Stories – 75 years in business
75 years in business – How Comet is exploring for better
From the Iron Curtain to Silicon Valley.
When the Iron Curtain falls in 1989, Vakuum-Kondensatoren AG in Bern-Liebefeld, the precursor of the Plasma Control Technologies division, loses its main customer segment and must reinvent itself. The pivotal realignment takes the company to the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.
From a distance, the Wertachtal shortwave transmitter facility looks like a space station on a faraway planet. Especially at night, when giant floodlights illuminate the steel lattice towers, up to 127 meters high, that support the cable nets for the antennas. A sight reminiscent of a Star Wars movie.
Radio with a political mission
It is 1989 and the world is still in the Cold War, in which the Wertachtal shortwave transmitter plays an important role on the ideological front. Its 25 antennas are powerful enough to reach the whole world, and especially the countries of the Eastern Bloc. Western broadcasters, such as Deutsche Welle and the American stations Radio Free Europe and Voice of America, take advantage of this, pitching their messages of freedom and prosperity from Wertachtal to the region behind the Iron Curtain. And right at the heart of it all in the Wertachtal facility are components from Comet, whose subsidiary, Vakuum-Kondensatoren AG (VC), supplies radio stations all over the world with high-performance capacitors and specialty parts. The Wertachtal transmitter center is one of its most important customers.
World market leader in large capacitors
In 1965, Comet founds the capacitor maker Vakuum-Kondensatoren AG (VC) to balance out the fluctuating sales in the x-ray sector. In time, the subsidiary will grow into the world market leader in the manufacture of large capacitors. By the end of the 1980s, VC is manufacturing and selling capacitors with power ratings of several hundred kilowatts to customers such as ABB (Switzerland), AEG (Germany), Marconi (England) and Continental Electronics (USA). Business is so good that VC outgrows its premises. In 1989 it moves to a larger site and by the end of the year will have achieved record sales of over six million Swiss francs. But by then, the world is already a different place.
The fall of the Berlin Wall is a turning point for Comet, too
On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall opens and thus becomes irrelevant overnight, paving the way for the end of the Cold War. As a result, the shortwave transmitter in the Wertach Valley loses its political significance. Nearly all stations that have been broadcasting from it scale back or cease operations altogether over the next few years, until the facility is finally demolished in 2014. For Comet’s subsidiary VC, the new geopolitical situation means a severe slump in business; the boom of the 1980s is followed by difficult times, requiring measures such as short-time working. VC is only able to stay afloat thanks to its – low-margin – industrial business. If the company is to make money with vacuum capacitors in the future, it urgently needs to develop new markets. A strategic pivot is in order. The new big target market is the USA.
Second attempt at the US market
In the past, Comet has not been able to gain a real foothold in the USA. “The American market was very price-driven even back then,” recalls electrical engineer Walter Bigler, “so we couldn’t compete in the volume business with our more expensive top-end products.” VC’s capacitors often cost twice as much as those of its US competitors. The fact that they are also up to five times more durable appears to be secondary – for the time being.
The move into the semiconductor equipment market
The Silicon Valley customer spurs Comet into entering a new era. The semiconductor industry demands a dynamism and flexibility of VC that was previously almost unheard of in Bern-Liebefeld. Within little time, it must metamorphose into a cutting-edge technology firm. It has the right technology, quality and products – but developing the necessary new mindset takes some adjustment. “Above all, we had to work on agility and speed in handling customer requests,” says Walter Bigler. And then there is the language: The new key account has so profound an impact on the Swiss company that English becomes the second official language at VC.
In 2000, Vakuum-Kondensatoren AG, with 120 employees, has sales of about 30 million Swiss francs – and is already planning its next strategic advance: a forward integration, by manufacturing the matches itself for which it has so far supplied the capacitors. Thanks to its entry into the semiconductor market, VC has evolved into today’s Plasma Control Technologies division, whose radio frequency technology enables the production of components like microchips and touchscreens – a high-value business.
In every respect, it’s a good thing the Berlin Wall fell.