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Rex the peeler is king of the kitchen

The sleek lines of Rex have made it a Swiss design classic.

(Keystone)

Switzerland's Rex has proved itself a classic among kitchen tools, selling more than 60 million times worldwide since its invention more than half a century ago.

Its popularity is undisputed and the little handy vegetable economy peeler has even found its way onto a Swiss postage stamp.

But the future of the Zena company that makes Rex is not going to be easy as it is fighting against falling prices, increasing competition from abroad and a succession problem.

While you might think that this is a product that comes out of a large factory with an army of employees, think again.

Rex, which has been internationally protected since 1947, is manufactured at a small works near Zurich which employs only ten people.

The peeler probably owes its success to its design, the fact it is comfortable to hold and is "Swiss made", and its price. It costs a mere SFr1.90 ($1.53).

Minimalist design

It has an ingeniously minimalist design - a 13mm wide U-shaped bent stripe of aluminium with a pivoted sharp tempered steel blade and a side knife for cutting out eyes of potatoes.

The basic Rex model has six parts. Its cousin Star is made of stainless steel and has just three.

"It impresses me to have a product that is popular but I am surprised because it really doesn't look all that great. But in use it's perfect and it's cheap," Peter Newec, owner of the Zena company that makes Rex, told swissinfo.

One story goes that Newec's grandfather Alfred, the inventor of the Rex, had problems peeling potatoes when he was in the army and tried to make life easier for himself by making a novel tool.

"We are not sure exactly how he got the idea for the peeler. He probably saw the blade in America and then produced his own handle," Newec said.

The Rex was a huge success for many years and the company profited from demand outstripping supply until the late 1990s.

But the firm had not moved with the times, with innovation and marketing to a large extent ignored because there was no need for them.

Recession

When Newec took over as manager in 2000, he had to face difficulties that had been caused by recession. He also had to face a father who saw no need for changes.

"On the one hand it was very easy because I grew up with this product and made them when I was young to earn some pocket money.

"But it was less easy when it came to reshaping the company to bring changes in public relations and marketing. In the past my father didn't have to make an effort in this direction."

Newec once considered giving up but is determined to try to continue the family tradition and is now sole owner of the company. At the age of 48 he also has to think about who will take over from him.

With two daughters who have other ideas about their careers, Newec has to face the fact that he may well have to sell the company for it to survive.

Worry

"I worry about almost everything in such a little company. I'm not concerned too much about sales at the moment. 2006 looks like being better than in the past few years," he commented.

He added that staying ahead of the competition comes down to price and noted that Rex was well accepted and had a good name.

"Rex is selling for SFr1.90 in the shops at the moment so we really have to produce a large quantity of these peelers to make enough money for all the people in the factory.

"I try to make the firm a bit more popular and to make a family out of our products with the packaging. We have some new products including a Julienne cutter, which is at the moment very popular."

But even the Julienne cutter came at a price for the company, as it needed investment in equipment to make it both reliable and successful.

"It costs a lot of money to produce the new tools... And we have to sell [the cutter] at a price that is compatible with that from Asia."

While more than a million standard Rex peelers are produced every year, the company also sells a gold-plated model of the tried and trusted tool.

It was first made in 1997 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the international protection of Rex and 6,000 have been sold since it was taken up by a Swiss department store.

swissinfo, Robert Brookes, in Affoltern am Albis

Key facts

The inventor of the Rex peeler was Alfred Neweczerzal, who was born in Davos in 1899. He moved with the family to Zurich in 1912 and from about 1925 was an independent commercial traveller.
From 1931 he was producing and selling kitchen and household tools.
The Rex peeler received its international model protection (11002) in 1947.
After the founder's death in 1959, a son Alfred A. Neweczerzal took over the Zena company.
In 1970, the company introduced the Star peeler, a refinement of the Rex in stainless steel with just three parts.
Swiss Post issued a 15 cent stamp featuring the Rex in a series devoted to Swiss design in 2004.
In January 2006, Peter Newec (grandson of the founder) took over the firm.

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