“I’ve never regretted the decision to move to Royal Copenhagen. It’s been really satisfying. Being so old, the company is such a big part of Danish culture. In Denmark, everybody knows Royal Copenhagen or knows somebody who has been working for them.”
Rooted in Tradition
Founded in 1775, Royal Copenhagen is one of Denmark’s most respected brands. Originally owned by the Danish Royal Family, its hand-made, hand-painted porcelain is now known around the world for its quality design and craftsmanship. It is especially popular on the Danish and Japanese markets.
A Man in Charge
Mogens Hansen worked for eight years in the Danish army. In 2007, he sought out something different, applying for a job as Planning & Warehouse Manager at Royal Copenhagen in Denmark. In 2010, he was asked to move to Thailand and support the Managing Director, Soren Nielsen, in expanding and developing the company’s new production plant in Saraburi. He is now the Managing Director for Royal Copenhagen (Thailand).
“Working in Thailand is challenging in many ways but also rewarding as we’re part of building something. Out here, we have a chance to restructure Royal Copenhagen to take it to new heights,” Mr Hansen says.
Reasons for Change
Royal Copenhagen relocated to Thailand because of the country’s superior porcelain craftsmanship. In Thailand’s vibrant porcelain industry, it is easy to recruit skilled workers. The province of Saraburi was chosen as the site for Royal Copenhagen’s new factory. It is the hub for porcelain manufacturing within Thailand, producing some of the highest quality items in the country.
Expansion in Thailand
To tap into local expertise, Royal Copenhagen decided to form a joint venture with the Thai-owned Patra Porcelain. Under this arrangement, Patra supplies the raw materials and does some basic casting onsite.
In 2003, Royal Copenhagen tested the waters in Thailand, establishing a small painting department at Patra. In a rented room, two Danish instructors taught ten Thai students sourced from a Bangkok art college. This test run was a success. In 2004, land was purchased from Patra and a small painting factory was built. This focused on hand-painted porcelain and was a trial for large-scale painting. The company has expanded since then, growing from 60 to 330 employees. From 2004 to 2012, the size of the factory has increased from 800 m2 to 10,000 m2. The facilities have all been built from the ground up, being adapted to Royal Copenhagen’s specific production needs.
Although more Thai painters have been hired, production pace has been slowed down. Additional time is now spent on each item, improving the quality of the design. Production output has improved as well. This past year, the factory produced 1.8 million pieces of porcelain, an increase from last year’s production of 1.5 million pieces. There is still room for growth in the future as the factory has a maximum production capacity of 4 million pieces per annum.
Retaining Its Danish Roots
Royal Copenhagen will always remain in Denmark. The luxury brand, Flora Danica, is still designed and painted locally. Its design centre is also situated there, ensuring that the style and shape still retains its heritage. As of 2012, the company has around 200 employees in Denmark.
Four years ago, Royal Copenhagen had a catalogue of 3,000 products. After the global financial crisis of 2009, a decision was made to refocus the business. Now, Royal Copenhagen stocks about 750 items. This downsizing aimed at strengthening the company’s key porcelain brands
Promising Premium Products
In the move to Thailand, Royal Copenhagen’s main concern was the need to sustain the same level of quality.
In order to do this, exactly the same materials are used. Additionally, each item has to go through a rigorous approval process before being produced. The designs are first formed in Denmark and sent to Thailand. An undecorated, unglazed product is created and sent to Denmark for appraisal. After this, a glazed sample is created with no decorations. This too must be approved. Finally, a complete sample with full decorations is sent for approval. Only after passing this stage can full production commence.
All important equipment is imported. The paintbrushes are from Denmark, the kilns are from Germany and the production rails are from Italy. Other components such as heat pumps and filter systems are from Thailand.
“When we moved, especially since it’s such a well-known brand, we had to make sure that there was no difference between Thai and Danish-made goods. The challenge was to get at least the same level of quality or preferably better. Despite the move, the main message that we would like to send is that Royal Copenhagen products are still designed and developed in Denmark. They have still kept their roots,” Mr Hansen adds.
Casting & Painting
When each piece of porcelain is cast, it is called “biscuit ware”. This unpainted version is named because it looks edible and has the same density as a biscuit. The company’s most difficult items are cast at Royal Copenhagen. The rest are cast at Patra.
Each piece is then stencilled to give the basic paint outline before being sent to the painters. The general design is the same, but painters have the ability to vary small details, giving each plate or cup a unique appearance. Once a painter starts an item, they finish it, ensuring that all paintwork is consistent.
Royal Copenhagen’s painters work on all types of products and patterns. This improves flexibility, allowing production to continue even if one of the company’s 150 painters falls ill.
Once painting is complete, each piece is sent to be glazed. Glazing teams consist of four people: one to dip the porcelain, one to remove the glaze, one to clean the products and one to carry the goods. These roles are alternated so each worker is kept stimulated.
Firing in the Kilns
After this, the porcelain is sent to the kilns. These can take 7,000 pieces per day and reach a maximum temperature of 1,350°C at their midpoint. The temperature increases and then decreases, allowing the porcelain to be heated and cooled at a slow pace. This process takes 9 hours to complete. Royal Copenhagen also has UPS and backup generators in case of a power outage. This protects the kilns and goods as a sudden loss of power can drop the temperatures and destroy the glaze.
Grading & Shipping
Final products are sorted into three categories. 75% are A-grade items which are of the high quality the company is looking for. These get shipped off to be sold as premium goods. 7.5% are B-grade products with very minor defects. These are sent to outlet shops in Denmark and Japan. The remaining 17.5% fails to pass the inspection process and gets scrapped.
This grading is done by selector teams, which consist of three people. One worker grinds the base so it is smooth. A second examines each product, sorting them into the different grades. This individual has to look out for minor flaws. Some of these can be repaired by the third worker who removes these defects and sends the goods back to the kilns. Most then return as A-grade, premium products.
Royal Copenhagen’s Saraburi factory ships all of its goods to Denmark, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.
Catering to the Collectors
Some Royal Copenhagen painters have their own following, especially in Japan. Painters put their initials on the base of each piece they finish. Some customers only want goods hand-painted by a certain individual and will wait until a new piece is created.
Royal Copenhagen also appeals to collectors as the decade of production can be identified by looking at the back stamp. These change every five years so each item is traceable back to its origins.
The Right Recruits
In their initial test, potential painters have 60 minutes to copy a floral drawing. If accepted, there is a three month probation period to see if new employees have the skills required.
New glazers and selectors go through peer training under instruction by Danish employees.
“We have employees from the factory in Denmark training our selectors as well. If you look at lower quality porcelain, you will see errors in the embossment, iron spots, etc. We cannot have any of that because we are expected to deliver premium quality,” Mr Hansen states.
For employees on the floor, there is also room to work up within the company.
“All our foremen and supervisors are promoted from the floor. This is one of my key principles. We should recruit internally, especially on these levels, because knowledge gained in the company should preferably stay within the company.”
One method of knowledge transfer is to send Thai paint instructors to study in Denmark. At the factory in Saraburi, hands-on training is completed under the same instructor for the entire training period. After a peer review evaluation, painters can then apply their skills. Painters typically take two or three years to become truly proficient at their jobs.
In order to minimise misunderstanding between cultures, Danish workers are given Thai culture classes in Denmark.
The right managers are also needed to avoid culture clashes. Managers with confidence in themselves who also understand the Thai and western cultures are vital in maintaining an efficient, productive workplace. Managers have either worked overseas or been recruited from international companies within Thailand. This ensures that constant communication between the headquarters in Denmark and the factory in Saraburi is maintained with as little cultural conflict as possible.
Teambuilding events are also held to give employees the opportunity to mingle. This is necessary as painters, glazers and selectors work in different sections along the production line.
“The culture in Denmark through 200 years has always been that the painters were something special. That is something we try not to build up here because there is as much craftsmanship in our glazing department as there is with our painters. It’s more important that everyone is thought of equally,” Mr Hansen explains.
This inter-company bonding has brought about positive results. During the 2011 Thai floods, workers were still dedicated to their jobs.
“Even though many of our employee’s houses were flooded, they still showed up for work. It was very admirable. They were really loyal to the company,” Mr Hansen said.
With the relocation finished, Royal Copenhagen’s plans will now focus on sales and marketing. According to Mr Hansen, there is the need to regain foothold in former markets, such as Sweden and Norway, which were lost in the company’s downsizing activities.
New initiatives such as the ‘Mix and Match’ product line are also being made to further expand the brand’s potential around the globe.