Phillipp Dietmann, piano factory founder

Phillipp Dietmann, piano factory founder

In many South African homes Dietmann pianos hold pride of place, but not many people know that these instruments were originally produced in the picturesque town of Wellington. asked Mr Philipp Dietmann (89), founder of South Africa’s then biggest piano factory,  to tell us about his achievements. (Photo: Elizabeth and Philipp Dietmann)

It all started in 1903 when your father accepted a job offer at a Cape Town general dealer specializing in selling rifles and horse feed? How did this come about?

PD : At that time, farmers requested Mr. Richard Müller to import German Pianos which he then purchased from the world famous German factory, August Förster. In order to service these instruments, he requested a technician to be sent to South Africa and also to run the Piano Division. My father worked at the mentioned factory as a piano tuner and technician and volunteered to come to South Africa.

During the First World War your father was interned in South Africa because of his German nationality. How did he keep up his spirits in the camp during this time?

PD : One of the main past- times for internees was making music and as there was no piano available, my father taught himself to play the zither. He, at the same time, formed an orchestra of about fifteen members. Later, after the War, as a youngster of about six, I still remember vividly him playing the zither after Sunday evening meals – with the family sitting around the table.

When the war was over, he did not go back to Cape Town, but settled with your mother in a small little town called Porterville in the Western Cape. How did this happen and what did he do for a living?

PD : After the war, due to his German nationality, there was still an embargo for him to be in a certain radius of Cape Town. So for a short period, my parents settled in Porterville and my father tuned pianos. However, as this was not sufficient, he taught himself to repair and service upright Grand-father clocks.

You were born in 1922 in Wellington though. By all accounts Wellington was an important and respected town in those days.

As Wellington was a large Music Centre, having its own University – for ladies – established by the Americans; also a large Training College for teachers; a College for Missionaries and excellent schools, this provided more work and my father moved there approximately in 1920. So, I was born in 1922 at number 3 Berg Street, later changed to nr 13 , Wellington..

Please tell us a little about your mother.

PD : My mother was born in South Africa to German parents. They immigrated to South Africa from Russia – a region on the Volga. That part of Russia had a large German population. My father purchased the house in Wellington for 900 Pounds. The house had eight bedrooms and my mother took in five boarders. She cared for them in every aspect – even up to darning their socks. She also had fowl runs built in the backyard and started breeding with chickens – ultimately we had 200 egg-laying leghorns. As a young boy, my task was to wash the eggs, pack them in special boxes which my mother sent to Cape Town by train to a Depot called the Egg Circle. Furthermore, very importantly, she handled the business telephone as my father was continuously out of town – tuning pianos. She also arranged and organized the workshop where piano repairs were executed. The financial matters were also in her hands.

You remember your father as a very hard working man who bought his first car in 1930 – it was an Essex make – and who never had any debt. By 1939 - due to the growth in business -  he brought three technicians from Germany to join the company. What made him so successful in business?

PD : The answer to this question would be: Absolute dedication and perfection in everything he did. His routine started on Monday morning at 09h00 – after a breakfast of porridge and grape nuts. He then discussed the work to be done in the workshop (in the backyard)  with his workmen. At about 10h00, he would leave home. He would have several appointments to tune pianos in various towns surrounding Wellington. These visits would be organized on a daily basis. He would not return home before 21h00 to 21h30 each evening. He would then enjoy his evening meal which my mother had repaired and during this time my mother would report about the daily events. This routine carried on for six days. On Sundays his programme consisted of checking his motor car, caring for his tools and piano material and he meticulously entered all this visits that had taken place during the past week. I remember reading in the book – which was always available -  that this income was never less than 40 pounds per week. In those years – before the second World War – this was a substantial amount.

In 1940, after completing your formal schooling in Wellington, you were enrolled for a degree in Zoology at the prestigious Stellenbosch University, but it appears that this was not meant to be?

PD : As this course was of no interest to me – I had no longing to dissect rabbits – I left Stellenbosch and arrived back in Wellington per bicycle. On the first Sunday, I had to confront my father and when he asked me what I intended to do with my life, I said that I would like to join him in his business. My father was in agreement – although not very enthusiastically. During the first few weeks, I was not very popular with the German workmen, but I persevered and was gradually accepted by them.

When you joined your father’s business, he later presented you with your first savings book (account) from Barclays Bank. What was the deal?

PD : He said that he was going to give me 8 pounds per month of which I could spend 4 pounds, but 4 pounds he would want to see in the savings book. This deal carried on for six months. When I then presented the savings book to him to show that I had complied, he said that he did not want to see it any more and I was then on my own. This laid the financial basis for my future business life.

The Dietmann business grew and so did your experience as a business man. At which point did you officially take over the reigns of the company?

We had a successful small business when in 1949 my father – who never had one days’ illness in his life – suddenly became ill. Stomach cancer was diagnosed and I was informed that he had only six months to live.  This proved to be accurate. I was, by now, the natural leader and as such inherited the business.

How did it come about that you produced the first South African made piano?

PD : As the business grew, I advertised – in Germany – for a piano technician and, consequently, a German Piano Manufacturer – who had lost his factory during the War – applied for the position. This man was Mr. Oscar Schindhelm.  He and his two sons then joined me. Soon after having started, Mr. Oscar Shindhelm, without my knowledge, started making a soundboard from Oregon Pine as this was the nearest to spruce normally used. An iron frame was still available from Switzerland – which we then imported and shortly thereafter a piano strung back was completed. A Renner Action – made according to our scale was incorporated – and a keyboard was imported from Germany. The cabinet was manufactured in our workshop and the whole instrument was finally assembled. This was the first piano manufactured in our workshop at Berg Street Wellington.

Approximately in 1955,  R. Műller (the company that had employed your father in1903) also became your biggest customer by ordering the first six pianos. That was certainly only the beginning?

PD : The first piano we made, set in motion a small, but continuous manufacture of inexpensive, good-sounding pianos. At that stage, we had very few piano dealers who bought from us, but we managed to sell to customers at the factory. Then R. Műller, then also the biggest dealer in pianos, ordered six of our instruments which were well-received by the public and the monthly order subsequently increased to more than 20 instruments. At that time, R. Műller belonged to the Morkel Group and Mr. Morkel personally came to visit me in Wellington and encouraged me.

Tell us about your relationship with the old Hugo Jam factory premises in Wellington and it becoming the home of Dietmann Pianos.

PD : During the first years - by utilizing every inch of my back-yard factory – I managed to produce approximately 30 pianos monthly. We, therefore, desperately needed more space. In addition, the town council wanted to force me to relocate as the area in which I was, was zoned for residential purposes. This was a devastating blow. It was is not easy to move within a very limited time – also to find new premises, etc. etc. At the same time, Langeberg Canners similarly were forced to vacate their large Hugo’s Jam Factory building in Bain Street.  This was ideally suited for my purpose and I persuaded the Municipality to allow me to transfer my factory to Bain Street. After several meeting with them, I managed to obtain the “right of exception” (Afrikaans: Afwykende Reg) applicable to my back-yard factory. To explain this: It should be said that previously a Black-Smith operation existed in the back-yard.Consequently I was given this “right” – allowing me to move into the large factory in spite of it being situated in a residential area – therefore transferring my “right” from Berg Street to Bain Street. At this stage I had no capital to invest in a building – so, I rented the premises with the option to buy after five years. This option I exercised after this period. This allowed me to increase production which eventually exceeded 4000-plus per year. We exported approximately 2000 of these units to Germany alone.

Give us an overview of how manufacturing and demand grew from then on. You also became the first South African piano manufacturer to export pianos to a then highly competitive European market.

PD : As we became an ever larger supplier of pianos to South Africa’s biggest dealer, namely R. Műller, it affected the import of German pianos from – amongst others - a German factory called Rud. Ibach Sohn.  I was then approached by Mr. Ibach Sr. And, consequently, the Ibach Factory purchased 50% of the Dietmann factory. This enabled the Dietmann Factory – together with the know-how of the German Piano Factory – to further increase the quality of our pianos and manufacturing methods. Subsequently, the Ibach Piano for the South African market became an integral part of our production – especially pianos supplied to the schools.

At the height of the company’s success – finally called Piano Manufacturers of South Africa, how many pianos did you produce on a daily basis and to how many countries did you export?

PD : With the advent of Ibach, the Dietmann Piano factory changed to P. Dietmann Pianos (Pty.) Ltd.  and only later became P.M.S.A.  We produced approximately 20 units daily and exported to countries such as Germany, France, Holland, Italy, Spain, Greece, Israel, Reunion, Iran, etc.

Please name all the piano brand names that eventually rolled off the assembly line at P.M.S.A.?

PD : Shindhelm, Dietmann, Ibach , Görs & Kallmann, Otto Bach, Fritz Kuhla.

As with most successful companies, acquisitions and mergers take place. How did you end up becoming the managing director of R.Műller – your biggest customer?

PD : R. Muller Ltd. – being the largest music group in South Africa -  owned a piano factory in Johannesburg and Dietmann was the largest supplier of pianos to this Group, it created a conflict of interest. The then Chairman approached Dietmann and Ibach and made an offer to purchase the Wellington Factory. This offer was accepted and the name became Piano Manufacturers of South Africa. Six months later, the Chairman – now controlling P.M.S.A.  – promoted me to become Managing Director of the R. Műller Group which comprised of approximately 18 retail stores, four wholesale divisions, and two factories (one piano factory and one Lowrey Organ factory) = with a complement of approximately 2000 people.

Unfortunately, the piano industry went into a decline – world-wide. As a result, the last piano produced at the factory rolled off the assembly line in 1989 – now 21 years ago. Give us your take on this rather sad outcome. 

PD : From a height of one million pianos manufactured world-wide, the piano industry contracted to such an extent that the industry shrank to a low of some thousand pianos manufactured in Japan and Korea.  Germany – the heartland of piano manufacture collapsed to a negligible number. Similarly, England and America suffered the same fate.  Lately. China has emerged as the largest manufacturer. In this climate, the piano factory in Wellington could not survive.

The time came for you to retire. Having always been a busy man, how did you adapt to retired life?

PD : Sectional Title properties came into being and I kept myself busy – in this regard – in Johannesburg where I was also involved in a wood-working and leisure equipment manufacturing factory. At the age of 73,  I returned to the Cape where my wife Elizabeth and I settled in Dolphin Beach, Table View – which is still our present home.

Are you still in touch with some of your key piano employees or know of their whereabouts?

PD : I am still in touch with colleagues and workers. I have a deep friendship with the son of my previous partner. We associate with Christian Ibach, his wife Helene and their family each year when they visit South Africa for four months at a time. The previous factory managers come to visit. They are Alfons Brauneis who lives with his family in Germany; Lothar Shell is resident in Wellington. A number of workers phone on a regular basis and they have come to visit me recently on my birthday in December 2011. I am, for example, thinking of Gawie Adams – the previous production manager; and various department managers who are still alive. Just recently, our last office manager – James Barnard and his wife – Alta – now residing in Richards Bay – came to pay us a visit. Unfortunately, we have lost so many dear friends and loyal workers. Jacob Graaff, the former manager of the Organ Factory has also been a regular visitor. We are keeping in touch with varies individuals through e-mails. The widow of our R. Müller General Manager (Mr. Grobbie Grobbelaar) – Mrs. Valerie Grobbelaar and Mr. And Mrs. Mellville van der Spuy (Head of the Music Foundation of R Müller) – come to mind.

Please name some of South Africa’s successful piano dealers/technicians/tuners that had training at the factory in Wellington?

PD : In this regard, I would like to mention Wolfgang Heuer of Stellenbosch – who now owns the largest piano business in South Africa. I am thinking in particular of Bennie Dekker, my dear friend – who runs a most successful piano business in Pretoria. He keeps in touch on a regular basis – per telephone and a yearly visit. Lothar Shell, our previous factory manager, has had a most successful career in establishing Piano Manufacturing in China. He now stays in Wellington and never forgets to phone me on my birthday and who also pays us the occasional personal visit.

Did any of your children or grand children get involved in the music industry in one way or another?

PD : Unfortunately, when the factory was at its height, my two sons were too young. Later, I had been promoted and subsequently resided in Johannesburg. So, this was not to be.

Are Dietmann and Otto Bach pianos still availalble on the market today?

PD : Lately, I have allowed Bennie Dekker - of Pretoria-  to have pianos manufactured bearing the name Dietmann – as i am confident that he will uphold the quality of Dietmann pianos. In Cape Town, Lukas van der Walt Pianos supply pianos with the Otto Bach brand name.

And finally, your father was a master tuner and repairer and built part of his wealth on this gifted skill. What, in your opinion, makes a good piano tuner?

PD : In tuning a piano, my father was able to gauge the inexplicable way a well-tuned piano should sound. He then tuned the piano accordingly. This talent is extremely difficult to explain in words, but becomes apparent when an experienced musician plays the piano. Furthermore, he was a master in setting the touch so accurately that the pianist could express himself more precisely.

Published 20 August 2012

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