart home system featuring intuitive programming.

2020 was an extraordinary year for Theben – and not just because of the coronavirus pandemic. Paul Sebastian Schwenk took over as Chairman of the Board of Management at Theben AG and Michael Matthesius joined the management team as Chief Technology Officer. Moreover, it was the year that saw the successful completion of a mammoth project in which Theben had invested years of development work and enormous sums of money. The culmination of this was when the CONEXA 3.0 Performance smart meter gateway received certification by the German Federal Office for Information Security (BSI). This product not only enables energy and water consumption data to be recorded and forwarded digitally; it also provides a means of analysing energy consumption intelligently and reducing it. Not only that, but there is an optional value-added module that allows additional benefits to be unlocked. These include secure remote access to smart home systems such as LUXORliving. Therefore, the fact that Theben once again received the “Top 100 Innovator” award in 2020 is no accident.


2021 – CONEXA 3.0 is being launched on the market exactly 100 years after the company was founded. Just like the first staircase time switches that were produced by the company's pioneering founder, it is a groundbreaking achievement. It points to a future in which the correct use of energy and the intelligent networking of buildings are going to become increasingly significant – and where Theben's innovative solutions are going to play a more important role than ever.

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