Luxury piano firm turns to furniture in crisis
The Czech piano firm Petrof has survived two world wars, the Nazi invasion and 40 years of communist rule. It’s latest challenge: the economic crisis.Hradec Kralove -- The global economic crisis has forced world-renowned Czech piano maker Petrof to hit the soft pedal and switch production from grands to lacquered kitchen furniture.
"At the time of a crisis, people think about other things than buying a new piano. That's normal," said Zuzana Ceralova-Petrofova, president of the piano manufacturer founded in 1864 by her ancestor Antonin Petrof.
By July, roughly 200 of Petrof's 390 employees will be forced to leave the plant situated on the outskirts of Hradec Kralove, a city about 100 kilometres (62 miles) east of Prague.
Famous for its strictly manual production, which has pulled prices way above the average mark, Petrof has in recent years produced about 7,000 pianos annually, mostly for exports.
But orders from Europe, North America and Asia have gone decrescendo.
In the past year, Petrof has produced about 2,000 upright pianos and 850 grand pianos – way below the impressive numbers from the past.
"Since mid-October, it has been more or less clear that the crisis will hit all parts of the world. We export 90 percent of our output so we could not escape," said Ceralova-Petrofova, an elegant, energetic woman in her forties.
Last autumn, the piano maker therefore decided to start making luxury furniture using the same skills and technology used to make grand pianos in a bid to diversify and dodge the worse effects of the crisis.
Current production is about 50 percent pianos, 50 percent furniture.
It is part of a survival strategy that has seen Petrof through two world wars, the Nazi invasion as well as 40 years of the communist regime, which it spent in the hands of the state following forced nationalisation in 1948.
"During the 1930s crisis, Petrof produced wooden railway sleepers, and at the time of war it focused on grenade boxes," said Ceralova-Petrofova.
Petrof has not suspended piano production completely but has decided to focus on the production of luxury furniture using its workers' know-how in the fields of ebonization, polishing and varnishing.
The new range of products includes household and kitchen furniture boasting elaborate designs and a lacquered finish characteristic of grand pianos.
"The technology is practically identical for both sectors," Petrof's production manager Martin Jencek said in a workshop filled with the smell of wood.
After all, the company was launched as a cabinet-making workshop before Antonin Petrof converted it into a piano manufacturer in 1865.
Jencek added the company registered a boom in furniture orders that would offset a potential further slump in piano sales.
"Right now, we have three times more orders than at the beginning of autumn," Jencek said.
Russia appears to be a very promising market. "There are clients who are willing to invest 70,000 to 100,000 euros in their kitchens. We have already sold a few to Moscow," added Ceralova-Petrofova.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's homeland has by now also become the primary market for Petrof pianos after the recent decline in sales to the US market.
"The company's name sounds pleasant to the Russians," smiles the president.
One of her ancestors, who settled in the Czech Lands in the second half of the 18th century, was a native of the Siberian city of Tomsk.
In front of a large portrait of the company founder and his wife, Ceralova-Petrofova spoke of her "sense of responsibility" and determination to safeguard the future of the family business.
Her mother Dagmar and sister Ivana are in charge of the "Pianosalon," a brand shop, while her daughter Anna is studying English, Spanish and Chinese as she prepares to pioneer a sixth generation of Petrof pianos.