These days it is quite common for Western companies to move manufacturing to China. The China First Pencil Company, manufacturers of the Chung Hwa pencil, tried the opposite. In the late 1990s they opened a pencil factory in the German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the Norddeutsche Bleistiftfabrik (nbf) – the Northern German Pencil Factory. They planned to produce up to 100 million pencils each year in this factory. At the time it was the first direct Chinese investment in Europe, something not so uncommon any more today.
Why did the China First Pencil Company do this? The idea was to sell pencils “Made in Germany” in Europe, maybe even to export them to the USA. To keep prices down1 the pencils were made in China using lime wood2. The nbf factory only had to paint the pencils (using imported, Shanghainese machines) that were sent unpainted from the factory in China. The design of the pencils was done in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern by bartsch design, a company that won prestigious awards for wind turbine design.
Only six months and more than 10 million Deutschmarks in subsidies and loans later it was all over. Rules did not allow “Made in Germany” to be printed on the pencils because they were only painted in Germany …and when they did not sell, not even after the price was reduced, China First Pencil Company and their partners, a Shanghai-based and a HongKong-based investor, had enough and their subsidiary, the nbf, filed for bankruptcy.
These pencils might have had a chance, I guess it didn’t work out, either because the quality wasn’t good enough3 or because nbf just wasn’t an established name. The missing “Made in Germany” could not have been the only reason why nbf failed. Look at other companies: Since Lyra has been taken over by Fila, the Italian company that owns Dixon, most of their pencils are made in China. That doesn’t stop them from printing “Germany” (not “Made in Germany” though) on their pencils. Leica can write “Made in Germany” on their M9 cameras, even though they only pair the camera body and electronics they get from Portugal with Kodak’s sensor made in Rochester, New York, and do some testing. Maybe cutting the sandwich in the nbf factory would have been enough to be able to label the pencils “Made in Germany”…
Hourly wages and exchange rates: 1997
I would like to thank Mr Bartsch and Mr Rug from bartsch design for allowing me to show the computer-generated images of the pencil and packaging designs as part of this blog post.
- Hourly wages at the time and in that part of Germany were nearly 12 DM per hour, at 1997’s exchange rate that was about $6.90 / £4.20. The USA’s minimum wage at the time was $5.15 and the UK’s minimum wage at the time was £3.60. [↩]
- American English: Linden wood [↩]
- I have never seen any of the pencils, so cannot comment whether that was the case. I assume that a few months were enough time for nbf to paint a few pencils – so there should be a few of them around. The question is how they were painted, i.e. which design was used, and where they were sold. I wouldn’t be surprised if they ended up in variety stores. If nbf‘s machines were sent back to China they might have also sent the pencils back to China at the same time – to sell them there… [↩]