All entered uncharted territory last year. With China's economy growing at its slowest in 25 years, the market for new elevators hit the down button, shrinking by 5 percent. A drop of up to 10 percent is possible in 2016, companies have said.
"It was a new situation for everyone and competition for market share is tough," said Kone Chief Executive Henrik Ehrnrooth, describing "intense price pressure".
With the market's fundamentals intact, however, the companies are positioning themselves for an expected upturn that could accelerate as elevators installed in the early 2000s near the end of their service lives and require modernization.
ThyssenKrupp doubled its Chinese venture stake last year, Kone has built a 236 meter test tower in Shanghai's suburbs and Schindler has added escalator and elevator factories. Otis, meanwhile, is streamlining its business and has shaken up Chinese management.
The property market also offers reason for optimism, with Credit Suisse analysts saying that a nascent recovery in investment could result in better elevator orders and deliveries later in the year.
Beyond divorce rates, single-person households are also generally on the rise. China's National Bureau of Statistics has reported that the proportion of such living arrangements has increased threefold since 1990. And by 2020 President Xi Jinping wants 60 percent of the nation's 1.4 billion population living in cities, where many reside in towering apartments.
Moreover, Beijing no longer forbids elevators in buildings with fewer than 12 floors, Schindler said, as a population in which one in three people will be aged over 60 by the middle of the century demands more creature comforts. [http://reut.rs/1XEwxYk]
Elevator makers also note that accidents -- often recorded on closed-circuit cameras, then shared via the Internet -- have amplified concerns about safety.
China's Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine said that 46 people died in 58 elevator accidents last year.
Consequently, big European and American original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are counting on tougher government scrutiny to help business, including their small but fast-growing service operations.
"That's one argument for the big four, that some smaller players struggle to live up to rising quality demands," said Zuercher Kantonalbank analyst Martin Huesler.
Only a quarter of China's elevators are serviced by large OEMs, Otis President Philippe Delpech said in March, with the remaining three million maintained by 7,000 "mom and pop" service providers.
"That's not the usual profile of a service industry," Delpech said. "There are too many accidents and the vast majority of these accidents come from units maintained by a small company. That will benefit OEMs."
Schindler is similarly optimistic about a regulatory boost.
"We see this as a big opportunity that may lead to further market consolidation," Chairman Silvio Napoli said late last year. "It will not be easy, based on what we've seen, for some of the small players to adapt."
Western manufacturers generally have expanded Chinese service businesses in concert with new installations.
Kone and Schindler, for instance, boast of converting 60-65 percent of new installations into dependable service contracts.
"When you sell a new lift with a service contract, you can pretty much expect that if nothing goes wrong it will be renewed virtually in perpetuity," said Martin Flueckiger, a Kepler Cheuvreux analyst.
Kone's service business grew 20 percent in China last year, though it remains comparatively small, producing less than 10 percent of the company's 3 billion euros ($3.38 billion) in Chinese revenue.
The situation is similar for rivals, buoying optimism that the ride up in China, while changing, is far from over.
"The maintenance market in China is very fragmented with lots of small service firms," said Emma Falck, a Kone China executive. "This market is expected to grow further."