In the glasses shop
In order to portray the 30-year-old group manager Marc Fielmann, editor Marc Widmann met him five times: in April on a two-day trip to Italy and at the annual press conference in Hamburg. In July, during his weekly digitalisation tour of the headquarters and at the annual general meeting in a Hamburg sports hall. And in September for a long interview. To this end, Widmann spoke with competitors, trade union representatives, association representatives, a works council, a supervisory board member and a colleague on the board of Fielmann. What impressed the editor: Marc Fielmann was sent his verbatim quotes for authorisation, but changed virtually nothing. And at a branch opening in Reggio Emilia, he advised Widmann for an hour on how to buy glasses. Fielmann’s most important question: “How do you want to present yourself?”
He arrives quite late at the gate at Hamburg airport; by the time the other passengers have lined up, Marc Fielmann has also appeared. More elegantly dressed than most, yet no one turns to look at him, perhaps he just looks too young to stand out as a well-known person, the son of one of the most famous business families in the republic. His greeting is extremely friendly, which in itself is a surprise as many people have a different image of what a billionaire’s son would be like, somehow more reserved. Marc Fielmann, however, pulls a small metal plate out of his pocket with his name on it right there in the queue. He always has it with him and puts it on when he comes into a branch and advises customers on buying glasses, he says. Many take a while before they notice it, and then cautiously ask: Are you really that Fielmann? Two metres along in the queue, he is already at a bigger question: Why do Italians, unlike Germans, almost never buy glasses with metal frames? Presumably because they attach more importance to design and plastic glasses are more exciting to design. “We did market research”, says Marc Fielmann, “which revealed that in no other European country are people as uninterested in fashion as in Germany.”
Over the next few days, he will only take off his tie in the evenings.
The journey leads to Italy, where Marc Fielmann worked for a year after his studies at the glasses manufacturers Safilo and Luxottica. Now he wants to conquer this country for the group that his father built up from nothing in 1972 and made the clear market leader in Germany. In this country, Fielmann sells 53 per cent of all glasses, 6.8 million last year. In Italy, it was zero until recently. But Marc Fielmann has a plan, his “Vision 2025”. By then, he wants to open up five new markets in Europe, “be the market leader in continental Europe”, sell every fourth pair of glasses, and open 80 branches in Italy alone. And along the way, he wants to prove to everyone that he is not only Günther Fielmann’s son, but also his worthy successor.
For many Hamburg family entrepreneurs, the biggest concern at the moment is finding a suitable successor who will not tear down their life’s work but continue it (see page 4). It’s often difficult for the old to let go and often the young want to make their mark at any cost. In the worst case scenario, a family drama develops like in the Darbovens’ case, where the father wanted to adapt a foreign manager and his own son went to court to oppose it. How are things at Fielmann, Hamburg’s best-known family company, which 90 per cent of Germans know?
A bachelor’s degree at 21, chief marketing officer at 26, co-chairman of the management board at 28. Probably in no other company has the rise of a successor been as rapid as for Marc Fielmann.
My father once called it “sailing relatively close to the wind”. We took a steep curve that was hard on the limit.
Last year in April, Günther Fielmann, the 80-year-old founder of the company, took his son to his side as CEO with equal rights. Since then, Fielmann senior has only received a symbolic salary of one euro. His contract expires next June. Marc Fielmann will then be the sole boss of the MDax group, which currently employs around 20,500 people in 770 branches. It currently has sales of 1.65 billion euros, which he wants to increase to 2.3 billion.
The next morning in Italy – it is early April – dense fog presses down on the Cadore Valley in the Dolomites, in the far north-east of the country. Marc Fielmann was delighted with the little Italian sweets at breakfast in the hotel, just as he was with the handmade pasta for a few euros at dinner in a mountain hut. He mentioned an Italian restaurant in Hamburg where they also had them, but they were so expensive that you could only go there once a month. Interesting statement for a man with an annual salary of 2.45 million euros.
“My parents used to say: You have to earn things. I also had to work for my pocket money, I earned my first in the garden when I was young. Later I started designing and programming websites with a friend, which then turned into a little bit more. I was only paid a trainee salary when I started at Fielmann. It would have been more in the free economy. But I was looking at the long-term perspectives (laughs).”
Marc Fielmann is embraced by owner Luciano de Lotto at the De Lotto glasses factory. He talks cheerfully about Günther Fielmann, who drove here from Hamburg over the Alps in his Ferrari 40 years ago. This made him a celebrity in the valley. His son Marc later sat in the passenger seat. Frames for glasses were 50 per cent cheaper in the Cadore Valley than in Germany. “My father packed the whole boot of his car full – a lot fitted in”, says Marc Fielmann.
That’s why his father’s glasses were so cheap: Because he bought them directly from the factories, in huge quantities. Because he cut out the middlemen and also had the models designed himself. This made his sales prices even lower than the purchase price of the traditional opticians. Marc Fielmann walks from station to station in the de Lotto factory. He looks on as the frames are milled from acetate plastic sheets, then polished for hours in rotating wooden drums with abrasive balls, until finally workers fit the temples and print the brand name, by hand. Models by Gucci and Prada are stored in white boxes. And from Fielmann. Marc Fielmann stops in front of a box containing the MF 031 ladies’ model, classic round shape, light and transparent. “They also come in pink”, he says, “I just made my fiancée glasses like that in a branch in Hamburg.” He himself, minus two dioptres, wears five pairs of glasses and, after the previous pair fell into the Alster, most often wears the MF 031 men’s model. Designed by chief designer Marco Collavo, who initially shocked him when they met.
“During my internship at Safilo, I came to Marco Collavo, and he told me: Find out what the current trends are. I did what a German just coming out of university does: I looked through the internet and started counting: which glasses, which colours, which shapes. I ended up with an Excel spreadsheet. Which I then printed out. Marco Collavo didn’t even look at it. He simply threw it straight away and said: Now let’s go through the city and see for ourselves. I said: What? All my work! He said: Never mind.”
You can’t just impose German thinking on the Italians, says Collavo, not even German shop fitting. Because the Italians are suspicious of everything cheap at first. When Collavo fell out with a new boss and quit, Marc Fielmann immediately flew to Venice and offered him a contract. Two days later, the general manager of Dior also called and wanted to hire Collavo. But Fielmann had been quicker.
The conquest of Italy nevertheless remains a huge risk: 80 branches with long-term leases, with parquet flooring instead of carpeting and less cluttered shelves represent an enormous investment. “It costs money, energy, time, empathy and management attention that is lacking elsewhere”, says the manager of a competitor company. “Ultimately, international expansion is a trial by fire for Marc Fielmann. When it goes wrong, it hurts.”
His father always shied away from expanding into foreign countries; an attempt in Poland stalled at 20 branches early in the piece. To his son he said: If it doesn’t work in Italy, you have to go there and take care of it personally. Yet the son is doing nothing different in Italy than what his father did in Germany in the seventies. He moved into the undisturbed world of the small opticians’ shops “like a hawk into a henhouse”. This is how Günther Fielmann once described his rise. In Italy, opticians still wear gowns like they once did in Germany. Opticians stand at a counter and assess the appearance and income of whoever comes to them before pulling out a drawer and offering up a pair of glasses – a bit like in a pharmacy. The selection is small, the beautiful glasses are expensive, and repairs have to be paid for. And suddenly the hawk appears.
“Right from the start, we were the market leader in every city where we opened”, says Marc Fielmann. “The first branches are already profitable.” He is quietly pleased about this, but he would never say a sentence in which he himself appears as a bird of prey, not even in confidential company. He also never threw a chair across the office like his father. For a long time, Günther Fielmann risked bankruptcy for his company with every new idea. He was fought by competitors with delivery boycotts and threatened with death. He was in assertiveness mode most of his life. His father worked as a headmaster in Hamburg, knew everything better and brought him up in such an authoritarian way that he felt he had been drilled. He wasn’t ever allowed to say “Papa”. He didn’t get a bicycle or skates for moral reasons because other children did not have them either.
This was one of the reasons why Günther Fielmann later bought several Ferraris. And he took it upon himself not to drill his son. The company founder didn’t want any children for a long time. It was not until he was 48 that he married Heike Eggert, a 19-year-old student of German language and literature, who wanted to earn some extra money as a glasses model in his company. Marc was born the following year, followed five years later by Sophie, who is currently doing research in London and preparing her doctorate in neuropsychology. Father and brother would be happy if she also joined the company. Together, the family holds 71.64 percent of the shares. They get along well, even though their parents separated after twelve years. His father took Marc Fielmann to business appointments when he was just two years old. And announced to his employees: “One day, he will be your boss.”
“My father was rarely at home, and when he was, he usually brought managers or suppliers with him. They’ve known me since I was a little boy. Because he was so rarely at home, we often went to the company and met him there. He once said that he used to give me small tasks and when I did them well, he gave me bigger tasks. That is the quality of a father who already had a great deal of experience in life. The older I got, the more he let me try things out and only intervened when necessary. He put me on a carrier when I was five, a tracked vehicle used to move heavy things from A to B in the garden. My grandfather always used to make videos of us. And when my father looked at them, he often said: Oh, perhaps that was a little bit early (laughs). My father always gave us a very long leash. I would have liked a bit more guidance after finishing uni. But being thrown in at the deep end makes you very self-reliant..”
The fact that father and son are separated by 50 years has advantages for both: For the older person, it is clear that he really has to hand over the responsibility because he can no longer work as much as he used to for health reasons. And for the younger one it is clear what has to be done. Because some things had been somewhat neglected at Fielmann: International expansion. The modernisation of the collection. And above all, digitalisation.
Nevertheless, before Marc Fielmann was allowed to turn his attention to the big questions, his father first made him learn the optician’s trade. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in economics and finance from the London School of Economics and several internships, he sent him to work for a year and a half as a salesman in 50 branches all over Germany. Marc Fielmann has sold more than 1000 pairs of glasses.
"It was hard at the beginning. When I went to a branch, I thought: Oh, now I have to have perfect ophthalmic expertise, I have to give the customer great advice and fulfil everything, because everyone looks at me as if I were already a role model. Of course, this led to a lot of pressure and nervousness. But I told the staff right at the first meeting: You look a bit nervous – I can assure you, I am much more nervous. And then I asked the master optician: Please correct me once in front of others so that everyone can see that feedback is good and necessary. That’s the only way I can learn. Otherwise I might tell the customers something wrong and no one would intervene."
On Saturdays, Marc Fielmann went to his father’s organic farm in Lütjensee and asked him questions, as well as the staff in the branches. His father was able to explain a lot, but some things were new to him too. Then a manager was called in who urged improvements. “He gave me the feeling right from the start that we could change things”, says Marc Fielmann. “That’s great.” And when he kept “getting on his father’s nerves” with digital projects, his father said one day: So start your own company. But make sure you don’t mix everything up.
One Friday in July, Marc Fielmann stood in the stairwell of the Group’s headquarters in Barmbek-Süd and said: “This is the nucleus, this is where I started seven years ago.” Behind the door on the 4th floor, a few casually dressed young people sat in front of computers. Fielmann Ventures is the name of the company, his project that is intended to shake up the Group. At the time, many commented with glee that the Fielmann company had a similar digital set-up to the Museum für Völkerkunde. “We had a lot of cleaning up to do”, says Marc Fielmann.
He sets aside one morning every week for his “jour fixe digitalisation”, where he visits some of the many new projects at the company’s headquarters – new projects that outsiders find almost impossible to keep track of. The goal is nothing less than to “revolutionise” the industry. Recently, a Berlin start-up sent him a handwritten letter. They had developed a waiting time management app so that customers no longer have to wait in the store, but can go for a walk or shop. When a salesperson is free, they are informed by mobile phone. “Yay, a Fielmann is happy!” says Marc Fielmann and laughs. He immediately implemented the idea and had it tested in three Hamburg branches. Every year, the company loses 700,000 customers who walk out of the branch annoyed because the waiting time is too long for them.
The biggest risk, says Marc Fielmann, comes from companies outside the industry, such as Amazon. Many customers order their contact lenses there. Fielmann had its developers programme an app that allows new lenses to be reordered in ten seconds, with three clicks. He calls it omnichannel – the customer can jump back and forth between the retail store and the online shop at any time as they like. Since then, Fielmann has been winning back market share from Amazon. The only problem is: Selling glasses online is much more complicated.
This is the reason they started the Geislingen project. Small branches like the one in Geislingen, a town with 28,000 inhabitants in Baden-Württemberg, only stock a few hundred pairs of sunglasses. Now there are tablet computers there that work like a digital mirror: The camera films the customer, who is then shown on the screen wearing a pair of glasses from the database. The customer can turn their head, look at the glasses from all sides and put on the next of 10,000 pairs of glasses with a swipe across the screen. The software shows how well the glasses suit the face and makes suggestions. That already works quite well. For sunglasses.
Fielmann Ventures is still in the middle of research into the traditional prescription glasses worn by 41 million Germans. Until now, they had to be measured and fitted personally, otherwise they give the wearer a headache. “That’s millimetre precision work”, says Marc Fielmann. Its developers have patented a way to adjust glasses using a tablet, for which the customer also only has to look at the camera. This has recently been used in all German stores to train the system. “Just wait until next year when there will be new technologies that will amaze some competitors”, says Marc Fielmann. “We have shifted from a perceived defensive stance to a design stance.” There’s no one in the industry now laughing at their expense.
The first modernised centre is scheduled to open in Mönckebergstraße in spring: With a digital shop window, digital glasses fitting, a large coffee bar with embedded tablet screens – and tiny radio chips on every frame. This enables the sellers to locate the glasses. And when a customer takes a model from the shelf, a screen will immediately display additional information about it.
Marc Fielmann’s vision costs a lot of money. 200 million euros this year and next year alone for branch modernisation, digitalisation and expansion abroad. In mid-2018, when Marc Fielmann had just become CEO, the share price began to fall rapidly. But managers and Fielmann’s mother bought them up when they were down because they believed in his strategy. In the meantime, the share price has recovered. There is plenty of money for investments, the company earns well – and it has saved more than 300 million euros. Maybe that’s why the grey carpets in the soberly furnished corporate headquarters look a little worn here and there.
It’s not easy to find any dissatisfied people if you ask around in the Fielmann empire. The only complaints come from the factory in Rathenow, where the company manufactures lenses, grinds them and has them assembled with frames into glasses millions of times a year. “The majority of employees work just above the minimum wage”, says Nico Faupel from IG Metall. “The working conditions also leave a lot to be desired. Overtime is often ordered, but the time in lieu can only be taken when the employer decides.” Workers are reluctant to protest, fearing reprisals. Marc Fielmann says that wages in the factory have increased by 13 per cent in the last three years, and the average salary is a good 2100 euros, well above the minimum wage. Working hours remain below the permitted limits even at peak times. In addition, they are currently investing 15 million euros in Rathenow to secure the almost 1,000 jobs in the region with weak infrastructure. And then comes a typical Marc Fielmann sentence: “But it’s always possible to do better.”
Recently, Fielmann issued a warning to a Swabian optician because he had continued a limited discount campaign beyond the end of the campaign. Such legal skirmishes used to happen all the time. Today they have become rare. His father often sat alone at industry meetings because no one wanted to sit with him, the hawk. Marc Fielmann received a visit some time ago from Thomas Truckenbrod from Leipzig, the owner of a traditional optician’s shop and president of the industry’s central association. “Hats off”, he says today. “This is a very modest and polite young man who knows what he wants and is also prepared to listen.”
As gentle, almost humble, as Marc Fielmann appears in public, he is hard on himself. 16 hours a day, he sometimes rushes through his appointments, and when he falls behind schedule, he talks faster and walks even faster through the corridors. So fast that his employees start to gasp. If a book impresses him, he has it delivered straight to a fellow board member’s home. He buries himself deep into his work, presumably also because he is often compared to his father and his decades of accumulated knowledge. He wants to catch up quickly.
His weaknesses? The ones his colleagues talk about seem rather funny: If he doesn’t get lunch, he eventually loses concentration and resolve. That’s why his wife always has a chocolate bar for him. “He’s an incredible workhorse”, says Hans-Georg Frey, a member of Fielmann’s supervisory board and until recently head of Hamburg-based forklift manufacturer Jungheinrich. “He has to be careful not to overwork himself. The young man still has time, he still has a whole entrepreneurial life ahead of him”. Otherwise, he raves at length about the “gifted entrepreneur”.
Did Marc Fielmann ever rebel, did he ever break out, perhaps as a teenager?
"For me, it was never an aggressive rebellion, but I wanted to get out. I went to boarding school in Salem because I was looking for a challenge. My parents had just separated, so it was the right time to go away, to see something completely different. Then also to study in London and to work in Italy and the USA. But I kept coming back to the fact that being an optician is already quite a decent profession. And that you can still make a lot out of the company."
Since he announced his vision, the plan to conquer five new European markets, he “is inundated with enquiries”. In September, Fielmann acquired the leading Slovenian chain. At the moment, he is simultaneously negotiating with opticians from various countries who could imagine selling their companies. “Whether we get together is a very subjective question”, says Marc Fielmann. ”These are family businesses, and it’s always about the life’s work.”
Just like him.
Source: Die Zeit, Text by Marc Widmann, Photo: © Paula Markert