Though currently the proud CEO of Swiss heating, cooling, and ventilation firm, Zehnder Group — flashback to 1996 and a young Dominik Berchtold began his career producing dynamite for a mining firm in Lima, Peru. “This was during the period of the Sendero Luminoso (The Shining Path) in Peru — the radical communist group, which was later classified as a terrorist organisation for its brutality. The factory where we made the dynamite had to be highly protected because there was always the risk someone would steal some,” says Dominik.

In 1997, he left to join a brewery in Cusco, where he undertook a traineeship in the marketing department. “Cusco is the former Incan capital, and one of the most beautiful cities in the world,” adds Dominik. “I did a lot of travelling around the Andes to remote villages to talk about our products and in some places, they had never seen a white person before, so they would always run away from me.” For his third very contrasting traineeship, Dominik travelled to China to work in marketing and sales for Linde Xiamen, a German–Chinese venture specialising in forklift manufacture and materials handling.

“That was really interesting, but the cultural differences were a challenge. People in South America are much more aligned to our way of thinking, but in China it’s very different. However, I still really enjoyed the experience,” says Dominik.

It wasn’t long before Dominik returned to Switzerland to serve in a management function across finance and controlling with aircraft manufacturer, Pilatus Aircraft, where he was eventually asked to become the new Chief Financial Officer — a great opportunity to some, but not so for Dominik. “I never considered myself to be a good CFO, and so a few years later I switched to a new role as a consultant for KPMG, specialising in corporate structure and turnaround management,” he says.

‘It fascinated me, learning about the crisis situations these businesses had found themselves in’

“It fascinated me, learning about the crisis situations these businesses had found themselves in, and it was a good experience for me, however I didn’t want to be a consultant for too long, and was after a bigger responsibility,” says Dominik. “Then I saw Zehnder Group were looking for a business manager, and I applied. I didn’t fully meet the requirements, but they hired me anyway, and now I’m the CEO.”

Dominik first took over responsibility for day-to-day business development, managing many of the company’s acquisitions, as well as developing spin-offs, and selling factories, and it wasn’t long before he was approached by the then-CEO and asked if he wanted to become Zehnder’s new CFO.

“I told him, you know I don’t want to do that,” laughs Dominik. “It sounds a bit arrogant in hindsight, because of course it was a huge step to become the CFO of an industrial multinational company, but it wasn’t my long-term goal, so I was honest with him.” Though he preferred general management positions, Dominik agreed to take on an interim CFO role while they searched for a replacement.

“I said that if it is just a temporary solution then I will do it of course, with full energy and passion, but there will be a better person for this role in the future.” From day one, Dominik was already picking out a successor and a few years later, he handed over the role to a former colleague from Pilatus. He then happily took up responsibility for marketing and sales for Switzerland and the Nordic region, as designate CEO. One year later, the top role was his.

From motorcyles in the 1920s to Europe’s first steel tube radiator in the 1930s

Dominik now proudly leads a company with a considerable and varied history. Zehnder started as a family mechanical workshop more than 100 years ago, which expanded into a small factory building used for sales, repairs, and metal works. The group later became known as a leading motorcycle brand, with the Zehnder light motorcycle providing a popular and affordable form of travel in the 20s. It wasn’t until the 30s that Zehnder began to lay the foundations for the business it has grown into today, with the development of Europe’s first steel tube radiator. From there the company has gone through major growth periods, with a considerable number of acquisitions and innovations making it the current market leader in heating, cooling, and ventilation. Zehnder Group now runs a number of companies, employing more than 3,000 people, with a focus on protecting the environment and improving client wellbeing.

“We strive to improve our client’s quality of life by providing the finest indoor climate solutions. That is our vision. We spend more than 70 per cent of our lives indoors, so the quality of the indoor climate has a tremendous impact on our wellbeing,” says Dominik. “We clearly see a trend towards a more comfortable indoor climate, and people are growing more conscious of their health. They care about their food and fitness, but they seldom ask themselves about the quality of the air they are inhaling 24/7.” Many of Zehnder’s products were designed to manage this air quality, along with indoor temperature, while also reducing CO2 levels, minimising airborne dust and odours, and optimising humidity levels.

Zehnder’s radiators have been compared to newer systems like underfloor heating, but these new options are much less efficient than radiators, explains Dominik, because they have a much lower thermal inertia. Radiators can react much faster to changing heat loads, which substantially reduces energy consumption and increases comfort for the residents.

Some of the industry’s most energy-efficient systems

“We mostly manage temperature with water-based systems, which are far more efficient and comfortable than any air conditioning systems. Our external sales force then work with the HVAC installers — focusing on making installation as easy and fast as possible,” he says. As buildings in Europe account for approximately 40 per cent of the region’s energy consumption, products like Zehnder’s heat recovery ventilation unit provide the industry’s most energy-efficient system, with a coefficient of performance (COP) of some thirteen-to-fifteen times, meaning for every unit of energy you get thirteen-to-fifteen units back in recovered heat from the used inside air, of which 95 per cent will be transferred from the fresh outside air.

“We invest a lot into optimising our production processes. We have reduced primary energy consumption between 2010 and 2015 by some 50 per cent,” says Dominik. Despite the overall shrinking market volume for radiators, Zehnder has continued to invest in this area, leading the market in design radiators and towel radiators in Europe, with a position to gain additional market share in the next few years. After acquiring many leading players across radiators, ventilation, and air filtering, the company has expanded across the European market, including Eastern Europe and Turkey. It has also begun activities in North America and China, and will potentially launch in Asia–Pacific as the group eyes off the Australian market. Just recently, Zehnder also announced it will go into mass production of its new Zmart radiator — the world’s first radiator with polymer heating registers.

‘Best of the Best’ in design innovation

Dominik says the recent establishment of a new service business was another important strategic step for Zehnder Group. “Through the acquisition in Sweden and by redefining the business model, we have created a continuous income stream,” he says. “We help our industrial and logistics customers to reduce their cleaning and maintenance costs and to improve their product quality and work environment.” The Zehnder Zmart radiator is the world’s most advanced heating technology, using electronically controlled polymer heating registers. The innovation earned the company the ‘Best of the Best’ award for the best in category at this year’s prestigious Red Dot Product Design Awards. “By using polymer instead of steel we reduce the weight by more than 40 per cent which makes a huge difference for logistics and installation, while the ecological footprint is reduced by up to 60 per cent,” says Dominik.

“The Zmart also has a new concept for connecting it to the existing piping system of a building, which reduces the time and complexity involved in planning and installation. It also reduces the variety of stock required by wholesalers. Furthermore, the polymer register is resistant to any corrosion, it provides a timeless design, and is connected to the building via intelligent communication.” Due to its access to a large range of polymer materials and relevant expertise, the product is being developed and produced in partnership with Jansen Plastic Solutions. Materials are provided from leading European manufacturers in the spirit of close cooperation and expert-knowledge exchange.

Suppliers and partners that are leaders in their industry

“I visited Jansen during that project because I wanted to get to know them and I had heard a lot about them. For us, it is important, regarding all our partners, that they share the same values as us, like mutual trust, and long-term, sustainable, win–win partnerships,” says Dominik. “We make sure that we have the best suppliers and partners, who are leaders in their industry. We always aim for the best and Jansen embodies this in every respect. Developing the new polymer radiator was a risky project because it deals with so many new elements — but it paid off, as the end product is revolutionary, and born from a strong focus on customer needs,” says Dominik. “I am always proud when we create new products that people value.

I attended many trade fairs in Europe, where I met many customers, and they were very enthusiastic about our new ventilation unit. It made me so proud of all of us — especially of my colleagues who have invested so much time designing and making the product.

Dominik says the company’s ability to innovate is not just based on his leadership, but the support of all stakeholders, directors, and suppliers. “We never know how something will do, so I highly appreciate all the support we get from our key shareholders, the Zehnder family, and our board of directors. They always support long-term investment in potential developments, even though it can mean some tough times. It’s that support that makes everything work.”