The tragic death of Count Anton-Wolfgang von Faber-Castell at the age of 74 has left a big hole in the business world. A great advocate of the family-owned Mittelstand tradition in Germany, Count Anton was the head of the 8th generation Faber-Castell, famous for its beautifully crafted pencils and pens. Here are five things all businesses can learn from his distinguished career.
Count Anton might have been from a family business with links to nobility and a castle as its headquarters, but that didn’t undermine his entrepreneurial nous. A Credit Suisse banker in the 1970s, he was reluctant to join the family business after the death of his father, memorably saying: “I wasn’t interested in pencils.” But after joining Faber-Castell in 1978 and realising he enjoyed the business, Count Anton went on to revive the fortunes of the company through a series of marketing and product innovations, with a particular emphasis on making high-end pencils and pens.
It was formula that worked, and Faber-Castell became the biggest maker of pencils in the world. A good insight into his philosophy as a business leader was portrayed in what he once told The New York Times: “You have to continually shift. If I lean back with my product range I can be happy…that is the first step to hell.”
Count Anton was a great believer in quality of his products, he reckoned that would always shine through and ensure you had a business. He said the Mittelstand understood this because they were characterised by their attention to detail and their perfectionist focus on improvement. He knew the power of “Made in Germany” when it came to his products. Although aware of what the digital revolution was doing to the market for pencils and pens, he reckoned that if the business could maintain the focus on improvement then it would meet the challenge of the onslaught from the likes of iPads, smart phones and computers.
Perhaps Count Anton’s greatest skill as an entrepreneur was found in his marketing and branding abilities. He realised that Faber-Castell, with its fabled history, linked to German nobility was a strong pull, but only if it was managed well and intertwined with innovation. He said in an interview for the EY Family Business Yearbook in 2014: “Since 1978, I have repeatedly had my photo taken in front of our family castle to convey our brand positioning visually. But a brand ambassador also has to systematically implement the principles of brand management…otherwise this type of striking image runs the risk of becoming merely an empty shell.”
Despite the relative “low tech” processes involved in making a pencil, Count Anton was determined to keep at least some of the production in high-cost Germany, particularly in the Bavarian town of Stein. Faber-Castell products had been made in the Stein factory for more than a century, and that wasn’t going to end under his leadership. This was also part of his desire “to keep the know-how in Germany” – a familiar concept to most owners of Mittelstand businesses.
Count Anton might have had a name that epitomised privilege, nobility and, indeed, even fame, but he never let that get in the way of being an exceptionally charming and open individual. He enjoyed being interviewed, and although he realised that it was all part of building the brand, Count Anton always spoke with humility – and the occasional wry smile, belying his privilege. His 35 year-old son Count Charles von Faber-Castell is expected to take over the running of the business. He will have a no better mentor than his father…