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Coronavirus effect helps Swiss soap brand target China

Gotthilf Mettler created the first glycerin soap in Switzerland © Thomas Kern/swissinfo.ch

Threatened several times with extinction, Switzerland’s oldest soap manufacturer is enjoying a new lease of life thanks to the importance of handwashing in 2020. The company’s owner, a businessman from Hong Kong, is now planning to tap into the Asian market.

This content was published on November 6, 2020 - 14:00

Located halfway between Basel and Zurich, Fricktal (Frick Valley) in canton Aargau is best known for its cherry tree plantations, a spectacular draw for hikers when in full bloom. Fricktal is also one of the most conservative regions in Switzerland: The People’s Party, on the right of the Swiss political spectrum, reigns here with little competition, often winning more than 40 per cent of the vote.

The region has another claim to fame, as home to Switzerland’s oldest soap manufacturer. Founded in 1929 by Gotthilf Mettler, who created the first glycerine soap in Switzerland, the Mettler factory still occupies its original premises located on the valley’s main road which runs through the small village of Hornussen.

But while the production method for its soaps, labelled “Hand Made in Switzerland”, has barely changed in 100 years, the Aargau factory today bears little resemblance to the flourishing family company of the last century.

In 2013, in the face of strong international competition and faced with bankruptcy, Christoph Mettler, a third-generation member of the founding family, was forced to close the business.  

The Mettler soap factory was acquired by Sodecos, a company specialised in the manufacture and sale of cosmetic products. Based in Henniez, in canton Vaud, Sodecos is managed by Hong Kong businessman Hai Tak Yip, also known as Peter Yip, and employs around 15 people.  

A flair for cosmetics

Hai Tak Yip, also known as Peter Yip, is a Hong Kong businessman who lives in Switzerland and works in the cosmetics industry.

Son of the artist M.Ping-Sum Yip, it was through his father’s paintings that Yip became familiar with the beauty of women at a young age, he tells swissinfo.ch.

After working for Swiss skincare brand La Prairie in Asia, Yip came back to Switzerland in 2005 — where he had studied in the late 1960s — to create the cosmetic brands Bellefontaine and La Vallée Switzerland.

He then created Sodecos SA and in 2013 acquired the soap brand Mettler-Seifen in canton Aargau.

He developed new ranges of skincare products for the face and body, while continuing the production of traditional glycerine soaps for the Mettler brand.

Peter Yip lives at Château d’Henniez, in canton Vaud, which he acquired at the same time as the former mineral water factory Henniez Santé, which now houses the employees of the Sodecos group.   

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Soap is a small part of Sodecos’ business. The Hornussen factory employs just four workers, supervised by a project manager based in Henniez, who regularly lends a hand at the production plant in Aargau.

The local Swiss-German dialect is no longer spoken in the factory. The project manager and three employees are Polish, while the factory’s longest-serving worker, Tümer Gülfidan, is originally from Turkey and the only one to keep the memory of the old business alive.

Tümer Gülfidan, the factory’s longest-serving worker

“When I started working for Seifen Mettler 24 years ago, there were still 80 employees. I really like this job, but I have often feared losing it,” says Gülfidan, who is in her fifties.

Relocation challenge

The company’s latest rebound is a dramatic story. Sodecos, which was in dispute with the owners of the factory buildings over rent (the buildings were sold to an external investor during the bankruptcy), announced the closure of the Hornussen site in Spring of 2019 and the relocation of some of its activities to Worben, in canton Bern.

But after two months closure to allow for renovation works, the planned transfer was scrapped, and soap production restarted in Hornussen. In fact, the factory’s old but robust assembly and packaging machines had proved too difficult to move. Meanwhile, it became clear that the dismissal of Türmer Gülfidan would have represented a loss of know-how too important for the continued smooth running of production.

The coronavirus crisis has also had an impact; since February and the hygiene measures put in place to fight the pandemic, the demand for Mettler soaps has soared.

“Our soaps have a high level of glycerine, a product which has natural origins and doesn’t cause irritation or dry skin,” confirms Ines Lachetta, Sodecos head of sales. A major advantage at a time when conscientious handwashing has become part of the daily routine of most people on the planet.

From May to July, soap production at Hornussen increased fivefold.

“During this period, we had to employ four new temporary workers. All the machines were operating simultaneously, and we could no longer keep up with orders,” comments project manager Mirek Piech.

The only company to make glycerine soap in Europe, Mettler not only produces products for its eponymous brand, but also operates as a sub-contractor for other brands in Europe, such as the Italian brand Ortigia.  

Eye on China

The managers of Sodecos are confident that the strong increase in demand in recent months will continue over the medium term. With a relatively expensive product (CHF7.80 for 100g of glycerine soap), the company is not aiming to fill the shelves of mass distributers. Rather it plans to create a niche in European pharmacies and drugstores, while developing online sales in parallel.

Next destination: China, where Sodecos already has a sales partner and is currently developing its marketing plan for a major campaign planned for 2021.

“We see the biggest potential for growth in this market. In Europe, it is more complicated, because France and Italy are already well established as the two countries producing high quality soaps,” comments Piech.

“Hand Made in Switzerland” is a strong selling point and features prominently on the packaging of soaps and cosmetics products made by the Mettler brand. Another fact has not escaped Sodecos: solid soap is still very much used in Asia for hand and body washing.

“Our ambition is that in the future, Chinese consumers will directly associate glycerine soap with Switzerland,” says Piech.

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