When you hear the name Oetker, you may not immediately thing of the
city of Bielefeld in Eastern Westphalia. In fact, there is a humorous
conspiracy theory that Bielefeld does not exist at all. But in reality,
the 800-year-old city has plenty of stature and economic clout. Mayor
Pit Clausen provides an insight into his city’s economic history.
“Bielefeld is a city full of character. While Berlin, Hamburg and Cologne might be passionate lovers, Bielefeld is the best friend.” These are the words with which poetry slammer and author Mischa-Sarim Vérollet described his home city on the occasion of its 800-year anniversary in 2014. A city as a best friend that provides loving and reliable support – while always delivering trustworthy products. What more could a mayor want?
Arguably the most famous product to come out of Bielefeld is baking powder, which was launched in the late 19th century and became the best friend of the housewives of the day. Dr August Oetker packaged small portions in little bags in the back room of his pharmacy, revolutionising cake-baking with this universally useful additive. From this small beginning grew an internationally active family-run corporation, whose over 26,000 staff now send millions of baking ingredients, pizzas, sparkling wine and beer out into the world, as well as operating a seafaring arm, a bank and multiple hotels.
But even before the establishment of the food industry, other products were also big hits on the export market. From the end of the 16th century, Bielefeld began to grow as linen production took off. Small spinning rooms and weaving mills formed the nucleus of an industrial segment that brought the city international fame as the city of linen and fashion. By the mid-19th century, around 20,000 independent spinners and weavers were working in and around Bielefeld.
The flourishing sewing rooms and weaving mills and Europe’s largest machine spinning factory – founded in 1854 as the “Ravensburger Spinnerei” by Hermann Delius, among others – gave rise to well-known clothes factories such as Roos and Kahn, from which the Windsor fashion brand later developed. Starting in 1919, the young entrepreneur Walter Seidensticker produced initial shirt collections, which would lay the foundation for a company that is now one of the world’s largest shirt manufacturers. Other traditional, family-led textile companies – such as Delius, JAP Anstoetz and Union Knopf – still shape Bielefeld’s economy to this day. KATAG AG, Europe’s largest fashion service provider, also operates from here, side by side with young, creative fashion labels such as the successful Puddingtown label chosen by a designer in solidarity with her city.
Rapid mechanisation and further processing of linens and fabrics also led to a particular need for tools and machinery in the 19th century, causing mechanical engineering and vehicle construction to pick up speed in Bielefeld. Companies such as Koch’s Adler and Dürkopp & Schmidt began building sewing machines and special machinery for cobblers and saddlers. Soon, the businesses were also producing bicycles, motorcycles, cars, lorries and buses for the domestic and foreign markets.
Not as many sewing machines and wheels are produced here today, but mechanical engineering and metal processing remain the largest sectors in the manufacturing industry. Bielefeld is one of Germany’s most significant locations for mechanical engineering and home to one of the world‘s leading manufacturers of CNC-controlled lathes and milling machines, DMG Mori Seiki AG (formerly Gildemeister AG), with over 6,000 employees.
Other branded companies also value Bielefeld’s location on many of Germany’s largest transport axes. Schüco employs 5,000 staff and delivers windows, façades and solar modules from the city. Goldbeck builds halls, office buildings and multi-storey car parks. Itelligence AG develops sector-specific software. Miele manufactures vacuum cleaners at the company’s second-largest site in Bielefeld. They are joined by the many other companies that deliver special machinery for surfaces, compressors for compressed air, machinery for the printing industry and innovative components for vehicle construction.
Structural change has shrunk the industrial sector in favour of strong development in the service sector in recent years, but industry continues to play a significant role in shaping the newly created service jobs in IT, the advertising sector and other knowledge-intensive fields.
Industrialisation in the 19th century also brought with it various social challenges and movements. In Bielefeld, these led to the foundation of the Bethel Institution in 1867. Through their institutions for people who are chronically ill, disabled or elderly, great men with great ideas such as Pastor Friedrich von Bodelschwingh and, almost a century later, Pastor Karl Pawlowski – the founder of the Evangelisches Johanneswerk – made Bielefeld the “European capital of social welfare”. Bethel currently employs 16,000 people in eight German states, while the Evangelisches Johanneswerk has over 6,000 staff throughout the country. “This is actually more important the big-name brands that we Germans are famous for all over the world,” said German President Joachim Gauck on a visit to the Bethel Institution in early 2014.
This segment of the healthcare economy also plays its part in shaping Bielefeld as a “city of character”, the regional centre for the two-million-inhabitant Eastern Westphalia-Lippe region. There may still be many who persistently deny the city’s existence (the “Bielefeld Conspiracy”), but together with its surrounding region, the city of 330,000 is among Europe’s most competitive regions – and offers a high quality of life, too. It is full of down-to-earth people and brands with stability and innovative spirit.
Proof of this is provided by the around 140,000 companies in Eastern Westphalia-Lippe, which generate an annual gross domestic product of around 60 billion euros and employ a million people. These include not only well-known companies such as Bertelsmann, Dr. Oetker, Miele, Gerry Weber, Melitta and Claas, to name but a few, but also many family-run, small and medium-sized businesses in mechanical engineering, the furniture industry, electrical engineering, automation technology, metal and plastics processing, IT and healthcare technology.
These may be in competition with one another, but they are also well aware of the benefits of good partnership. That is exactly what many companies in and around Bielefeld have turned into a real location advantage – they have become connected. The last two decades have seen the formation of a series of sector networks, consisting of companies, universities, chambers of commerce and business promotion agencies. The goal? To create synergies and competitive advantages. Business associations have grown up for the mechanical engineering, healthcare, IT, energy and plastics processing sectors. They all create verifiable innovation, marketing and cost benefits. One outstanding example of the strong connections between domestic technology drivers and universities is the top cluster “Intelligent Technical Systems (it’s OWL)”, one of fifteen across Germany.
Bielefeld is a key part of these drivers, and in doing so exploits its opportunities and invests in knowledge and bright talent. The internationally respected university is currently being modernised at great expense. Alongside the new construction of the university of applied sciences, new research facilities are also being built on a large campus. Once finished, the city will be home to one of Germany’s most state-of-the-art university locations.
This development is attracting large numbers of young people from across Germany and abroad to the city by the Teutoburg Forest. Numbers of students at both state and private universities are growing fast. Many of Bielefeld’s new residents are pleasantly surprised by the environment they find here, come to love it and end up staying. After all, Bielefeld offers many lively districts including a large number of interconnected green spaces, as well as an incredible range of leisure and cultural activities and, above all, attractive employers. These companies present themselves and their products and service on our business portal, www.das-kommt-aus-Bielefeld.de.
Of course, it is possible that the people of Bielefeld – just like all those of Eastern Westphalia and Lippe – lack a little passion at first glance. But it is its loving reliability that makes the city a “best friend”. A characteristic that has grown over 800 years.