Mr. Keller, you started your career by constructing banisters and stairs. Then you concentrated on building conservatories and you built a Europe-wide reputation with Keller home conservatories. In the end, you made a breakthrough with minimal windows. Can you tell us about your career?
NK: Having an IDEA, the COURAGE and the PERSISTENCE, these are the preconditions and starting point for getting started as an entrepreneur.
At the start of the seventies I built my first house with my father and I learnt so much, including how to combine design and quality.
At that time I also discovered wrought ironwork for myself. It was a challenge to make a steel banister on a curved cantilevered staircase in a blacksmith’s forge and to make a work of art out of it. I was very proud of my work at that time, since I had not previously learnt the craft of wrought ironworking. I was a toolmaker by trade and so I already liked perfection and extreme precision. I got great pleasure out of developing my own style for banisters, grates, gates and stairs.
The demand for this blacksmith’s work was so great at that time that in 1979 I decided to risk going it alone and in 1980 I built my first workshop in Schönberg, St. Vith.
And this is where the word COURAGE, as I said at the start, comes in, because at that time bank interest rates were higher than they have ever been since and the oil crisis was in full swing. But demand was very high in the wrought iron sector and not only in Belgium. I had more and more clients coming to me from Luxembourg and so the firm of Keller became more and more renowned by being advertised by word of mouth. Then there came an order for a conservatory/greenhouse, that is to say it was intended to be a conservatory as part of a home but also suitable for plants and partly as a garden. I built this structure out of steel back then. However, I discovered that it is easier to work with aluminium for home conservatories. As a result, the home conservatory department for private buildings, restaurants and hotel extensions was born.
The buildings in Schönberg became too small, so the firm of Keller AG was founded in Troisvierges, Luxembourg in 1980. At that time, the firm of Keller already employed 10 staff. Demand was very high and we soon developed our own profiles so as to improve quality and design. For me, it was important to develop my own style in order to distinguish myself from the competition. I love dealing with niche products.
The number of employees rose to 20 and there was big progress in development, in particular in thermal sectors. Familiarity with Keller home conservatories was constantly growing, so in 1996 we started setting up a European sales network, in the course of which sales partners for the sale and assembly of Keller home conservatories were trained.
In 2000 I had the IDEA of developing a new home conservatory concept. It had occurred to me that there were new glazed extensions being built everywhere that in my opinion looked dreadful. No longer any symmetry, design or quality. A lot of big glass buildings in which no-one could feel well had been put up. So the Keller team developed a glued laminated wood beam flat-roof structure for the roof of the extension that would go with the house structure. Symmetrical glass domes could be built into the flat roofs. This gave rise to a completely new form of home extension under glass. We gave this new type of conservatory the name of “ORANGERY”. This name of “ORANGERY” has in the meantime been taken up by competitors.
The Keller AG team can be proud of the “ORANGERY” range. It developed this concept, including the name. This new concept was presented in 2004 at Batibouw in Brussels and Bau in Munich.
The company then grew to 70 employees. We went into overdrive on further development in the niche product sector. Another high-tech development started in 2007: Keller minimal windows. With regard to windows, architecture demanded large areas of glass with minimal frame systems. This new innovative frameless sliding system once again set new standards in the home sector and also in home conservatory construction.
Following that, a second range, namely “Keller minimal windows +”, was developed and this was with highly-insulated profiles with which triple glazing can be installed. Sliding systems up to a height of 6 m could be built. The seal against driving rain was improved, as were many other aspects.
A global sales network ensured that Keller minimal windows were available anywhere in the world.
In 2014 the number of employees reached 100.
At this point I would once more like to turn to my great employees of the firm of Keller. I was lucky enough to work with a wonderful team. Although I was myself very closely associated with the Development and Design department, there was excellent cooperation with all the other departments. The trust that I had put in my departmental managers was not abused, no, it was returned 100-fold. If only every other company could find employees like these. There are of course problems now and then everywhere but you can only resolve them if you talk to each other and then make decisions that are abided by. With the team at KELLER, that was always possible.
And there’s one thing I have never lost sight of. I know what I can do and I know what I can’t do and for what I can’t do I look for the right staff.
Thanks again to the team.
Why did you hand the company over to others?
NK: In 2014 I sold off my company with about 100 employees after 34 years in total.
There are several reasons: As regards the family, the children have chosen their own career paths and another reason was a certain mental fatigue at that time. You don’t just work for 34 years without it leaving its mark on you. It wasn’t all easy going on the way up. I had to overcome many setbacks in both my career and private life.
Keller AG’s high profile had in those days drawn the attention of other companies. Thus for instance contact was made, among others with the new owner of Keller AG. My advisers and the children encouraged me to finally make the decision to retire.
If you look up Norbert Keller on Google you will find other, older articles including “successful management of succession at Keller AG”. 3 years after this transaction there must be a conclusion. How did it work out?
NK: I am a trusting person.
At the time of the handover I had every confidence in the vision of further growth under the brothers Serge and Marc Niederkorn who, together with their father, intended to enter Keller AG’s innovative niche sectors via the Luxembourg Capital Investment Group S.à.r.l family holding company. At that time I was convinced that it was the right direction for the future of Keller AG and in particular for the wonderful team of Keller AG’s 100 employees.
As early as your home conservatory concepts and minimal windows you demonstrated your love of detail. Why is this so important to you?
NK: If you want to manufacture and supply high-quality, design-orientated products, it’s all about perfection. It’s the details that make perfection but perfection is anything but a detail. It required a lot of time, patience and ideas to get to grips with it. I believe that my strength lay in driving these developments so far as I did.
Design, beauty of form and aesthetics are concepts that you would also like to implement in your new area of activity. In your view, what form would the implementation of these concepts take? In what direction are modern architecture and attitudes developing?
NK: Beautiful nature, beautiful cars, beautiful buildings, beautiful architecture, beautiful design, beauty and aesthetics in very general terms inspire me. Creating something such as equipping and fitting out old residential buildings are wonderful tasks. People today like to experience a feeling of wellbeing from their homes, with lots of light in their houses and flats. This light of course works best with large areas of windows.
You sold your company 3 years ago. In the meantime you have turned your attention to new tasks. What do these new challenges consist of?
NK: These can be summarised in three keywords:
„Real Estate“ stands for the purchase, the estate agent business and the sale of exclusive homes in Luxembourg, Belgium and Mallorca.
„Design Conception“ means the creation and interior and exterior design and fitting out of homes … including the redesign of window units.
„Development“ stands for the further development of various building design options.
Here is an example to make this clear: I buy an apartment in a residential unit that is either being built or is for sale on the open market. I then fit out this apartment in an exclusive manner. The apartment is then offered for sale as an exclusive apartment by estate agents selected by me.
In addition, I still advise and act as an agent for exclusive apartments.
The development of design and forward-looking structural elements is and will continue to be something very close to my heart, as could perhaps be seen throughout my professional career.
I find physical and mental relaxation and inspiration in encountering nature when golfing, rambling and cycling.