It doesn’t exactly read like a success story. Opened at the end of 1886, growth from 2 to just 15 associates by 1891. That same year, the initial capital stock was almost depleted, Robert Bosch has to ask his mother to be a guarantor, takes out additional bank loans, and reaches the verge of insolvency in 1892.
A lot has happened since then. Today, Bosch employs around 375,000 associates and generates annual sales of 70.6 billion euros. The former ‘Workshop for Precision Mechanics and Electrical Engineering’ has become one of Germany’s ten largest enterprises, and operates in more than 150 countries. And that is truly a success story.
Even in his younger years, being open for new developments and opening up new markets was important to Bosch as an entrepreneur. At the age of just 23, he ventured across the Atlantic, traveling to the USA to work with Edison and gain insights into electrical engineering. At the time, electrical engineering was further advanced in America than in Europe, and Bosch hoped to be able to use the new inspiration to establish a promising business back in Germany.
With a thirst for action, the young Bosch returned to Germany in 1886 and set up his ‘Workshop for Precision Mechanics and Electrical Engineering’. However, the initial euphoria was followed by frustration. With the expansion of the power supply in Stuttgart making slow progress, the electrical engineering business was slow to take off. Bosch was on the verge of insolvency and had only a small number of customer orders, barely able to keep his company alive.
Even with the public power grid up and running, the success he had hoped for failed to materialize. Customers were less receptive to electrical engineering innovations than Bosch had hoped. But he did not lose his nerve. Driven on by his optimism, his thirst for action, and his absolute faith in himself and his associates, he kept looking for new business opportunities.
1897 may well be the most important year in the company’s history. That year marked the start of Bosch’s rise to a global player. In fact, from 1887, the company had been making ignition devices for stationary engines for generating electrical power in buildings. By 1896, it had built around 1,000 such devices. But its business remained stagnant.
One year later, that was to change. A customer requested an ignition device that could be used in a petrol engine – an ignition device that had not existed until then. Impossible? Bosch asked his factory manager to enhance and refine the existing ignition devices. It was a huge risk, but for Bosch it meant the decisive breakthrough that was to make its owner an industrialist.
As it turned out, the magneto ignition was to be the only reliable system for automobiles. With the automobile enjoying unparalleled success after 1900, Bosch too became a global company. In just the first 5 years, the company sold 50,000 ignition systems, reaching the 1-millionth unit by 1912.
The huge success of the magneto ignition was something that even Bosch himself did not expect. When he made the decision in 1900 to build his own factory, he planned to accommodate around 200 associates (as he referred to his employees). At that time, he was employing 30 associates, and he was considering renting out part of the new building. He assumed that his company was not going to grow beyond 100 associates. He was wrong; just 8 years later, Bosch was employing more than 1,000 associates.
As a vigilant and forward-looking entrepreneur, Bosch regarded the success story of his magneto ignition with scepticism. Aware that his company depended on a single product, he opened up new markets all over the world. From 1908 on, Bosch ignition systems were available on all continents. This helped the company grow and paved the way for Bosch to become an international name. To ensure long-term stability and growth, the company developed additional products for the automobile, as well as diversified with power tools, household appliances, and industrial technology.
“In my experience, there is nothing worse for a company that wishes to prevail and remain at the cutting edge than to have no competition,” Bosch said as he adapted to changing market conditions. This ability to adapt – to ensure the survival of the company by entering entirely new fields, but also withdrawing from loss-making businesses – is one of the key common denominators that runs right the way through company’s history.