LS332: great mix of design, simplicity, quality and service

Talking about the LS series is to recall a moment in Girbau‘s history, the 1980s, which has shaped the culture of a company committed to providing comprehensive, sustainable and innovative solutions for textile treatment in a global market. Its LS332 machine is a good example of this. At Girbau LAB, we had the opportunity to converse with Antoni Girbau, a family member and then responsible for the operational area of the company, who explains the origin of the LS332.

The LS332 was a pioneering machine. It was a laundry machine that had to be attached to the ground, but it incorporated significant innovations. In addition to “the spinning”, which was already an innovation for Girbau, it also incorporated other innovations. A very relevant one was that the drum could be easily disassembled from the front, making repairs much faster and easier for technicians. The competitor’s laundry machines were much more difficult to disassemble. Another innovation was the fact that Girbau laundry machines were lower and the center of gravity was very close to the ground, and thus, it didn’t vibrate as much. We also enlarged the drum diameter to wash better. The success of this Girbau laundry machine lay in its simplicity.

At that time, we were manufacturing industrial laundry machines that did not spin; they only performed a pre-spin. By then, we had already started exporting, and a friend in the industry, a representative of major European washer brands, convinced us to make the leap to the United States to sell our laundry machines there. He had an acquaintance who, he said, could be our commercial agent in that market. We sent him our laundry machine and, taking advantage of a trip organized by the Chamber of Commerce to New York, we got to see him. It was a real failure; when we arrived, the first thing he asked was, “Doesn’t it spin?” … “No, just a little”, we said. And the agent said: “Then I don’t want it”.

 

 

After that start, a new opportunity arose to visit a manufacturer in Chicago. Once there, I asked them if they could provide me with the post-sale documentation to understand how the laundry machines were made and learn about it. I don’t know exactly what the translator said, but they laughed a lot. I’ve always thought that he told them I wanted the documentation to copy their laundry machines (which did spin!). We left Chicago empty-handed and without really understanding what had happened. Later, a few months after, we received an anonymous envelope with the post-sales service documentation for the Chicago laundry machine. It was magical. Someone “remembered” us. This information was crucial for the birth of the LS332.

 

“At Girbau, we knew how to find a good mix of design, simplicity, quality and service in one single laundry machine, the LS332 ”

 

Later, we developed high-speed laundry machines with suspension systems that didn’t need to be attached to the ground, incorporated electronics and new technologies that gave the laundry machines more features, etc., but the LS332 has always maintained its commercial success. We continued exporting it to places where simplicity, reliability, ease of resolving possible failures, its robustness, etc., were valued. That’s why this laundry machine has been so successful for so many years. Girbau made laundry machines that the competition didn’t have.

After 35 years and 8,123 units sold (2,474 for the USA and 5,649 for the rest of the world), although the LS332 models remain technologically relevant, regulatory changes and new certifications make it unfeasible to continue production. Its design and simplicity continue to be sources of inspiration for the new technological solutions that Girbau proposes.

 

 

After talking at length about the LS332, Antoni (Toni ) Girbau looks backwards and splendidly narrates the story of an entrepreneurial adventure filled with unique moments. Readers, don’t focus on the accuracy of dates or information; grasp the spirit, attitude, and emotion with which Toni explains the trajectory of an unusual life.

The story of Girbau begins in 1920, in the city of Vic. Joan Girbau i Vilageliu, father of Pere, Toni, and Teresa, founded an electromechanical workshop focused on the newly emerging electrical applications. During those years, the radio became popular, and appliance stores also started to open. During the Spanish Civil War, everything became more complicated, and new opportunities had to be sought. The family business evolved into the manufacture of X-ray devices, where electricity and electronics became central. The entire manufacturing process took place in Vic.

It was in the late 1950s that the three brothers joined the family business. Pere had completed studies in electronics, Toni in mechanics, and Teresa in social sciences, so all three could play a role in the business.

 

“We moved forward, among other reasons, because getting along with people helps you encounter good people who also help you to move forward”

 

After finishing my studies, I joined my father’s activities, who at that time was making X-ray tables. I was very proud because he had made some for the Sant Pau Hospital in Barcelona. My first job was to draw the X-ray table designs, and when I finished, the supervisor said, “Listen, boy, do you think you need to draw for us? We already know perfectly well what we have to do, and we don’t need your drawings.” I mentioned it to my father, and he said not to worry, that we wouldn’t make X-ray tables anymore because he always lost money with them anyway. Apparently, every doctor wanted a different design. So, from that moment on, we would make… laundry washing machines!

At that time, the demand from appliance stores for laundry washing machines exceeded what could be imported, since there was practically no domestic manufacturing. As we also had a workshop of 15-20 people, we decided to manufacture them to be sold in our own store.

It didn’t seem too difficult. Machines were quite simple and made of wood. And that’s how we started making laundry machines for domestic use. But then the multinational companies arrived, and we didn’t feel comfortable competing against them… so we decided to stop making domestic laundry machines and move to industrial ones. There were few manufacturers then, and they were smaller than we were. By then, the tourism boom arrived, tourists started coming to Mallorca, many hotels were built, and we began to sell more and more laundry machines, even outside Catalonia.

The workshop where we were, in Pla de Balenyà de Vic, became too small for us, and we had the opportunity to buy the warehouse where we are now, owned by the Tortosins. It was called the Tortosins because it belonged to people from Tortosa who manufactured war material for the Republicans. (They had previously had to leave the Ebro due to the war). Later it was occupied by the Serra company, which made textile laundry equipment. Serra preassembled the laundry machines in the workshop, marked the pieces after adjusting them, and disassembled to reassemble them at the customer’s location. When Serra became part of an international group, laundry machines could be assembled directly at the customer’s location (they were very large laundry machines), and that meant that Serra had too much extra space, so the Tortosins then closed! Pere Rifà, a friend of mine, then an engineer at Serra’s, convinced me to buy it. But, attention! There was the challenge that we also acquired 30 apartments from the old Tortosins colony with people living there who had lost their jobs and didn’t have much money. They couldn’t pay for water, electricity, rent, or anything… So, we had to help them.

During that period, between Pere, Teresa, and me, we did a bit of everything. It was then when my brother Pere, who was more of the leader, brought in a friend of his who was an expert in business organization. After talking to the three of us, he appointed Pere as the commercial manager, me as the head of the operational area, and Teresa as the head of personnel. We took lessons in these areas at recognized business schools and kept moving forward.

There were 30 families living in 30 not very profitable apartments, a certain moral responsibility in a cooperative formed by the former workers of the Serra company, and a group of talented people. That’s how we started in the Tortosins… At the beginning, we lived through years of exciting changes when everything was going very well. Then, the oil crisis arrived, and things became a challenge again.

 

 

In life, you find good people who help you. At a certain moment, as a result of the oil crisis in the 70s, Girbau was forced to export to survive. Pere found a client (distributor) who was selling in the United States. In that market, a highly demanding certification was required for our laundry machines, the Canadian Standard. In Spain, there was no one who could do it, and after much searching, we found a laboratory in the Netherlands that could do it. Once here, the inspector asked to lock the motor rotor to check that the safety systems were working correctly. What happened? On the third or fourth test, the safety system motor failed, and the motor turned on! I thought, “Toni, it’s over! We won’t get through this!” But it wasn’t like that. I explained the situation to the inspector, and he decided to help: the laundry machine was fine, but some of its components were not. They needed to be replaced, and he guided us to international suppliers who could make these components with the quality we needed. We incorporated them into the machine… and obtained the certification. I never thanked that inspector enough.

Other times, it is the other way around, being us, Girbau, who respond and help others. We always try to treat everyone fairly… Look, once we sold certain laundry machines in the United States market, but we realized that they had a defect. We changed all of them at no cost. I remember it cost us a million euros, but it was worth it because we built customer loyalty. Clients said that Girbau was the only company that did something like that because we took back even laundry machines that had not yet been put into operation. It cost us a fortune, but since then, the most important market for Girbau is United States. Clients value us for the quality of service and professional rigour, and that is part of our culture.

 

Wisdom and boost. One day, my brother said to me, Toni, if we had had the knowledge we have today, having now studied at the business schools, do you realize that this company wouldn’t exist? That we wouldn’t exist as a company? Sometimes, the act of boosting or providing an impetus can surpass the importance of wisdom and contribute to success. There will always be entrepreneurs with wisdom because if not, you’re not an entrepreneur. But sometimes, contrary to wisdom you have to take risks, and there is no other option but to move forward. I have always been convinced that if you have a good product and provide good service, you move forward because there comes a moment when customers themselves help you to do it.

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