In the midst of Muehlenchemie's 75th anniversary celebration in September 1998, company president and owner Volkmar Wywiol was presented with a surprise gift — the launch of the company's Internet site.
Lutz Popper, director of research and development for the Ahrensburg, Germany-based manufacturer of flour ingredients, bakery pre-mixes and flour testing services, coordinated the development of the web site — www.muehlenchemie.de — to coincide with the anniversary. "It was a surprise, indeed, in many ways," Mr. Popper said.
Although there had been many internal discussions within the company about starting a web site, Mr. Wywiol said he was impressed that Dr. Popper had "the courage and initiative" to launch the site on his own.
"Nobody discussed this important issue with me in advance," Mr. Wywiol explained, "but my staff knows that I am always open to the latest and best marketing tools."
Changing market pressures demanded that Muehlenchemie be on the Internet, according to Dr. Popper. All its major competitors had sites, and its customers would soon be expecting Muehlenchemie to have its own site as well.
Muehlenchemie's initial entry into the world of e-commerce involved little more than taking the company's brochure and putting it on the Internet. The process took about four to five months, with the help of a friend who had Internet experience.
"We did this because it (the company's brochure) was easily recognizable," Dr. Popper said, admitting that he was more influenced by his experience in the product development side of the business than from a public relations standpoint.
"The most difficult thing was to collect the information and satisfy all the wishes of the various bosses," he added.
Still, the site represents a good starting point, according to Mr. Wywiol. "With the experience of today's web site activity and e-commerce business, how can you ever be perfect and updated? So, it was a wonderful breakthrough! Starting is always the first step."
He added, "I am a strong believer of e-commerce business, and I hope that this business can be generated for ingredients for all kinds of applications."
NO LANGUAGE BARRIER. Most companies on the Internet design their sites in English, no matter where they are based or what their "mother" tongue is. Muehlenchemie's web site is unique in that much of the information on the site is available in several languages.
"At least 75% of our products are exported outside of Europe, so we needed to provide international information," Dr. Popper explained.
While the bulk of the site — including product information and the company newsletter — is available only in English, German and Spanish, Muehlenchemie's respect for its international clients and cultures is apparent. The "About Us" page describes the company's history, mission, product range, specialties and services in no less than nine different languages: German, English, French, Spanish, Dutch, Turkish, Russian, Italian and Japanese.
Adding a translation for Latin America was an easy decision. "Spanish especially is becoming more and more important because the South American market is becoming more important to the company," Dr. Popper said.
To translate the company profile, Dr. Popper asked Muehlenchemie's representatives around the world to do the translations themselves. The abundance of technical terms made it impossible to have a regular translator for the job, he explained.
Having a multi-lingual site is more of a courtesy than a necessity, Mr. Wywiol added. "Contacting people in their own language is a kind of politeness," he said. "Our customers appreciate this and understand the way of our approach."
Posting the different languages has also helped begin dialogues between the company and its customers. "We have had some very promising reactions from this," Mr. Wywiol noted. "In Europe, languages are a part of our culture and at the end, the key of business."
MOVING FORWARD. The Internet is an effective medium for communication, marketing and swift research. The one thing it isn't, though, is stagnant.
Even though Muehlenchemie's web site had an estimated 5,000 "hits" (contacts with the site) last year, with more than 700 hits alone last November, Dr. Popper admits the technology used to develop the current web site was not the most sophisticated.
Mr. Wywiol admitted that one downside to the current site is the lack of frequent updating, as is the case for many medium-sized companies like Muehlenchemie.
"This is our biggest problem," he said. "The start is one thing, but continuity means more manpower of specialized people. We are working on this and hoping to find acceptable solutions."
As a result, Muehlenchemie is planning and developing a new web site, which should be in place by mid-2000. The new site will be available in both dot-com (.com) and dot-de (.de) extensions as well as more up-to-date and interactive. For example, the new site will have links for e-mail.
The site is being designed and created by a former employee, who now is a free-lance web artist. Although "it's too early to say anything" yet about the new site, Mr. Wywiol said the company has learned from the past.
"Good concepts need time," he added.
THE PAYOFF. Has the effort that was put into developing and launching a web site paid off for Muehlenchemie? Unfortunately, determining the effectiveness of a company's web site is not a clear-cut process.
"It's hard to say whether we generated additional business by the web site," Mr. Wywiol said. "Success is always a combination of product solutions, innovations, best quality, service and competence of staff and management. In our latest newsletter, I wrote, ‘In our company, innovation is not just a job for the development staff, it is the concern of every individual.' We know the international milling industry, we know its problems, its wishes and the objectives for the future."
Still, the company doesn't expect to receive many orders over the Internet, according to Dr. Popper. "We don't sell to consumers, we sell to the industry. And this business is very conservative. People still like to conduct business by telephone or fax instead of email."
Much of the feedback about the site so far has been about the homepage, which features a photo of several children (including Mr. Wywiol's grandson) of different nationalities with the slogan, "All the flours of the world."
"The slogan shows our commitment to the milling industry and demonstrates that no flour or baking problems are too small for us not to be solved," Mr. Wywiol said. "The picture says, ‘Come to us, we are inviting you — the millers of the world — to be our partners.'
"The picture was really a big success. In hundreds of mills you will find this picture somewhere tacked on the bare mill walls."
Muehlenchemie has reprinted the poster and it is available for all interested parties.