EXCLUSIVE: Merging & Neumann CEOs: ‘This whole thing is a lesson in humility’

In 2022, German studio specialist Neumann.Berlin and Swiss company Merging Technologies – one of the world's leading manufacturers of high-resolution digital audio recording systems – joined forces to work together under the umbrella of the Sennheiser Group. Almost 18 months on, their respective CEOs Ralf Oehl and Claude Cellier join Headliner for a frank and exclusive chat about the challenges and achievements they have navigated so far, as well as a glimpse at what the future holds.

Few stories captured the pro audio market’s imagination like that of Merging Technologies joining forces with Neumann in mid-2022. Here we had two elite exponents of their craft coming together in a move that on the surface did not appear an obvious alliance. Berlin-based Neumann, already being part of industry juggernaut Sennheiser, has long been used to operating at a scale that is incomparable to that of Merging. The independent Swiss outfit, while not niche, is almost exclusively active in the professional tier of the industry. What’s more, it is the definition of brand moulded in the image of its creator. For more than three decades, Cellier has instilled a spirit of independence, ambitious entrepreneurship, and innovative technical thinking. He embodies everything his company has come to represent.

Cellier’s counterpart at Neumann, meanwhile, has spent much of his career not in audio but in private equity. Another point of difference, but one that highlights in many ways why this partnership, unlikely as it may appear on the surface, makes a lot of sense once you peek under the bonnet.

Joining Headliner one week before NAMM 2024 for an exclusive interview together via video call, the pair are refreshingly open in their discussion of how the partnership is developing. The warmth and respect that exists between them is genuine, while their distinct, sometimes contrasting personalities shine through to highlight why they are such a complementary pairing.

“With the roadmap we set together, it was not immediately obvious that it was something we’d be able to collaborate that well on,” begins Cellier from his office in Switzerland. “Ralf and I had great hopes that we’d be able to make it work but it’s not always a given. Some companies don’t merge well at all. But the first 18 months have been an intense and fruitful collaboration. We have mutual respect for our respective territories, fields of knowledge, and expertise. There is tremendous expertise at all levels at Neumann, and we share a lot of information. It’s been a great experience so far and I’m amazed at the talents that we can now draw upon in terms of ramping up the product range. We already released a success product (MT 48 interface) in the first year that we are already ramping up production of to cope with demand. That is remarkable.”

“We knew it would be an interesting ride,” smiles Oehl, calling from his home in Munich. “I’ve seen these things succeed and I’ve seen them fail. I knew up front that keeping the entrepreneurial spirit and the brain of Claude as the centrepiece was going to be crucial to its success. It’s not just two anonymous brands moving together. Neumann has a lot of tradition and self-confidence in what we do and on the other side we have a unique owner-driven company. For two companies like this to free resources and grow together and find common ground on basic technicalities takes a lot of time and effort.

“The first moment Claude and I felt this could be a great alliance was when we looked at our competencies and saw how amazingly complementary they are without anyone standing on anybody’s toes,” he continues. “It’s a match made in heaven, because they have exactly what we don’t have and vice versa.

“On the other hand, it means creating ties, because when you bring complementary elements together you have to build trust, you have to decide where to hand over and how to fit together. That is going very well but it's a sensitive issue because both companies are operating at the top level of our technologies, and no one wants to lose anything by combining those forces.”

According to Oehl, building that trust between the two camps was the first and most vital building block. It was, however, something that had to be developed at pace on account of the scheduled release of the first collaborative products – last year’s MT 48 audio interface.

“This is an alliance and there is no ego, so we wanted to discuss everything together before we made any decision,” says Oehl. “We took significant time exploring that, and for that reason we took it slowly. What sped it up was that we had an ongoing project with the MT 48, which was progressing quickly, and we needed some combined structures to make it a success. And as of this January we have put both our product management teams together.

“For 18 months they have been collaborating and now they have become one team. We have a lot of experience on the hardware side when it comes to manufacturing and global distribution, and Merging has a tremendous track record with software that we don’t have. It’s taking time but we are not done. We are still in the process of growing together stronger.”

I’m amazed at the talents we can draw upon in terms of ramping up the product range. Claude Cellier, CEO, Merging Technologies

“This whole thing is a lesson in humility, otherwise it won’t work,” Cellier adds. “If both sides aren’t understanding that they have to learn from one another it’s going to fail. There is a lot we can learn as a small group when you can draw on a larger organisation. We’re an agile team of 20 people and being able to see that agility not completely ignored in a larger group is a sign that things have been done properly and right.”

“That’s exactly how I see it,” Oehl agrees. “It’s a lesson in humility. You see the light and you want to rush there but you have to slow down and get everybody in the boat and listen to them. And there are failures. We are failing every day, and these are lessons learned. This is part of the process of growing together. This is where you must humble yourself and say this is what it takes to get there.”

As the first physical manifestation of the new alliance, the MT 48 appears to have been a roaring success. A Neumann branded product with Merging tech inside, as well as ideas from the team in Berlin to make it more accessible for musicians and producers,. it is based on the Merging Anubis interface and designed at bringing the core of that unit’s sophisticated capabilities to a wider user base. So how did the two brands fare when bringing a new product to market with the partnership still very much in its infancy?

“The great thing about Ralf as a human is his fabulous and remarkable ability to put a good solid but gentle pressure on a timeline,” Cellier laughs. “That said, we managed to do our best in having a product out of which we could be proud of as it serves our user community well. And it showed that we knew from the beginning we could further complement each other. That will be our exercise over the coming year – to bring added value even further down the line.”

“From the start, Claude and I said, if we join forces, what is the benefit for the customer,” Oehl notes. “We thought Merging has amazing technologies, but they mostly reach people on the expert level, whereas Neumann can reach a much broader audience. That has to be the driving force of our collaboration.”

He continues: “As for the product itself, we’ve not been able to keep up with production. It’s been amazing. We are in the process of doubling production. There is a significant demand and I’m very happy that it not only raised demand for the MT 48 itself, but also raised awareness of the Anubis, which is tailored for different customers. It brought a lot of awareness to the Merging portfolio.”

In tandem with ramping up production, Merging is also gearing up for a significant shift in its distribution model. Until now, Merging has employed a distribution model centred around different representatives in each territory. That’s all about to change.

“The dramatic challenge we have in front of us is integrating our sales channels into the Sennheiser organisation,” Cellier reveals. “That’s a huge challenge, so we hope for the best and see how that will go. But it’s a good humbling experience again to see how we can benefit from the larger Sennheiser organisation while keeping all the expertise we have built up with our own sales network over the years.”

“Neumann doesn’t have its own sales business on the outgoing side,” Oehl elaborates. “We collaborate and share the resources with Sennheiser Pro Audio, and that’s how we’ve distributed the MT 48. The remainder of the portfolio remained with the existing arrangement for the past 18 months, but in the next six months we will be integrating Merging products into the Sennheiser Pro Audio sales channel. This is a much bigger sales force so we can now take Merging products to the remotest parts of the earth and provide services. This has been the main journey for the past six months, building out the service and support structure in preparation of that new sales operation.”

So how has this development been received by the existing sales and distribution network?

“There are conversations to be had,” states Oehl. “There is a great distributor in the US that was around the same size as Merging, and it had exclusive rights in the US. We have our own entity in the US, so there just wasn’t the possibility to continue with that exclusivity. So we had some very positive conversations and some tough conversations. In some countries there wasn’t a true Merging rep, so we’ve already started in those places and had a very positive response. But there will be other countries that have been used to their partner for many years who will now have to adapt to a new partner. There will inevitably be some challenging moments, but in the end, it’s going to be positive for our customers. And for that it's worth going through that journey.”

“The good news for the US is that one of the key Merging experts within the distributorship has now joined the Sennheiser organisation,” adds Cellier.

While there are clearly many cogs whirring behind the scenes regarding infrastructure and operational matters, the pair are eager to confirm that there will be several major announcements over the next 12 months on the new products and innovation front.

I’m super excited for the future. Merging is a box of wonders to us. Ralf Oehl, CEO, Neumann

“There will be a few big pieces of news this year,” Oehl confirms. “At NAMM, we are launching our second mission for MT 48, tailored to immersive monitoring, and the next big news will be around NAB. We are working on things that will significantly expand the usability of the Merging and Neumann product range. And we are putting all our efforts into ensuring that when we launch things, they are available immediately. We want the waiting periods to disappear.”

For a partnership that is still very much in its infancy, the CEOs certainly appear to be possessed of a shared vision for the future, and have achieved as much as could reasonably be considered possible just 18 months in. This year will no doubt provide greater clarity on what the longer-term future of the alliance holds. What is clear, is that both Cellier and Oehl have seen enough in their first year-and-a-half together to know that they are on the right track.

“When we first shook hands the most important part of this was that we made Claude proud, and that his 30-plus years of building this company was not for nothing,” Oehl wraps up. “If you take on a company that one single owner has put so much blood, sweat, tears, and money into, there is a huge pressure to keep that legacy alive. And when you go through such a process there is always risk. You lose people, things don’t work out, so I am relieved that Claude has trust that what we’ve started will continue his legacy for many years. That’s super important to me and Claude knows that.”

“I’m super excited for the future. Merging is a box of wonders to us. They provide such unique solutions and the prospect of bringing them to a bigger audience is tremendous.”

“It’s a pleasure to be working with brilliant minds,” Claude beams. “Not that we didn’t have enough at Merging, but having so many more talents alongside us is pure magic for me. When you’ve worked hard for over 30 years it is a fantastic joy to see your legacy in such good hands.”