Warm weather and plenty of cold beer made it a pleasant journey for more than 30 travelers who spent a week in Germany, March 23-30. The 2003 ISH Trip tour, co-sponsored by PM and the German fittings manufacturer Viega, paid a visit not only to the world's largest PHC trade show, but also state-of-the-art manufacturing and distribution facilities, with plenty of recreational side excursions.

Viega is a family business dating to 1899 with sales estimated at more than $600 million. Now headed by the fourth generation of the Viegener family, the company makes more than 10,000 plumbing-related products, only a handful of which are currently marketed in the United States.

These consist mainly of Viega's Pro-Press fittings, made in two plants in Germany. The Pro-Press XL (extra large) line, along with various products limited to the European market, come out of the firm's world headquarters in the little town of Attendorn about 90 miles north of Frankfurt. Smaller copper fittings get made a couple of hundred miles away in Grossheringen, a hamlet in the eastern part of the country.

The Grossheringen plant was built in 1992, thanks in part to generous tax subsidies offered by the German government to firms investing in the economic wasteland to the east that had been under Communist rule until reunification in 1991. Development has been substantial since then, although striking differences still exist between the east and west sectors. For instance, the country roadsides leading to Grossheringen were filled with litter -- something virtually unseen amid the fastidious German culture to the west.

(Viega lore has it that the Viegener family patriarch selected the Grossheringen site when he noticed that residents of the little village kept their homes and gardens in neater shape than most other places in the shabby eastern sector. He figured these people had pride in themselves and would make good workers. That judgment seems to have proven out.)

All of Viega's factories are heavily automated, as was a dazzling distribution center we visited in the town of Ennest adjacent to Attendorn. This is characteristic of German manufacturing due to sky-high labor costs. In addition to high wages, social benefits packages typically add 80-90 percent to worker earnings, compared with 15-20 percent in the United States. As one of our tour guides remarked in pointing to a robot performing several functions at once, "He doesn't get sick and doesn't need breaks."

Fun, Fun, Fun

The PM/Viega tour included a visit to Europe's largest stalagmite caves in Attendorn, a walking tour of cultural sites in the historic German city of Weimar and two days in picturesque Heidelberg. There also was a tour of a large commercial renovation project underway in the city of Mainz. Evenings were filled with food, drink and camaraderie.

Two days of the tour were given over to the ISH Show itself. This year's event featured a record 2,361 exhibitors. The visitor count was just under 180,000 from 93 nations, nearly 8 percent less than the 2001 event.