The bicycle business is booming in Germany – and e-bike manufacturers are leading the way. That bikes with an electric motor on board were a hugely promising technology for the future and not just an oddity for ageing enthusiasts too tired to pedal is something Riese & Müller recognised a long time ago, well before most people had even heard of particulate emissions or the idea of diesel vehicle bans. Heiko Müller and Markus Riese, who founded the company more than 25 years ago, switched over completely to e-bikes in 2012. The two, who first met while studying mechanical engineering at Technische Universität Darmstadt, have always had a hearty appetite for innovation – not, they insist, because innovation is necessarily a virtue in and of itself but because innovation provides a way to make life easier for people. Today, the question of what exactly a person needs to enjoy a perfect cycling experience is just part of the equation: issues surrounding sustainable lifestyles and mobility as a whole dominate the agenda. Even the most zealous petrolheads running the gauntlet of the morning traffic jams or searching in vain for that one last parking space must eventually find themselves wondering whether there might be a better way to cover the ground from A to B. Viewed in these terms, it is only logical that more and more people are choosing to swap four wheels for two. There are more than three million e-bikes on Germany's roads now.
Riese & Müller’s aspirations extend well beyond Germany though; in fact it has long had its sights set on the global market. "We monitor the markets and trends very closely before we invest," explains Managing Director Dr Sandra Wolf, whose remit includes corporate strategy. The company expands in a very calculated way, moving into selected cities once it judges the market to be ripe, the infrastructure appropriate and the population ready to change. Sometimes the opportunity arises to harness good ideas from companies with related business models: there is a highly successful bike sharing platform operating in Switzerland that uses top-end eCargo bikes made in South Hesse, for example.
"We want to play our part as a corporate citizen by proactively helping to shape mobility for the future," Dr Wolf explains. The e-bike manufacturer's commitment to facilitating sustainable lifestyles extends not just to its customers, but also to its 450 or so employees. When burgeoning demand meant it was necessary to expand manufacturing capacity, making sure the new production facility lived up to employees' expectations and incorporated optimal work operations and processes was part of the brief.
Heiko Müller and Markus Riese found the finance they needed to take these steps in preparation for the future through their primary bank, which made an application to Wirtschafts- und Infrastrukturbank Hessen (WIBank) under the Hesse innovation loan programme. Just one of the many carefully matched support options offered by the state development institution WIBank, this special-purpose loan provides access to capital for fast-growing companies wanting to invest for the future. Start-ups in particular would not ordinarily qualify for this type of loan because of their risk class, but the State of Hesse is especially keen to strengthen the hand of visionary entrepreneurs and enable selected companies to invest in innovative products and create jobs.
“We want to play a proactive role in helping to shape mobility for the future.”
Dr Sandra Wolf, Managing Director, Riese & Müller
Riese & Müller received their loan, and the new company premises opened a short time ago. Sunlight streams into the plant through the large skylights; an enormous panoramic window in the break room allows staff to rest their eyes on the deep green shades of the wooded hills beyond. There is an in-house Corner Cafe selling sustainably produced products from the region at fair prices too, and with a number of circular footpaths heading off into the countryside right from the company's front door, there are plenty of options for anyone in need of fresh air and exercise.
Employee health is an important part of the Riese & Müller strategy, which very much favours sustainability rather than fast living. Dr Wolf offers a succinct summary: "Growth is our commercial objective, of course it is. But we don't expect it to happen overnight. We want healthy growth – sustainable growth." The new production hall has nothing in common with the facility it replaced; nothing, that is, except the complete absence of assembly lines: every bike is built by hand, right down to the very last bolt. Valued by customers the world over, this commitment to premium quality is what sets Riese & Müller apart. Quality is the constant.
WIBank backs customers all the way as they plot their course for a successful future. A platform with a long-term, sustainable lending policy and a wide range of development loan options and counselling services to offer, it knows how to bring the right partners together. Two other companies that understand how to make use of such opportunities and put smart ideas into practice are Karl-H. Mühlhäuser GmbH & Co. KG (Michelstadt) and Akasol AG (Darmstadt). Both have been able to throw themselves wholeheartedly into the development of new technologies thanks to finance from the Hesse innovation loan programme and both have done so with considerable success: their electric and hybrid drives are already being used in tunnel construction and in environmentally-friendly buses. These innovations are the brain child of people who have the courage to realise their ideas and create companies to put their vision into practice. People like these are who make Hesse the economic powerhouse it is.
“The strength of demand demonstrates just how well the product meets the requirements of our entrepreneurs. Providing this support is our way of helping to ensure innovative companies continue to see their future in the state of Hesse.”
Gottfried Milde, Spokesman for the Management Board of WIBank
The Hesse innovation loan programme is made possible by the InnovFin SME Guarantee financing solution provided through the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme and the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI). EFSI was created under the Investment Plan for Europe to promote the financing and implementation of productive investment in the European Union and to ensure enhanced access to finance.
The finance is provided by WIBank using funding from sources including the low-interest options offered by the European Investment Bank (EIB). The State of Hesse supports the programme through a risk-sharing framework with WIBank.