History Zehnder
It wasn't a radiator that first made Zehnder a household name, but a motorcycle. In the 1920s, the Zehnder light motorcycle was a popular and affordable form of mobility for ordinary people. Although the Zehnder family first went into business in 1895, it was not until 1930 that they invented the product that would lay the foundations for the company's future success: Europe's first steel tube radiator. Read on to discover how a small mechanical workshop became a group of companies with 3000 employees.

History of Zehnder


Takeover of Sanpan

Zehnder Group has taken over Sanpan Isıtma Sistemleri Sanayi ve Ticaret Ltd (Sanpan) by increasing its investment, which it has held since 2006, from 51% to 100%. The Turkish firm, located in Manisa, produces bathroom radiators for the European market. The takeover of Sanpan by Zehnder Group is another important step to expand the group's leading position in the market for bathroom radiators. Sanpan will also be an important platform for the rapidly growing Turkish market.


Takeover of Nest Italia Srl

Zehnder Group has taken over Nest Italia Srl. This Italian company is developing, producing and selling heating and cooling systems for residential and commercial buildings for both new build and refurbishment segments. Nest Italia Srl. has a leading market position in the growing market of radiant cooling. Radiant cooling (and heating) is the most energy efficient solution to generate comfortable temperatures in a hot and humid environment.



Takeover of Shanghai Nather Air Tech Co. Ltd

Zehnder Group has taken over Shanghai Nather Air Tech Co. Ltd. This Chinese company develops and markets ventilation components (exhaust fans, heat recovery units) for residential buildings. Shanghai Nather Air Tech Co. Ltd. is a market leader in the rapidly growing market for energy-efficient solutions for a healthy indoor climate.


Products and systems for a comfortable, healthy and energy-efficient indoor climate

Zehnder Inside. Zehnder exhibited at ISH 2009 trade fair as a supplier of intelligent product and system solutions for heating, cooling, fresh air and clean air. The company's systematic approach was showcased in a specially constructed house containing bathroom and living area radiators, a ventilation device, the compact energy centre ComfoBox, the two air distribution systems, and a cooling ceiling. Company headquarters as a passive house. For PAUL Wärmerückgewinnung GmbH, building the new company headquarters as an energy-efficient passive house was a logical extension of the Zehnder Group philosophy.

2007 - 2008

Clean Air

Zehnder moved into a new business area by acquiring Freshman AB/SE, which develops and manufactures industrial air filters and air cleaning technology.


The takeover of British radiator trading company Bisque Group allowed Zehnder to expand its market presence in the UK and leverage new sales channels.


Zehnder's Swiss sales company became the first in the group to launch the new Zehnder Terraline trench heater.


Zehnder acquired Greenwood Air Management Ltd. (UK), a manufacturer and distributor of high-quality ventilation products, including exhaust air and heat recovery systems. Zehnder acquired Cesovent AG (Switzerland), a distributor of ventilation components for residential, commercial and industrial properties.

All from one source

The new Zehnder ComfoBox was developed and made its market debut. It combined all the functions required in a well-insulated detached house, such as heat generation with a heat pump, ventilation including heat recovery, cooling, and hot water. In spring the foundation stone was laid for the extension to Zehnder Group's headquarters in Gränichen (Switzerland), which is to house an innovation centre.


Enhancing market position in USA and China

In the summer, Zehnder Group acquired Hydro-Air Components Inc. in Buffalo, NY (USA). The company develops, manufactures and markets radiators and ventilation devices for industrial and commercial buildings for the North American market. A third company was established in China. Autumn 2006 saw the founding of Zehnder Shanghai. The company's objective is to market components and systems for comfort ventilation, thus complementing Zehnder's range of radiators and ceiling-mounted heating and cooling systems.


Design award

The newly developed radiator Runtal Velum won the coveted Design Plus award at ISH, Europe's biggest bathroom design and heating trade fair in Frankfurt (design by King & Miranda).

2003 - 2004

Environmental awareness

At the Zehnder Group plant in Bolesławiec, Poland, one of the most cutting-edge chrome-plating facilities in Europe went into operation. To minimise the environmental impact of the chrome-plating process, the plant's environmental management system was developed and implemented to be EN ISO 14001 compliant, and was certified as such from the outset.

Environmental awareness

As part of a voluntary agreement with the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment, the production plant in Gränichen (Switzerland) has committed itself to increase energy efficiency and reduce CO2 emissions.


2001 - 2002

Move into the ventilation business and a new company name

Zehnder began to market comfort ventilation systems. The holding company became Zehnder Group AG.


Takeover of J.E. StorkAir

The acquisition of J.E. StorkAir, a Dutch-Belgian company, allowed Zehnder to expand significantly in the field of comfort systems.

New business segment: Heating & Cooling Ceiling Systems

Cooling ceilings were added to the product range offered by the radiant heating segment. This is an additional application for offices, exhibition rooms and public buildings.


1984 - 1986

Changes afoot for family business

In the early 1980s, Zehnder was still fully family-owned. By this time, however, only two of the original six branches of the family were still represented in the business. The group's financial requirements were continually growing, and it was uncertain how long the family could continue to provide the necessary capital to sustain this growth by itself.

Founding of Zehnder Holding AG

After much careful consideration, the family decided to open the business up to a wider public. To make this possible, Zehnder Holding AG was founded in 1984. The complex ownership structure which had evolved organically up until that stage was simplified as the group companies were now conveniently brought together under one roof.

Successful stock market listing

In autumn 1986, Zehnder Holding took advantage of a buoyant stock market to issue new bearer shares, while the registered shares and therefore the majority of votes remained in the hands of the family members working for the company and a few senior managers. The IPO on the Zurich Stock Market was a resounding success. Zehnder chose a good time to go public, accruing some 55 million Swiss francs, which more than doubled the firm's equity capital.

1980 - 1994

A product for the future: the towel radiator

In the early 1980s Zehnder launched the towel radiator, an innovation that would revolutionise the radiator market. Developed by Zehnder's French subsidiary and quickly copied by competitors, the towel radiator became a mainstay of sales; it is now available in several different models and styles. The towel radiator can easily be fitted in finished buildings. As a result, the Zehnder brand came to growing prominence in the renovation market, which grew in importance throughout the 1980s.

Ambitious leap forwards: Zehnder buys out Runtal

In 1988, Hans-Peter Zehnder (the fourth generation of the family) took over operational management of the company. In the same year Zehnder acquired its competitor Runtal, whose sales on the Swiss market were about half as high as the total for Gebrüder Zehnder AG. Runtal had franchisees in various countries, which now gave Zehnder easier access to markets where the group was not yet represented. Over the next few years, Zehnder acquired holdings in several Runtal franchisees in the USA, Italy, Spain and Ireland. This ambitious expansion into countries where Zehnder had no sales companies of its own made a significant contribution to the group's growth.

Variable success in the other business segments

In the other business segments, the degree of success was variable. Zehnder ceased its machine construction activities completely in 1982. During the 1980s the Haenni Group, originally acquired in 1975, modernised its entire product range by upgrading from mechanical to electronic measuring technology. The group's new high-tech profile boded well for the future, but an unfavourable economic environment led to sustained earnings difficulties.


European market leader in special radiators

Unlike the other lines of business segments, the radiator segment was hugely successful. Because the group now had such a broad geographical base, it was left relatively unscathed by the recession of 1991. The German subsidiary in particular flourished, setting up a sales organisation in former East Germany and leveraging the economic buoyancy that followed reunification. By the end of the 1980s, Zehnder-Beutler boasted an estimated 50% share of the German market for special radiators. At European level the Zehnder group dominated around a third of the market, making it the European market leader.


Acquisition of Acova

In 1991 a strategic decision was taken to focus more closely on the successful radiator business and sell off holdings that did not belong to either the radiator or instrument business segments. As part of this strategy Zehnder acquired Acova, the French market leader in special radiators, in 1994. Acova was one of the three biggest manufacturers in Europe, although still much smaller than the Zehnder group. It was also the biggest franchisee of Runtal, which was already part of the group. This acquisition reinforced Zehnder's decision to concentrate on its core business of special radiators.

1973 - 1980

Dramatic slump in construction industry

The years between 1945 and 1973 were a period of seemingly unstoppable economic growth. So it came as all the more of a shock when, in October 1973, the oil-exporting countries introduced an embargo, causing an oil crisis and accelerating the looming economic downturn. As a supplier to the badly affected construction industry, Zehnder was forced to give serious thought to its future strategy. While other Swiss manufacturers pulled out of radiator production, Zehnder opted to remain in the market and retain the position it had won as the country's biggest producer.


Diversification as a key project

Following an in-depth strategic analysis, the company made the bold decision to branch out into a second area of activity outside the construction industry in order to be more resilient to economic fluctuations. This diversification was completed in 1975. Zehnder acquired a holding in instrument manufacturer Haenni, a group of companies with factories near Berne, Switzerland, and in Stuttgart, Germany. Over the next few years this new line of business accounted for around one third of the Zehnder group's sales. Another 6% to 10% of sales came from the group's machine construction activities. However, more than half of Zehnder's sales were still being generated by the radiator business.

Merger of Zehnder and Beutler

The radiator business received a major boost in 1980 when Zehnder's German subsidiary merged with radiator manufacturer Beutler to form Zehnder-Beutler. Although Zehnder and Beutler were both successful midsize businesses, they both faced major competition from other radiator companies who had already claimed significant shares of the market. So the merger made sound business sense, particularly as the companies' respective factories were located only 30 kilometres apart, with production facilities that complemented each other perfectly.


1967 - 1972

Runtal launches convectors and heating panels

One of Zehnder's competitors in the 1950s was Swiss firm Runtal. Rather than imitating Zehnder radiators, Runtal introduced new kinds of steel radiators to the market: convectors and heating panels. Runtal employed an effective marketing strategy aimed specifically at architects and developers, which soon won it a significant share of the market. The trend towards large windows reaching to floor level favoured the emergence of the compact convector, no more than 35 cm high. Heating panels, on the other hand, satisfied architects' requirements for a very smooth, inconspicuous radiator front.



A new and elegant tube radiator

In 1965/66 Zehnder responded to growing pressure from competitors and new products by focusing its attention on advertising, sales, and above all design projects with a view to achieving more rational production. During this phase it was decided to develop a new type of radiator. The single-column radiator, launched in 1967, was designed not only to heat a room but also to be a design feature in its own right. It combined all the advantages of Zehnder column radiators – high pressure, effective heat output, easy to clean and flexible dimensions – with elegance and transparency, and could also be used as a handrail or room divider and even installed in front of glass panels.


Zehnder catches up with convectors and heating panels

In response to the growing demand for heating panels and convectors, Zehnder decided in 1968/69 to add these products to its range. By 1972 Zehnder had caught up with the competition in terms of product diversity. In new builds, more and more architects and heating planners were combining different types of radiators, using the shape, technical features and heating output that best suited different areas of a building.


1959 - 1966

Competitors catch up

After the Second World War, the patent for the steel tube radiator expired. Now other manufacturers were free to copy Zehnder's invention. It was not until 1956, however, that other Swiss radiator manufacturers started making steel radiators, thus becoming direct competitors of Zehnder. In 1953, Zehnder began exporting to Germany. A few years later German radiator factories also began producing steel radiators. For Zehnder, it was high time to focus its energies on the German market.



Generation change at Zehnder and expansion

When the company became a limited company (Aktiengesellschaft) in 1959, two members of the third generation of the family took over the reins. In contrast to the founding generation, the new company directors were eager to move into foreign markets. After negotiations with potential German distributors failed, Zehnder decided in autumn 1963 to set up its own production plant near Freiburg im Breisgau. Zehnder products were soon selling extremely well in Germany, and by 1970 the German business had overtaken the main plant in Gränichen, Switzerland in terms of both sales and workforce.



Slow growth in France

In 1967 Zehnder established a sales company in France, which built its own production plant at Châlons-en-Champagne in 1972. However, it took some time for the company to establish itself in France. There was strong competition from the French market leader Acova, which for a time even tried to buy out Zehnder's French company.




Slow transition in production methods

The first radiators were manufactured almost entirely by hand, but the transition to mechanised production took place rapidly. In April 1931 the workshop already contained eight large machines with electric single motor drives. However, the production steel tube radiators was still very labour-intensive because so many different steps were required. After each welding process the seam had to be deburred and then dressed with a grinder. At the end of the production chain, each individual element and then each finished radiator was tested to make sure it was leak-proof.



Further rationalisation

In 1934/35 the Zehnder brothers acquired their first element welding machines. This meant that the steel tubes could now be connected mechanically to the headers – the first significant rationalisation. The method used was an electrical flash butt welding process. The machine produced an arc between the abutting ends of the tubes and header, which heated the material to melting point. This resulted in a consistently homogeneous and very strong weld.



1930 - 1933

Europe's first steel radiators

After withdrawing from the limited company, the brothers were looking for new business opportunities. One of them, Robert, had learned from a heating installer that people were having to wait a very long time for radiators to be delivered. He was advised to start making cast iron radiators – by far the most common type of radiator at the time. Unfortunately, the Zehnders knew very little about casting. But then Robert remembered that many lorries had a set of pipes that were exposed to the air and acted as a cooler. Why not simply reverse this principle and heat the pipes instead?

Founding of 'Zehnder Brothers'

The first attempts at welding steel tubes together into a set were successful: the prototypes held firm, even under pressure. When the prototypes were ready to go into full-scale production, six of the seven brothers joined forces again to start producing the steel tube radiators – a patent had already applied for. On 15 October 1930 they decided to form a partnership under the name 'Gebrüder Zehnder' – Zehnder Brothers.



The classic among radiators

Heating engineers throughout Switzerland quickly realised the benefits of the Zehnder radiator. Unlike cast iron radiators, which were only available in a few standard sizes, the steel tube radiator gave architects and installers the freedom to specify their required dimensions. Three times lighter than a cast iron model, it was also aesthetically pleasing. Its straight, functional shape integrated perfectly into contemporary architectural concepts. The exterior of this classic radiator has remained virtually unchanged ever since it was first launched.


The Zehnder radiator establishes itself on the market

The manufacturers of cast iron radiators waged an aggressive price war against the Zehnder brothers. In spite of this, the Zehnder radiator proved to be the most popular on the market. And because it was patented, it could not be imitated. Sales fell during the Second World War due to the disruption of construction activities, but after 1945 business began to flourish again. Output and sales increased dramatically year on year. Now there were just two problems occupying the managers' minds: How can we expand our factory and where can we find the necessary workers?


1923 - 1930

The legendary Zehnder light motorcycle conquers Switzerland

In 1923, in their search for a new product, the Zehnder brothers bought a small German motorcycle and began tinkering with it in the workshop. Together they managed to increase the power of the engine. In the autumn of 1923 they launched a light motorcycle for the Swiss market fitted with the improved engine, which sold extremely well. The machine only weighed about 50 kilograms. The two-stroke engine was very simple in design and had a cubic capacity of 110 cm3. The comparatively low price meant that it was affordable for many people, and it quickly became popular, earning the affectionate nickname Zehnderli.

Founding of J. Zehnder & Söhne, the limited company

In the Gränichen workshops, the Zehnder brothers started producing their first large series of 1000 motorcycles. On 1 January 1924, with the help of an investor, they founded the limited company Aktiengesellschaft J. Zehnder & Söhne. For the next few years the company would be working at full capacity with a workforce at times of over 70 people.

Zehnder motorcycle clubs

The Zehnder motorcycle was suitable for both everyday use and motorsports – a fact which it demonstrated in the mountain and flat races so popular at the time, and in which nearly all the Swiss motorcycle factories took part. The Zehnderli topped its category in almost every trial. The network of Zehnder dealers grew throughout Switzerland, with enterprising dealers setting up Zehnder motorcycle clubs which only owners of a Zehnder model could join. Although numerous makes of motorcycle were available in Switzerland at the time, including both Swiss and foreign models, Zehnder achieved a proud market share of 10%.

The market demands more power

In 1927 the business experienced its first downturn in sales. Customers were increasingly looking for more powerful machines, so the Zehnder brothers decided to develop a 250 cm3 model. This was launched in 1928, but owing to a few problems with the engine, the new model did not sell particularly well. Poor sales pushed the company into a liquidity crisis. The brothers had purchased a lot of equipment to be able to manufacture economically, and the problem of unsold stock was becoming more and more of a burden. It was time to search for another new product to keep the workshops busy again.

Maschinenfabrik Gränichen AG

By early 1930 the financial situation had become so hopeless that the creditors forced the Zehnder brothers to resign from the management. After this point the company was managed by its principal creditor, initially under its old name, before being renamed as Maschinenfabrik Gränichen AG in 1931. In 1932, the new company began producing motorcycles under licence from the German Standard company. For a period the factory supplied both Zehnder and Standard machines, but in the late 1930s the Zehnder models, by now technically obsolete, were discontinued.

1918 - 1922

Economic crisis hampers commercial success

After the war, the Zehnder brothers decided to start producing tool grinding machines. However, although the new machines earned acclaim for their precision, the economic crisis in the years that followed put an end to the brothers' hopes for commercial success. To keep their heads above water the brothers set up an electromechanical workshop that introduced various new developments. But in spite of all their efforts, by 1922 the business was employing just 25 people.

1889 - 1917

Jakob Zehnder

The Zehnder family of entrepreneurs began with Jakob Zehnder, born in 1855. In 1889 he was working as a mechanic for a music box factory when he came into contact with the Adler bicycle factory in Frankfurt am Main. In the following years he began to sell Adler bicycles in the Wyna River valley area in canton Aargau. This modest business and the income from occasional repairs he carried out on the bicycles he sold allowed Jakob, the father of a large family, to supplement his factory worker's wages.


Opening a mechanical workshop in Gränichen

When he was in his late 30s, Jakob Zehnder decided to set up his own business in his home town of Gränichen, a few miles south of Aarau. He owned a piece of farmland, where he began to build a house with a barn. The latter was not only necessary for the subsistence farming planned, but was also intended to serve as mechanical workshop. By 1895, the house and workshop were ready for occupation. Jakob could now work for himself as a mechanic and bicycle dealer.



Repairs of all kinds

Jakob Zehnder entered into enormous financial obligations in order to build the house. This investment in the house and workshop was a clear indication of his determination to work for himself. Staying on at his job with Karrer in Unterkulm was only a means to reduce his start-up costs and the risk of setting up his own business. In his small workshop, he carried out all kinds of repairs. He occasionally sold bicycles for the Adler company, for whom he was the local agent. Later he also began dealing in typewriters, sewing machines, washing machines and motorcycles.



Founding of J. Zehnder & Söhne, the partnership

Jakob Zehnder's seven sons focused on commercial training or qualified as mechanics. They took an increasingly active interest in the business and encouraged their father to enlarge the workshop. This he did in winter 1911/1912, with the construction of a small factory building. On 1 March 1912, Jakob and his three eldest sons founded the company J. Zehnder & Söhne. The small factory was used not only for sales and repairs but also for enamelling, nickel-plating and copper-plating. During the First World War the company and its growing workforce made munition parts. Up to 118 people were employed in the workshops.