Dorothee Auwärter Kuhn Rikon
Text: Sandra Willmeroth/Images: Markus Bertschi
Kuhn Rikon stands for kitchen innovations just as much as it does for cultural openness. That’s why there are things like pressure cookers in Swiss kitchens and a Buddhist centre in the midst of the Töss Valley, as Dorothee Auwärter tells us.
“My great uncle Jacques engineered quite a few things and had tremendous success. He designed many of our products.”
A cooking pot whose metallic composition changes as of a certain temperature so that it loses its magnetic properties and then can no longer be heated by the induction cooktop. The hob turns itself off automatically until the metal cools down, thereby preventing undesirable overheating, burning or even a grease fire. Sounds a bit like futuristic cooking, but precisely this is what’s being cooked up in Switzerland’s Töss Valley. At Kuhn Rikon, engineers and product designers have been researching and dabbling for decades to create intelligent pots, pans and cooking accessories that make life in the kitchen simpler and less consternating, even as they reduce energy consumption and prevent, yes, the occasional scorched scallop. “People have been cooking for aeons and you would assume that at some point there’s nothing more to invent. But that’s wrong – technological evolution continues, even in the kitchen”, says Dorothee Auwärter, Chairwoman of Kuhn Rikon AG.
She shares the mindset of her great grand-father, Heinrich Kuhn, who sparked the growth of the company back in 1926. At the time, the electric hob had found its way into the kitchens of Swiss homes. But alas, the conventional pots and pans of the day – with their curvaceous bottoms – didn’t sit well on the new-fangled, utterly flat heating elements. It took a clever Heinrich Kuhn to come up with the first electro-hob compatible cookware starting in 1927. He dubbed it “Duro”.
“We kids from both families grew up here together. We played hide-and-seek in the factory and were occasionally allowed to roller-skate in there.”
But the actual success story of Kuhn Rikon began with an inveterate bachelor. Company founder Heinrich Kuhn suffered a sudden early death and his eldest son, Henri, took the reins of the company already at the age of 19. Henri’s younger brother, Jacques, was away in America for a number of years and ultimately earned a degree in engineering. Upon his return to Switzerland, he lived with Henri and his wife in the same house – right behind the factory – but had his own separate quarters and cooked for himself. So he knew first-hand what was lacking in the kitchen, as well as what made things difficult or unnecessary. And because – just like anyone else – he didn’t fancy washing up and also got annoyed when whatever he cooked was only lukewarm after he had transferred it from pot to porcelain serving vessel, he invented a decorative, dual-wall lidded pot that could be placed directly on the table and kept food nice and warm for more than an hour.
“My great uncle Jacques engineered quite a few things and had tremendous success. He designed many of our products, including the Duromatic pressure cooker”, Dorothee Auwärter states with no small measure of pride. Today, Jacques Kuhn is 97 years old and still lives next door to the factory. At 87, he married for the first and only time and, in collaboration with his wife, he’s now writing the “Tösstal” series of crime novels.
Other engineers, technicians and product designers see to the innovations at the company these days. And of course innovation need not be just of a technical nature; it also can lie in the form or function of something. “On average, we generate roughly one-third of our revenue with products that are not older than two years”, says Auwärter and emphasises that there is still room in the kitchen for many new conveniences and accessories. “We’ve designed a new ratchet system for pepper mills, cheese graters and even salad spinners. The drive mechanism isn’t turned but instead ratcheted back and forth. Not only is the lever movement ergonomic; the mechanism is also extremely efficient. And the products are a hit!” the young Chairwoman is pleased to note.
In 2014, Dorothee Auwärter assumed that post at the age of 34 as successor to her father and since then bears ultimate responsibility for the company. “But I’m not alone: my brother as well as two of my cousins are board members. We also have three outside directors who provide important advice and inputs”, says the former law student. The family history is closely tied to the history of Kuhn Rikon – and vice versa. After an imbroglio in the late ‘90s, the voting majority now lies with the Auwärter-Kuhn family. “Our forefathers arranged things such that, in worst case, we couldn’t be in a voting clinch with each other”, explains Dorothee Auwärter, who for several years now has been living again in Rikon.
“We kids from both families grew up here together. We played hide-and-seek in the factory and were occasionally allowed to roller-skate in there. That special smell in the workshop! I guess you’d call it an olfactory stimulus we share”, she says with a grin. Almost as formative in her childhood was the exotic culture of Tibetans. In the 1960s, Kuhn Rikon had a shortage of employees and a huge order backlog. In effort to attract new workers to the out-of-the-way Töss Valley, the company intentionally built new residential dwellings. Then, when the refugee drama in Tibet escalated as of 1964, the Kuhn brothers thought they could be of help to the outcasts – as well as the company. “That first step was certainly not unselfish”, admits Dorothee Auwärter. But what was to follow certainly was.
The cultural integration of the Tibetan workers was more challenging than initially thought. “It became rapidly clear that these people were missing something important, both culturally and spiritually”, Dorothee Auwärter recollects. So the Kuhn brothers sought the advice of the Dalai Lama and in 1968 established the Tibet Institute in Rikon. To this day, it remains the spiritual and cultural centre for exile Tibetans in Switzerland.
The Dalai Lama has visited the Töss Valley on several occasions. “There’s a photo where you can see my grandmother taking a stroll with him through our garden”, Dorothee Auwärter muses. She, too, has experienced His Holiness in person: “He impresses me greatly; all of us always had high regard for this culture”, she says. Today, the first generation of Tibetan workers is already in retirement. There are still some 20 Tibetans working for Kuhn Rikon, most of them in production but also several in administration. “I always had the feeling that Swiss and Tibetan people are somewhat similar. Both are essentially a mountain folk surrounded by huge countries”, laughs Dorothee Auwärter.
Dorothee Auwärter (*1979) presides over the board of directors of Kuhn Rikon AG and is a council member of Swissmem (the Swiss Mechanical, Electrical and Metal Engineering Federation), as well as a trustee of the Winterthur-based Brühlgut Foundation, which champions living and working places for disabled people. Dorothee Auwärter studied law at the University of Neuchâtel (lic. iur. 2003) and business management at the University of St. Gallen (Executive MBA HSG 2012). In 2006, she was admitted to the bar and today is a partner at Schiller Rechtsanwälte AG in Winterthur.
Heinrich Kuhn bought a steel and copper pan manufactory in the Töss Valley village of Rikon back in 1926. Following his premature death, Kuhn’s firstborn son, Henri, took over control of the company at the tender age of 19 and was later joined by his younger brother, Jacques. In 1984, Henri Kuhn’s son, Hans Heinrich, and son-in-law, Wolfgang Auwärter, became the third generation to run the company – jointly – until the late ‘90s when it was suddenly faced with a crisis. At that point, Hans Heinrich relinquished his post and Wolfgang Auwärter concentrated entirely on his tasks as chairman of the board, with an outsider taking over responsibility for operative management of the company. In 2008, Wolfgang Auwärter’s daughter, Dorothee, joined the board of directors and assumed the chair in 2014. Today, with close to 220 employees, Kuhn Rikon AG manufactures and distributes high-quality cookware on a global scale. It has subsidiaries in Great Britain, Spain and the USA, as well as a worldwide partner network of distributors and specialist retailers.