An interview with Stephan Keller

Mr Keller, you joined V-ZUG in 2013. What have been your best moments so far? 

One occasion whose memories give me real goosebumps was an internal arena-style discussion forum that we held in the midst of our SAP crisis. Describing a crisis as one of my highlights may sound strange at first, but what emerged from it really impressed me. We were in the middle of the changeover to SAP, and people in various roles within the company were finding it very difficult to understand the perspectives of other departments – so we decided to have an open discussion forum. Everyone met as equals and every area was given the chance to have its say – from IT to assembly, production, development and logistics. Within the space of two hours, we were able to grow even closer as a team and create a trusting and collaborative working environment. This has hugely strengthened our sense of togetherness. 

You talk about the sense of togetherness and meeting on an equal footing. What values do you continue to stand for as a person and as Head of Development?

I believe that trust and respect are major factors in meeting on an equal footing, and shared experiences are very important to me too – by which I mean moments of both crisis and joy in equal measure. Two years ago, I was delighted to be able to celebrate the launch of the Advanced Line with the entire team. I also feel that working in teams is just as important – one example of this is the task force that we set up in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. When you’re involved in a team like that, it’s essential to work together as equals. That’s how we can develop effective solutions that are respected and supported by everyone. 

How are you contributing to advancing your department and V-ZUG as a whole?

I see it as my role to create the right conditions for developing new products that integrate seamlessly into our environment. Innovation planning must be embedded in the overall strategy and take into account all eventualities. It’s a balancing act – we have to ensure that we’re not doing too much or too little. It has to be just the right level of innovation the market demands. Innovations are what keep companies active. But in the Development Department, we are just one part of a bigger picture: if we want to achieve success through our innovations, it’s essential that everyone involved works together and operates at the same pace.

Major innovations should be based on clear customer benefits and consistently maintain a lot of focus on how they can be developed. What’s the best way to keep innovation planning sustainable? 

In most cases, an innovation should be the logical next step in developing a successful product. It should be one that is based on the competitive environment and customer requirements. This also means that we should be early – but not excessively early – adopters of new technologies on the market, with a focus on how we can profit from them. That’s a virtue we need to embrace with renewed commitment. 

You emphasise focusing on customer requirements. 

Exactly. Customer experience is increasingly becoming the focus of everything we do. Innovative technology has long been a dominant driver in the market. At this point, however, it’s something that’s simply taken for granted. Today’s customers want much more: the way in which they interact with the appliance and the experience it delivers are becoming hugely important.  

With our recently launched new generation of ovens and steamers in the Excellence Line, we are taking this customer experience to a whole new level. Can you tell us more about it?

We hope and believe that our customers will love this range of appliances. The appliances are intuitive to operate and have a design that fits in with any kitchen – they’re simply a joy to use. Even after they’ve only used their appliance twice, customers often find that they’re beyond delighted with it – they’re positively brimming with excitement about it. I know from personal experience that our design team has done a great job on the user interface of the new range because I’ve been trying it out at home for the last few months myself. It’s so intuitive, simple and clear that it’s actually fun to use. 

We are dedicated to developing products that are timeless and durable. What challenges does this mission present during development?

Many people believe that the challenge of today is knowing what will still be sought after in ten years’ time. You can anticipate this by taking into account trend analyses and design factors. But for us it was just as important to define how we view the evolutionary developments that take place in our design processes, so we developed a style guide with this in mind. It’s designed to records which features of design elements we modify and how quickly – these include shapes, colours, textures, patterns and materials. With the new colours Pearl mirror glass and Platinum, for example, we have made a subtle adjustment to the colour spectrum. However, we are keeping the classic Black mirror glass as it is very much part of our core approach to design.  

Besides the new colour spectrum, what else has changed in the design language?

Striking a balance between angular and round shapes is another key focus. That’s why we’ve added new, rounder shapes – and the CircleSlider deserves a special mention here, of course. The use of symmetry has literally become more central to our design too. In advancing our design philosophy, we knew that it would be very important for us to be able to react to changes in the short, medium and long term. That’s why we’ve created a modular product system. Who knows, maybe in a few years’ time copper will be the must-have colour – and if that’s the case, we’re prepared for it. Thanks to the modular design of our appliances, we are in a position to offer cost-effective changes or adaptations. 

After years of development work, the new generation of ovens and steamers is now available on the market. What kind of feedback are you expecting?

Household appliances have a long market life and tend not to be bought spontaneously. That means we’re not expecting people to start queuing up to buy a new oven or combi-steam cooker. But I’m sure we’re managing to generate some excitement and anticipation. 

In all your answers it’s clear that you’re very excited about the new line of appliances. Where do you get your motivation from? 

I’ve always loved consumer goods – but I don’t just like the shopping part. I’m also interested in the product philosophy that underpins the things I buy. I love the aesthetic and design aspects too. As a qualified robotics and mechatronics engineer, I began working with artificial intelligence quite early on. V-ZUG stands for simplexity – which means achieving simplicity for the customer but harnessing the complexity that is needed to create perfect solutions. For me, it is these values and standards that make a product and inspire me. I’m also proud of the fact that our production work here in Switzerland is helping to create a more diversified economy. 

About Stephan Keller

Stephan Keller graduated from ETH Zurich as a mechanical engineer specialising in mechatronics, robotics and biomedical engineering. As a member of the senior management, he has headed up the Development Department at V-ZUG since November 2013. Prior to that, he spent 18 years working for Bosch Power Tools, focusing on innovation and corporate research for the automotive sector in Switzerland, Germany and China.