Declining demand for traditional wooden boats motivated a Swiss boat builder to ditch yachts for bubble baths.
“Matilda is the only woman who does everything exactly as I want,” jokes Thomas Löpfe, owner and founder of wooden bathtub manufacturer Alegnaexternal link.
He is referring to his state-of-the-art robot that prepares the moulds for his luxury bathtubs. Hidden away in his converted barn workshop in the village of Basadingen in northern Switzerland, the Kuka robot is the only part of the manufacturing process that is automated. Everything else is done by hand by Löpfe’s five employees. It takes between three to four weeks to complete an Alegna wooden bathtub that can sell from CHF8,000 to CH45,000 ($8,158 to $45,888) depending on the model and extras like jacuzzi systems.
“There is no upper limit when it comes to price. People often ask for fancy fittings like gold or platinum-plated drain covers,” says Löpfe.
Clients include Formula 1 drivers, billionaires’ superyachts, as well as luxury hotels and apartments. Löpfe recently fulfilled an order for 38 bathtubs by the developers of One Tower Bridge apartments in central London.
What’s so special about Alegna bathtubs?
The manufacturing process involves fixing wood veneers together under high pressure. This gives the tub its unique look and helps it resist water damage by making it easy to coat with resin and varnish.
“There is no machine that can fix the veneer strips exactly together and make them curve. The number of hours it takes skilled workers to make a tub is what makes it expensive,” says Löpfe.
It takes an apprentice nine months to learn how to produce an Alegna bathtub. The details of the process are a closely-guarded secret.
Löpfe originally trained as an apprentice boatbuilder making wooden sailboats and motorboats. However, he quickly realised that demand for such boats was declining and decided to find a niche with more promise. With money from family, friends and private investors, he was able to start Alegna 15 years ago.
“It took us ten attempts to get an acceptable wooden bathtub. The first successful prototype is in my house now,” says Löpfe.
Selling the bathtubs was almost as difficult for two reasons. The first was general apprehension about wooden bathtubs which many considered to be high maintenance.
“People in general have a bad feeling when it comes to the combination of wood and water ,” says Löpfe.
The second challenge was the high margins demanded by retailers who found it difficult to sell the product as they lacked the know-how needed to reassure customers. Ultimately, selling the product to hotels helped boost confidence in the reliability of wooden bathtubs and brought free publicity. Hotels now make up around 20% of Alegna’s clientele. Now, the company has cut out retailers and sells the bathtubs directly to interested customers.
Being a Swiss-based company also helped, says the founder.
“The Swiss reputation for reliability is very important for us. It gives clients the confidence to place an order based just on pictures on our website.”
The company needs 80 to 100 orders a year to turn a comfortable profit and being an export-dependent luxury product manufacturer comes with certain risks. During the 2008 financial crisis, clients who had paid an advance deposit for the bathtubs were unwilling to pay the remaining amount when their order was ready for shipping. Löpfe had to store the finished tubs until the markets recovered and the balance was paid a year later. Another shock was the 2015 Swiss National Bank decision to remove the Swiss franc’s peg to the euro which wiped out 20% of Alegna’s profits.
Today, the biggest challenge is getting buyers with deep pockets to ditch old habits.
“I don't understand why we don't sell more bathtubs,” Löpfe muses. “People think it is fantastic but then go and buy an ordinary white tub.”