The Framus Story
The Framus story is a paradox — it is at the same time unique and typical of a thousand post-war German success stories.
For both of these contradictory reasons as well as the fine stringed instruments that they produce, the Framus story is of particular interest.
Fred Wilfer is the central figure of the Framus story. A native of the Sudetenland, long an area renowned for its traditions of fine violin making. Wilfer was blessed from birth with family connections which augered well for the future.
His father was a timber merchant, and a number of other relatives were well known master violin makers. Combined with Wilfer's shrewdness and vigour, the coincidence would prove a happy one.
The story really begins in the after-math of the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. The German population were given literally a matter of hours to gather what they could and depart from their homeland. The spectre of a skilled community of craftsmen disintegrating was appalling, and largely through the efforts of Fred Wilfer, the precious knowledge and the necessary tools that accompany it were kept together. As a result, the area where Wilfer and his associates resettled in Bubenreuth, and that town and the surrounding area became the centre of post-war Germany's musical industry.
And so Fred Wilfer K.G. was born. Specialising at first in zithers, violins and more conventional guitars which then dominated the German stringed instrument trade, Wilfer found that the war had taken its toll even in the instrument world: There was an almost insatiable demand for musical instruments.
By 1950, Wilfer had formed Framus, and the name itself is an indication of Wilfer's assessment of the path Europe would take in the fifties. The word Framus comes from FRAnconian MUS-ical Instruments — an English name, and Framus were already making small but important inroads into the American market. During the next ten years, Wilfer would secure the guitar concessions at 11 American military bases. Returning G.I.s would bring back more than memories from their national service — many would return with a Framus guitar.
Even with an eye towards the West, Wilfer didn't neglect the home market. Grounded in the age old tradition of master and client, Wilfer could see no need, even in a modern economy, for a wholesaler. Framus deal directly with the retailers, to make sure that they know exactly what the customer wants. Even now, with the dominance of the electric guitar, Framus still lead the world in the production of zithers. The fifties were the big decade for Framus in terms of volume and growth, although they have continued to develop right up until today. The factory still reflects the traditions which Fred Wilfer worked so hard to preserve in 1945. The total work force of 1200 is largely unskilled labour, overseen by a dozen luthiers, the German term for a master, who are in turn responsible to the senior luthier and one of Germany's most famous masters, Mr. Brauer. While it may run on an assembly line basis, the division of labour goes to great lengths to ensure that quality is maintained — for example, every instrument except those with polyester finishes is hand polished.
A second factory was opened in Pretzfeld in 1965, where the raw bodies of all Framus instruments are fabricated, and the annual output is now over 50,000 instruments.
Wilfer's contacts in the timber industry have served him equally well. Through him Framus have a virtual monopoly of Alpine spruce and maple, which permits them to choose the cream of the wood: if a customer wants an instrument made of spruce which has been stored for 100 years, Framus can supply it.
All this points to quality and Framus go to great lengths to maintain high standards in all areas.
That's why Fred Wilfer will fly to the States for a day to buy pick-ups, and it's also the reason that Framus can offer guarantees of ten years on their Nasheville range as well as an astonishing lifetime guarantee on their Akkerman model. Framus had an undeservedly bad name in Great Britain until the middle of last year. Sadly, the fault lay not in the product but in the distribution. The solution came in the form of Walter Streit, formerly head of the Framus set up in BeneLux. "I was sent over from BeneLux one week before the Frankfurt Trade Fair in 1974, to see what was going wrong," Streit explains. "The situation was very bad. The wholesalers handling our products were only interested in a fast buck, the after-sales service was poor and the turnover was slow — some people were doing in a year what German salesmen did in a week!"
Streit returned to Frankfurt, made his report, and came back after the Fair to rectify the situation. The result has been a much tighter, efficient system, and it has worked for the benefit of everyone.
After a victorious court battle terminating in June of last year, Framus (Musical Instruments) Ltd., began to trade in earnest. With Streit at the helm and a four salesman team covering Great Britain, Framus have quickly begun to recover the ground they lost in the last few years.
"The U.K. operation has been self-sufficient since January," Streit continued. "We are working steadily to recover our image and good will. What good are posh premises and frills if they are not economical and functional?" If the going is slow, it's steady as well. "All over Europe, professional guitarists, serious musicians who study at conservatories and then play in orchestras across the continent, these people are using Framus guitars, models like the AZ 100."
Established among the older professional musicians, Framus are gaining ground rapidly among the younger rock players. The Akkerman and the Framus Nashville range (manufactured in Tennessee) are enticing models, and the Framus research team, which includes Bill Lawrence, the designer behind the "Gibson Sound", Jim Atkins (Chet's brother), and a host of European masters, including Atilla Zoller and Volker Kriegel. Any Framus prototype has met with the criticisms and scrutiny of a dozen guitarists before it goes into production.
"We try to find a happy balance — it would be easy for the factory to produce only one model of guitar, and we salesmen would love to have each model in a dozen colours," Streit added with a good-natured grin.
As the manufacturer of the largest number of stringed instruments in the world, Framus have gone a long way towards striking a happy balance for everyone. With skilled craftsmen — many of whom have worked for Fred Wilfer from the beginning, unrestricted access to some of the world's finest timber, and the energy, foresight and devotion of men like Fred Wilfer and Walter Streit, the Framus future promises to be every bit as successful as the past. "Our concern is for the public, first, last and always. That's why we will be giving affairs like the A.M.I.I. exhibition a miss, and concentrating on exhibitions where the public can come, see and try what we have to offer."
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