Nathalie Felber reckons that the big benefit of being a family business is the ability to react very fast to the market. “I make the decisions as opposed to going through a corporate and complicated structure where you have many decision makers. That speeds up the process.”
A knack of reacting fast to things is something Nathalie had to learn pretty much the day she joined Dietiker, a Swiss furniture maker, famous for its chairs. Now CEO, the 36 year-old was propelled into the job with the sudden death of her father, Urs Felber, in 2010. “I had to take over in pretty dramatic circumstances,” says Nathalie.
The situation was made even more dramatic in terms of the who Nathalie was replacing. Her father is considered one of the pioneers of furniture design and the business of design in the 20th century. After turning around the fortunes of Swiss furniture maker De Sede and gaining a PhD in design management from Stanford, Urs ran Vitra’s, the famous Swiss furniture company, US operations.
Urs’ boundless enthusiasm in running design businesses led him to purchase Dietiker from the Swiss supermarket chain Migros in 2001. Although Dietiker is today considered a family business as it is run by the second generation of the Felber family, for most of its 143 years in existence it was organised as a Swiss cooperative. The company’s longevity means that it is the oldest furniture maker still functioning in Switzerland and the third oldest in Europe.
Today, Dietiker employs 150 people, with around 70% of its revenues made in Switzerland and the rest coming from abroad. A big part of Dietiker’s philosophy is simplicity. “Our emphasis as a furniture maker is being very functional,” says Nathalie. “We aren’t trying to design another pretty chair.”
With a big part of Dietiker’s furniture destined for commercial spaces like conference halls, office blocks and hospitals, the company’s fortunes are very much linked to the construction sector. Consequently, demand for its products took a knock after the financial crisis of 2008 and Dietiker went through a few difficult years. Nathalie recalls: “I spent a lot of time in developing a lean and efficient structure when I came in. When things settled down and demand grew again, more emphasis was placed on research and development.”
One of difficulties of any manufacturing business in Switzerland is the high cost base. The country has among the most expensive labour costs in the world, and the very strong Swiss franc doesn’t help export growth for manufacturers like Dietiker. Nathalie says many Swiss manufacturers are feeling the strain because of these difficulties. “To deal with it,” she says, “you try to have very efficiently engineered products that do not require too much labour.”
This theme is common among many of the country’s manufacturers, and is summed up on Dietiker’s marketing material as Swiss quality. “Dietiker stands for excellence by creating products manufactured in the highest standards of Swiss quality. Our employees all share a passion for quality, with an unmistakable sense of excellence, good design, and perfection to the finest detail.”
Although it was always Nathalie’s intention to work for her father’s business, she gained experience as a banker, working for Credit Suisse in Geneva, before joining Dietiker. “I would say that my banking experience has been of hardly any use to to me in setting a strategy for the company, apart from maybe the importance of outstanding service.”
Nathalie says that her father may have wanted her to work for the business, but the relationship from a business perspective wasn’t necessarily easy. “It’s sometimes very difficult for the 1st generation to allow the 2nd generation to work on their own, they always want to keep control.”
Nathalie gained an MBA from St Gallen University in Switzerland and Rotman School of Management in Canada – both of which have strong family business links. She is also a member of the Young Presidents Organisation, which, she says, has given her a strong support network.
That support network and the inspiration of working for and owning an acknowledged great brand in the world of furniture, coupled with of course her father’s legacy, should continue to inspire Nathalie’s leadership in the years ahead – and prepare her and the business for any unknown shocks in the future.