Luxembourgish craftsmanship - Christian Cortina & Sven Kinnen

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In the workshop of D'Schlässerei, a small locksmith's shop in eastern Luxembourg, precision goes hand in hand with digitalisation. For its new owners, the key to success lies in innovation. With their approach, Christian Cortina (45) and Sven Kinnen (25) prove that metal - like craftsmanship in general - is an intergenerational language.

Just as the term "locksmith's shop" often misleads the general public, D'Schlässerei, a six-month-old company, is still advertised by the inscription of its former owners – Lang's Lights – on the blue frontage of its reception. More than doors, locks and handles, a locksmith's shop actually means a metalwork shop.

A man in a light blue short-sleeved shirt emerges and starts his umpteenth round trip to the workshop: a large, pale yellow shed set back from the reception building, though attached to it, making it look like a large control tower. Which is not entirely untrue. D'Schlässerei relies on craftsmanship, but also on innovation. The offices are therefore just as important as everything else. Another breakthrough: the managers are 20 years apart.

Metal railings separate the shed from the car park. Christian Cortina, 45, sees us and instinctively stops to greet us. "Sven has gone home to change, he was still in his work clothes. He'll be right over", he laughs. "But we can already take a look around the workshop." Smiling and happy to show us around his new workplace, he leads us into the shed, where the sound of saws is ringing in our ears.

A workshop in full swing

The interior is deep and filled with huge machines. At the entrance, 3 employees, protected by a visor, work on the metal. The impacts between the tools and the materials create sparks and send back particles that cover the floor. "We haven't cleaned up", Christian says. "Everything is authentic. (laughs)" That's what craftsmanship – the real one – is all about. And while the stairs next to them lead to their break room, every other square meter that surrounds the workers is home to metal, in whatever form.

One welded item later, 25-year-old Sven Kinnen arrives in a beautiful white patterned shirt and a big smile. He is as friendly as his partner, who jokes to their workshop manager currently working behind the lens of our camera: "You like having your picture taken. Right, Jonny?" Sven and the two men burst out laughing. The atmosphere is good, as is the chemistry between the two partners.

Christian invites us to take a look around: "As you can see, we offer the whole range of metal construction. It can be balustrades, stairs, visual protection with raised beds and much more…" Even the size doesn't matter. "Whether it's bigger things or smaller things, we do everything." Everything, as long as it's made of metal.

On a worktable next to us is a low door with the emblem of a municipality. "We work for local authorities, developers, public authorities and the state, but also for private clients." While more and more companies are closing the door on small, customised – and not sufficiently profitable – orders, Sven and Christian are keen to welcome every customer and every request with open arms.

And while D'Schlässerei even accepts repairs – "for example, a school that comes to us with a small goal whose posts have broken" – it does, of course, build new. "You can come to us, tell us what you want and we will design and build it for you. We come to your house, take measurements, make a plan and send it to you for your approval, then we build it and come and assemble it." From A to Z.

5 values

Christian Cortina on the 5 values that D'Schlässerei wants to promote.

*in Luxembourgish

"Careful, careful…" A worker walks past us with a large piece of wood, that almost stands out in the middle of all the metal, in his arms. "This is our table for the interview", says the managers while laughing. "They are building it right now." Their business is so new that the parts of the premises that they have not taken over (especially the offices) are still being fitted out.

The worker gives way to what looks like a… large swimming pool. "This is our water jet cutting machine", says Christian proudly. "There aren't many of them left in Luxembourg. It is 20 years old. When people see it, they say 'Wow!'" Sven continues, "Once we receive the materials, they are cut with this machine, with laser or plasma." The laser is faster and the plasma is used to cut thicker steel, "from 10 millimetres upwards".

"It was an innovative company before us and it will remain so with us."

Christian Cortina

However, "all of this is simulated on office programs first". Folding, for example, is pre-simulated on the computer. "Thanks to the simulation, it is easier to bend in the workshop", explains Sven. After bending, "other pieces are welded on, the part is lacquered, and then it goes directly" to the customer. "Whether you decide to work with aluminium or steel, we can do everything with our machines", says Christian.

And the co-manager has reason to be pleased, because in this company he has found the perfect match. He and Sven are now starting out under ideal conditions, with modern machinery and processes. The previous owners prepared the ground well: "It was an innovative company before us and it will remain so with us." Christian is keen not to forget that.

Passing the torch

Because a year ago, D'Schlässerei was still called Lang's Lights. Christian says: "Armand Lang founded the company 40 years ago, and he became interested in digitalisation very early on. He was one of the first in the country to have some of these machines. They allowed him to modernise and diversify." Indeed, Lang's Lights won the Innovation Award, presented by the Chambre des Métiers, in 2017. "That's purely Armand's credit. Not ours."

Christian had a long journey, independent of D'Schlässerei, to get to this point. In the background, the plasma cutting machine is currently switched off. On the right, the workshop opens onto a second, smaller shed. The dark, neon-coloured bulbs of its machines, including the laser, give it an almost mysterious atmosphere. You want to discover everything that is hidden there, to explore every corner.

"I did a 1ère B in mathematics at the Lycée classique in Esch", Christian says. "My father was – and still is – a craftsman. An electrician. So I was always fascinated by that." But the co-manager did not want to study maths or physics. "So I did a master's degree in mechanical engineering at the ETH (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule) in Zurich until 2001." After that he went straight to work for Paul Wurth.

He has worked for the company for 20 years and has risen through the ranks. "First as an engineer – project manager – and then as head of design offices for different technologies. I travelled a lot because we had projects on every continent. Finally, in 2013, I became head of personnel until last year when I was informed that Armand Lang was looking for a buyer."

At that time, Christian was not necessarily looking for a change, but it was an opportunity that came his way. "I met Armand and we immediately realised that we were on the same wavelength. The more he told me, the more I liked it. It was like tailor-made: a smaller company would not have interested me, a larger one would not have fit into my finances… I told myself: 'It's now or never!'"

It was also during this process that he met Sven, who was working for Lang's Lights at the time: "At Paul Wurth, I always supported young people. I got to know Sven and it worked out well right away, the feeling was there. He told me that he too wanted to take over. Alone, at 25, it would have been difficult… but together with me, it's fine."

Sven and Christian leave the shed and walk along the road to the last workshop, located behind the first two. It is much brighter and more airy than the other two. Music comes from an old radio. On the right-hand wall, the new D'Schlässerei logo hangs: an S covered in metal splinters, sparks. A successful rebranding.

"I always had the idea in the back of my mind to become independent, to take over the business."

Sven Kinnen

As an employee comes to Christian for advice, Sven takes over. "I worked in the company for eight months before I took over with Christian." But even before that, his background and that of the business were linked. "I did my first 9ème internships here. From that day on, I always had the idea in the back of my mind to become independent, to take over the business."

To achieve his goals, Sven obtained his 1ère TG before doing the "BTS Dessinateur et Constructeur sur Métal" at Bonnevoie. "Exactly what we do here", adds Christian before giving back the floor to his young partner. "After that I started working here and met Christian. It's great that we can do this together." Especially since they do it well, and with an approach that allows them to differentiate themselves.


Sven Kinnen on his desire to be independent.

*in Luxembourgish

Their philosophy is based on 5 values. To talk about it better, they take us to their offices… where the table for the interview is finally built. In the middle of a moving reception area, it is covered with a blue tablecloth and accompanied by "brand new IKEA chairs". Here, only the 2017 Innovation Award title seems to be in place. "They couldn't find anything better than this blue?! (laughs)" jokes Christian as he sits down.

Quality and innovation – Christian assures that D'Schlässerei will be the "best value for money, because customers will be satisfied with what they have for years to come" -, customers and personalization – they would like to "put the customer even more at the centre, by showing them, for example, a picture of the railing they have chosen on their house via augmented reality" -, people and employees – they want to make the atmosphere "even better than it already is" – and the last two, about which they are most vocal: passion and sustainability.

"Craft is just great: it's creative, it's technical, it can be innovative. Something takes shape. It's fantastic."

Christian Cortina

Of course, to be a good craftsman, you have to be passionate. This is no different for our two managers. "It started when I was very young", says Sven. "I grew up on a farm and always wanted to try and do things on my own. Today, I love what I do." For Christian, "craft is just great: it's creative, it's technical, it can be innovative. Something takes shape. It's fantastic."

When it comes to green issues, they take them very seriously. "We are careful to dispose of our products properly, to reduce our fossil energy, to control our gas consumption." Christian is also looking forward to green steel. "We will be among the first to offer it. At the beginning it will probably be more expensive, but I'm sure that some of the customers will be willing to pay the difference for the planet."

The future looks bright – and especially green – for the business. But one thing at a time. Today, the two partners are just starting to get their bearings in a company that employs 26 people, including welders, fitters, people who only work in the office or on the machines.

Intergenerational duo

Christian Cortina about his duo with Sven Kinnen, who is 20 years younger.

*in Luxembourgish

As for them, "Sven takes care of the operational side, the business, the workshop. I'm more in charge of administration, marketing and everything else. He's the technical director, I'm the director", says Christian. "And we take all the decisions together." As for their age difference, it could be disconcerting, but it isn’t. In fact, it is quickly forgotten, especially as it plays no role for them, except as an advantage. "I have two children aged 3 and 5, so I am less flexible in the morning, but Sven is. And if Sven has a family one day, my kids will be older and I can cover for him in the morning." More than the hours, this is also true in terms of tasks. Christian tries to give Sven the opportunity to do what he loves for as long as possible: "I release him a little from the manager's job so that he can do the craft for a few more years. But I tell him what I do because he will have to do it one day!"

Their first six months have been satisfactory. "We made an assessment yesterday and we have exceeded our objectives. We are very happy." D'Schlässerei has also been able to count on the help of the Chambre des Métiers from the very beginning. "Every question we had was answered. I can only compliment them. They even nominated us for the Innovation Award 2022. Unfortunately, we didn't win it, but it gave us visibility that we couldn't have afforded financially."

Everything is going well and looks good… even if some challenges are looming. Among them are the high price of materials – which forces them to stockpile in quantity, which represents "enormous costs" – and the succession, even if "we can still find people if we jump on opportunities without waiting". Christian insists: "To all the parents whose children would like to go in this direction, let them. The craft is alive."

In this sense, their dream is to expand through the purchase of more suitable land, "in 4 or 5 years". In the meantime, they enjoy life as independents and share a beer after work when Sven's family farm and Christian's children allow them to. Because that, too, is the key to a successful duo.