Famous Czech piano-maker switches to kitchens to survive crisis

Foto: www.petrof.cz

The Czech Republic has so far escaped the worst of the global recession, but it is beginning to bite now – worrying news at a time when the country’s government has collapsed. Small manufacturing companies that depend heavily on exports are really feeling the pinch – especially those that make goods for a very specialised market. Rob Cameron has been to the Petrof piano factory in Hradec Kralove to see how they’re coping with the crisis.

Luxury goods are the first to feel the effects of any recession...and what could be more luxurious than a grand piano? They’ve been making pianos in Hradec since 1864, when Antonin Petrof first set up his factory.

Petrof is still very much a family business. I collected three business cards bearing the Petrof name during my visit, including Antonin Petrof’s great-grandson Jan Petrof - a dab hand with a grand piano – and his great-great-granddaughter Susan Petrof, the company’s president.

Susan Petrof
Susan Petrof also plays of course, and after a little more persuasion sits down at a concert grand – the most expensive in the showroom. Price tag: 1,900,000 Czech crowns. That’s almost 100,000 dollars.

Nine years ago, in the year 2000, Petrof made 15,000 luxury pianos – uprights and grands – for export to 70 countries around the globe. Last year it made 1,500. Susan Petrof says the last few months have been particularly hard.

“We are first on the line, every time. If something happens with the economy of the world, then we are first on the line. Our customers lost a lot of money on the stock market, financial market, and they were not willing to spend money on pianos and so on. So we had a big meeting with our management to discuss what we can do, and we decided first of all don’t produce pianos for stock, and concentrate more on other products than just pianos. You know, piano production is a very hard business, and the process takes time. You can imagine that a grand piano takes at least nine months’ production time, and an upright four or six months. So you have a lot of money tied up in production, and we have to survive.”

So what sort of things are you making, alongside pianos?

“Luxury furniture. Very nice bookcases, tables, kitchens – everything. We can do practically anything.”

The question that comes to mind though is if your customers – rich people – no longer have money for pianos, why do they have money for new tables or kitchens?

“Because a kitchen, or a table, or chairs, are articles that people change. For example your wife would like not a white kitchen, but a red kitchen, because red is in fashion and it goes with the new table or chairs you’ve bought. So people want some changes in their flat. But a piano – a piano is such an expensive product, a lifetime product, there isn’t such a need to change it.”

On Petrof’s factory floor they’re now producing pianos strictly to order, and not, as Susan says, for stock. But the workmen weren’t even producing pianos on the day I visited the factory – they were polishing wooden panels for fitted kitchen units. Petrof’s head of production Martin Jencek explained how the transition was going.

“Last year we had 400 employees, this year the number will gradually fall to around 200. Those who are remaining are being divided into two areas of production - half of them are making pianos, half of them furniture – but of course that could change according to the market. It goes without saying that not all the piano-makers are happy about making furniture – they’re proud of their craft after all. But most of them are glad of the chance to learn something new, and obviously all of them are happy to still have a job…”

One of the most fascinating parts of the whole piano production process is the intonation room. Each piano key is meticulously tested to make sure the hammer produces the right sound. The workman hits the hammer with a tiny metal stake causing a tiny indentation in the head of each hammer until it produces just the required tone – not too sharp, not too soft. Next door, in the tuning room, a full-time piano tuner adjusts each and every key. Master pianists pay a lot of money to have their instruments made precisely to order.

It’s not in fact the first time Petrof has been forced to fine-tune their production - in the Great Depression the firm produced railway sleepers, and was even forced to make munitions boxes during the Second World War. In 1948 the company was confiscated by the communists, and was only returned to the Petrof family in 1989. Susan Petrof’s mother Dagmar – head of the company’s domestic sales division – says Petrof is no stranger to adversity.

“Petrof will survive this crisis, I’m sure of it. After all, you have to have music, don’t you? There’s an old saying in Czech – ‘if someone’s Czech, then they’re a musician’. We’re optimists here at Petrof - if we weren’t we wouldn’t be here. We’ve been through worse crises than this. And we’re going to get through this one.”

These are definitely hard times at the Petrof piano factory, there’s no doubt about it. But there’s also a note of optimism here that when this crisis is finally over, Petrof will still be standing.