Photos: Jonathan Beck - Full Gallery at bottom
From its humble and largely unintentional beginnings, in just a few short years Touratech AG has grown to a sprawling complex of over 100,000 square feet. Rather than an exercise in creating a “business,” Touratech AG is simply the natural result of engineering aptitude combined with an insatiable passion for adventure and travel.
Developing parts for his motorcycle simply to further his own adventures, Touratech founder Herbert Schwarz soon began receiving requests from friends asking for those same parts. Fast-forward to KTM contacting him directly to supply the dashboard computers for that company’s ﬁrst adventure bike offering, and Touratech AG was born.
From those early days around the coffee table, this company has now grown to over 300 employees hailing from 28 different nations working in Germany alone, distributors in over 40 countries around the world, and a catalog that is nearly 2000 pages thick and translated into ﬁve different languages. It’s worth noting that this entire organization was established and grown based on one man’s simple desire to travel. Endeavoring to tell the story of Touratech, I found no better way than to simply record the words of its founder. It seems that in creating a company based on an undiluted passion for exploring the world, Touratech naturally attracts people to work there who share that same passion. The following interviews and image captions offer a brief but telling glimpse into this fantastically unique company.
Meet Mr. Touratech
While out for a ride in the countryside, should you ever come across a six-year-old boy on a pushbike, 15 kilometers into his attempt at a round-the-world trip, take note. You may have just met the future founder of what will become one of the premiere companies in the world for motorcycle adventure touring gear.
Traveling to the small village of Niedereschach in southern Germany, I was not sure what to expect beyond a factory where panniers and other accessories are made. Seeing a machine take a huge chunk of aluminum and blast it with lasers until bits of pannier boxes come out the other end is impressive for sure. Talking with the company’s founder, Herbert Schwarz, and the people who work for him is even more fascinating.
At a coffee shop in the Germany town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, I had the opportunity to brieﬂy interrupt Herbert’s intense schedule at BMW Motorrad Days and hear a bit of Touratech’s story in his own words.
Jonathan: How did the idea for starting Touratech, the company, come about?
Herbert: We started with a little computer because I had a lot of additional instruments on my R100GS for oil temp and all that. I was an electronic engineer in those days and I developed a little electronic unit that showed different [measurements]—outside temperature, oil temperature, oil pressure... 30 functions. [We built these] with a colleague of mine who’s no longer in the company. He made the software, I made the printed circuit board, all the electronics, and we decided to make a company and called it Touratech. We made this IMO computer – this was the ﬁrst product. We thought everyone would buy it and in the beginning we had to make 100 units. It took us two years to sell these 100 computers; it was a little bit disappointing. Friends bought it, Jochen [Schanz], who is now my partner in Touratech, was one of the ﬁrst clients. He bought one of these computers and then we met in Togo, Africa, and we rode to Kenya and became friends during this time.
Jon: It took two years to sell these ﬁrst 100 computers, so what made you push on with the idea of Touratech?
Herbert: I believed in it, and after the ﬁrst year we had only sold maybe 25 or 30 of these units. We made press releases and tried to make it popular, but we had no name and the big [retail] chains said, “No we don’t need things like that, it’s stupid. What are you doing?” [laughs] From 1985-on, I made aluminum panniers for myself and a lot of friends asked me to make panniers for them, so we included these in the company. That was, I think, the third product I made.
Jon: So the IMO was ﬁrst, third was the pannier, what was in the middle? Do you still make that?
Herbert: Yes they are still in the catalogue. It has a 10-meter long cable that you plug into the BMW socket ... yeah, it was good to read and work in the tent, to always have freshly loaded batteries.
Jon: I’ll have to go back and look through the 1,800 pages of the catalog to ﬁnd it! That brings up another question: the ﬁrst catalog was 12 pages. Did you ever envision the company would grow to a nearly 2000-page catalog, translated into ﬁve languages?
Herbert: No. I believed in it, but for me it was always a side business for the ﬁrst seven years, from 1990 until late 1996. Something I did after work.
Touratech HQ in Foreground
Jon: So what changed in 1996?
Herbert: I got an order from KTM for 1000 of the computers for the dashboard of the ﬁrst KTM Adventure in late 1996.
Jon: The 640?
Herbert: Yes, and these computers were the ﬁrst industrial product that we made. We delivered 1000 every year until 2002.
Jon: So KTM contacted you about the IMO computers; how did the relationship with BMW begin?
Herbert: Seven years ago, the president of BMW visited us and asked us to develop new panniers for the R1200GS Adventure. It was strange, they asked us for 30 panniers a day and we made out production for that. Then they had the launch of the 1200 and we got orders for 200 a day. It was impossible and we got in big trouble. We had to buy new machines, and to enlarge production takes time. BMW helped us; they sent three people to help better organize everything.
Jon: How many people are now working for Touratech, and how many different nations are represented?
Herbert: We made a calculation of how many employees we really have. If I take TT3D, that’s 20 there, and we have two shops in Hamburg and Kassel, that makes 305 at the moment, just in Germany. We have employees from 28 nations working here in Niedereschach ... the whole world in a little village. We have importers in 40 or 41 countries, and that’s growing. There are maybe 150 more people around the world that make a full-time living from the Touratech company.
Jon: Everything is produced in the European Union (EU) and not outsourced to China or elsewhere?
Herbert: For us, our customers are mostly in the EU and we want to keep the labor here as well. We now have North America, South America, we have a good market in Japan, we have Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia ... all doing well. We would source our products even maybe from Singapore if there was a possibility there, and if we can produce something in Thailand, that would not be a problem. But for the quality and to be fast, the best is in Niedereschach. If that’s not possible, then somewhere in Germany; if that’s not possible, then somewhere in the EU. If we are exporting to say South America, the products have to be made in the EU; otherwise there are much higher taxes [if the products are from China]. For me China is the biggest problem. To produce there gives more money to a regime that is not at all respecting human rights, not at all. I’m sure the Chinese will rule the world, and they have the money now, but in the end I can say it’s not my money.
Jon: Your adventure travel stands out, and it is quite unusual when compared to the “average” corporate executive. What ﬁrst inspired the sort of adventure travel?
I had a girlfriend in western France 1000 kilometers from our house and that made me a motorcyclist. I ﬁrst had a moped and that took too long; then I bought a Honda, then a Suzuki, and during this time in France discovered that traveling with a motorcycle is really great. I bought my ﬁrst BMW because the Paris-Dakar race was so popular. BMW was no longer a brand for older people. I dreamt of an R80GS, but bought a usedR100/7 because it was half the price. I ﬁrst went to Norway, then traveled to Syria, Jordan and Turkey in the early 1980s. Several times to northern Africa, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco...
Jon: This is what gave you the ideas for all the things you need to build on the bike?
Herbert: Yes, always while traveling you discover, “well that’s not perfect, I need this or that...”
Jon: I heard hints of a broken leg story in the Congo.
Herbert: On this trip from Togo to Kenya in Congo-Zaire, I was in the jungle and it was raining. It was really slippery and I put my leg out, fell and broke it. Only one bone, it’s painful but not a problem. Jochen had to help me ... every mud hole, and there are a lot of them in the jungle in Congo, they had to take my bike, then take me... Three weeks. From where I broke it near Kisangani to Kenya was maybe 2000 miles, no hospitals, nothing. The satellite telephone had not been invented yet, and no GPS.
Jon: The Zega box is named after a city in this region; is that in the Congo as well?
Herbert: [Zega] is a little village on the border of the Central African Republic with Zaire.
Jon: You’re an avid photographer; did that start before or after motorcycling?
Herbert: Long before. I started when I was seven years old because my father’s passion was photography and traveling, but he did it with a backpack, and he never got his driving license.
Herbert: No, never. He never had a car or motorcycle. He made a calculation: a car costs me this amount of money; if I save the money, I can go for six weeks to South America and travel around there. All the neighbors had cars and no money for traveling. He had no car, but our house in Villingen-Schwenningen was only two kilometers from the company where he worked and two kilometers to the company where my mother worked, so ... don’t need it. No sense to buy a car.
Ramona Schwarz: [grins] Herbert, tell the story of when you were traveling very young.
Herbert: I’m not sure if I was six, his age I think (points to his son); I decided to travel around the world with my ... I’m not sure how you say...?
Ramona: It has like two wheels, and you do like this (mimics pushing a bicycle).
Jon: A push bike? You wanted to go around the world on a push bike!? Would you have made a trip computer? [laughs]
Herbert: At this time I thought it would be possible without a trip computer [laughs]. But they caught me. I think I made 15 kilometers.
Jon: You actually left? I thought you were just thinking about it!
Ramona: He actually left and somebody found him on the road, between Niedereschach and Villingen-Schwenningen, on the main road, ready to travel the world.
Herbert: Yeah, my parents were always traveling, at least one month a year. We were always with my grandparents or uncle and it was good for us. They came back and showed us pictures and I wanted to go there.
Jon: So you loaded up a push bike and set off for Africa... [laughs]
Herbert: The photography started at age seven, when I got my ﬁrst little camera. At age eight I bought my ﬁrst SLR with money I had saved. Then I would buy my father’s old cameras. In the time from 1990 when I started with Touratech, I was working as a photographer and also as a freelance journalist for Motorrad, the German motorcycle magazine. For 15 years I did that.
Jon: You also used to guide tours and do photography for those as well. Was this a side job or full time thing for a while?
Herbert: No, it was a side job ... all side jobs. I worked 20 hours a day, but it was worth it. All the money I got for the photography and journalist work, I put into Touratech.
Meet Mrs. Touratech - Ramona Schwarz
In spite of each having been in a nearly constant state of travel to various far-ﬂung corners of the globe, that Herbert and Ramona Schwarz would meet seems almost inevitable. They radiate a spirit of adventure and, like two atoms in a molecule, have been drawn together to further the idea of global exploration and the Touratech company.
Ramona was raised in Communist East Germany, very near to the West German border. As a child, she would often climb a hill where she could peer over the “Iron Curtain” (a fence in that region) to a castle in Bavaria called Veste Coburg. Wanting to explore it, but knowing she could never reach it sparked a desire for travel that only grew with time.
She explains how a view of a castle, and growing up in an oppressive regime helped create the explorer she was to become:
Ramona: I was 13 when the [Berlin] Wall came down. We were brainwashed in school, really, because it was a communist dictatorship regime. We had something like an army for children, so we didn’t have to kill anybody, but it was organized in the way an army is organized. We had meetings in the morning ... basically like in the Third Reich, in the Eastern Block, you know. So you were supposed to follow like sheep, you could not make up your own mind, you were not supposed to have your own thoughts, you just had to follow.
Jon: How would they attempt to control you?
Ramona: There were spies. We had the secret police called Staatssicherheit [Stasi], so you know the NSA thing that’s happening right now [in the US], this is what would happen regularly. So sometimes when you were a suspect, they would overhear your telephone conversations. Say I called my sister; I would hear a click in the phone, and then I knew somebody else would listen. We had West German TV and East German TV with different channels. Because we lived close to the border with West Germany, we could receive different channels and it was the complete opposite of what they told you. So you hear two different realities and you don’t know whom to believe, because how should you know? You’ve never traveled outside your country. So of course, as a child you believe your parents, you believe your teachers, and you believe in your system. Then after the fall of the Wall it was like ... I mean ... it was tough because we started to question everything. Why did they tell us lies? It’s like your whole world falls apart.
Jon: How long after the wall came down do you think it took you to come to terms with that? Like you say, your whole world collapses and everything you’d been told up until that point was not necessarily true. It must be a very strange adjustment to go from that to things like social media.
Ramona: It is, because it’s like an emotional thing. At ﬁrst you’re a little bit scared, then you’re angry, then you’re frustrated ... it’s like after a breakup [laughs].
Jon: Breakup with your country...
Ramona: That’s what you do basically.
Jon: But now you’re on friendly terms, you can go back and visit?
Ramona: I am, because I made a decision for myself. I don’t want to be bitter and I don’t want to think they stole so and so many years of my life, because when the Wall came down I was 13, so I still had all the options. I could have the education I choose to have, I could become what I wanted to become.
Jon: The idea of adventure was sparked before you were 13 with things like looking at the castle beyond the fence. How long after that was it that you started traveling and doing what you do?
Ramona: That was more like seeing horizons and wondering what’s there and wanting to go there. I didn’t like the feeling of being trapped and somebody else telling me what to do, what to think, you know? It’s just like a caged animal wants to break out.
Jon: So when was the ﬁrst opportunity you had to actually break out and go somewhere that you never dreamt you would have?
Ramona: When I was 18, I had a boyfriend and he rode motorcycles, so he took me on a trip to Corsica on the back of the bike. When I was 24, I got my motorcycle license, and a neighbor, an old-bike hand and seasoned traveler I had known for years, one day said, “what do you think about traveling the world together?” But he also said, “You gotta ride your own bike.” I was like, “Huh, sounds good. OK, I’ll get my license.” I learned to ride on a 640KTM. That was my ﬁrst bike . Smaller model, and then the Adventure model for the round-the-world trip. I got my license in November, the next day it started to snow, then we left Germany on the 8th of March, International Women’s Day, and rode to the Sahara.
Jon: You grew up under an oppressive regime. Do you think the travels you and Herbert are doing now help put your own life growing up in Communist East Germany in perspective?
Ramona: Yes, because I know exactly how it feels to live in a system like this. For me, I came to terms with it because I choose not to be bitter and it made me the person I am.
Jon: This is likely what I was referring to when speaking about the “spirit” of Touratech. You and Herbert have a very unique way of conducting yourselves in comparison to most executives.
Ramona: My story is different than Herbert’s in that Touratech is “his baby,” and we just met in 2006 when I was on my round-the-world trip. I had traveled for six years and was in Vancouver.
Jon: You were out of Germany for six years?
Ramona: Yes, and I didn’t plan on coming back... I never wanted to come back [laughs]. What happened was I went to a Horizons Unlimited meeting in Canada and I met a German guy, Wolfgang Simmert, whom I had known from before. He was the organizer of a big bike event in Germany. He introduced me to Herbert, who was looking for a woman rider to go from Canada to Mexico in November ... so someone who can deal with mud and snow and stuff. That was on a prototype BMW 650 X-Challenge. After that trip, Herbert said, “Why don’t you come to the Black Forest and check it out ? ‘LakeTouratech’...” I get here thinking boat tours and there was a pond [laughs]. But what happened is I came here in the wintertime and he took me back to my hometown about400 kilometers from here [Niedereschach].
Jon: When was the last time you’d visited your hometown?
Ramona: About six years ago, when I left. I didn’t tell anybody that I was coming and I had myself delivered in a parcel, like a Christmas present, and he [Herbert] knocked on my dad’s door...
Jon: You’re kidding me; he brought your dad a box with you in it?
Ramona: Yeah [laughs]; my dad was like “Wow!” he didn’t know it was me inside.
Jon: In six years, how much would your town have changed? Same thing as before, just sort of back home? I imagine you would have possibly changed more than the town.
Ramona: Yeah, and that is the challenge. I think the two most difficult things when you’re traveling are leaving ... like, you have to set a date. Because many people will have a dream, like one day I want to ride to wherever, but you need to set a date and say, “OK, the ﬁrst of April next year I’m going to do it.” Otherwise you just won’t, because there are always excuses, like my wife, my kids, my dog, my house; you know there’s always something. Then coming back is very difficult, too, because you have changed, and your priorities have changed. So whatever mattered to you before you left, it doesn’t exist anymore and you have grown as a person and you’re just, you know, different.
Now I’m part of a company that has over 300 employees, we have importers in over 40 countries and it’s growing, but it’s still about the real thing which is exploring the world and we just make the means to help people travel.
It was funny. When I got here, you know, I had lived in a tent for six years and I just couldn’t sleep inside. It was so terrible, it was in the wintertime and the bedroom windows were open but I just couldn’t breathe, so I slept in the garden [in the snow]. It was December, but I was used to it. It was nothing special for me; but in the morning, the neighbors were like, “What’s this?” So it took me some time to re-civilize.