Mr Fielmann, recently your father announced that he would be taking another step back from the company. This means that your responsibility is constantly growing. Has that always been your goal?
It has always been a possibility since my childhood. I grew up in our company. There used to be a map behind my father’s desk. When I was five years old, he used to let me stick a pin in the locations where we were currently opening a branch. So, if you will, I’ve been there for 25 years already.
And as a boy did you want to take over your father’s job one day?
The idea was there but it was never a concrete goal. I first considered it in detail many years later.
You never wanted to be a fireman or a rock star?
Of course, I had some ideas over the years, but I had lots of time to figure it out and know that Fielmann is a real godsend for me.
Because we do good as opticians. We help the customer to see clearly again. We have a solution for everyone. At our company I don’t have to send anyone away for not having enough money. Also, Fielmann has an unbelievable amount of opportunities for growth, is practically debt-free and is rock-solid from a business point of view. I can identify with that.
Almost all Germans know the brand Fielmann. What is it like, especially as a young person, to be “Mr Fielmann”?
It wasn’t so good as a teenager as you want people to think of you as your own person. That’s why it was great studying in London. I’m a nobody there.
My attitude towards my family name changed as I started to be involved in shaping the company. Then I learnt to see the name as something positive.
Did you ever struggle with the responsibility?
Of course I did. The first time I felt that was when I worked at one of our branches after my degree when I was 21. The employees there were very nervous. I was probably even more nervous. Everyone expected me to do everything right and give the customers the right advice. All eyes were on me.
How did you deal with that?
I always said: “You might be nervous but imagine how nervous I am. Please help me a bit. I promise that I’ll help you too.”
“At our company I don’t have to send anyone away for not having enough money”
Has anything ever gone wrong?
Oh yes. I was once trying to fit the sides of acetate spectacles for a customer and started to adjust them. Snap. They broke. I felt really terrible. That’s how I found out that you have to really heat up older acetate glasses before you adjust them. Of course, the customer got a new pair of glasses.
The transfer from your father to you looks like it is seamless. Lots of other businesspeople fail at this hurdle. What’s your secret to success?
My father never tried to encourage me to do things in a certain way or insist on that. He gave me tips about things to try. That was good for our relationship. I would say that he gave me plenty of room to try things out but stepped in to correct me when it was necessary.
So: let the younger generation have a go?
It was definitely also sensible of my father to plan the handover for a long time. We have been working together at the company for seven years now. Perhaps it is also advantageous that the age difference of 50 years between us is relatively big. Maybe that made things more relaxed. In any case, I am definitely close to my father, which helps in talks with the majority shareholder.
Otherwise he adopts a manager from outside the family in order to put them in the top job like the coffee businessman Darboven wanted to…
(smiles) My father has been responsible for 150 million pairs of glasses, of which he has developed, designed and checked many himself. I would be silly not to involve him and make use of his knowledge. I don’t have to, but I do involve him a lot and like doing that: I often drive over to see him at Lütjensee. We talk things over then.
Your family might grow again at some point and the company will have more shareholders. How do you intend on preventing the company from falling to pieces because of disputes at some point?
My father set up a family foundation that ensures that the majority share in the company always stays in the family. We still have to determine under what conditions family members actively participate in the company. It wouldn’t make any sense for Fielmann to be run by someone who doesn’t do a good job just because they’re a member of the family. You could determine that the company is run only by external managers in principle. We think that the company is in the best hands with family but the conditions of a family member entering the company should be regulated.
Has your father given you any principles that you must always stick to?
Yes, of course. One is: “Take less and then you’ll get more.” Our glasses have to be cheap enough that everyone can afford them. We would never make the mistake of not catering for groups of customers, such as people with less money. The profit on each pair of glasses may well be less but you make up for that in the number sold.
Last year there was only a minimal increase in turnover and profit? Are you not under pressure from the external shareholders?
Fielmann will continue to expand. We are aiming for ambitious growth with the plans that we will announce in the summer. We are continuing to expand in Italy and Poland and are taking a close look at chains in one or two other European markets at the moment. But we’re not ready to announce anything yet. Fielmann could make large acquisitions at any time without needing to borrow money. But we will definitely stick to our philosophy of avoiding high-risk investments.
Does it not annoy you sometimes that you have to justify yourself to investors and analysts from outside the family?
The capital market is good and right for us. It has a disciplinary effect. We can’t get tempted to lose sight of margins and returns.
But you have to show the capital market possibilities for growth. Is that still possible here?
There are still lots of opportunities in the German-speaking countries. The most common criticism we receive from our customers is that the wait is too long. If we lose customers, it is generally because of waiting times. We are working on a business model that we can use to help all the customers that are out there. There is significant potential.
But bricks-and-mortar retail is currently coming under pressure from online retailers. Consumers don’t want to go to stores any more.
Retail that is based entirely online is the more obsolete model in our industry. Only two per cent of turnover on glasses is created by mail-order business and it’s around five per cent if you include contact lenses. Fielmann already serves contact lens customers with an omnichannel business model and is growing significantly faster than the competition. Now we are working hard on developing online retail opportunities for glasses at Fielmann quality standards.
From a quality perspective is an individual pair of glasses ordered online therefore not yet as good as one bought from a store?
As things are at the moment, it’s down to chance. We need technologies that are market-ready in 3 areas: a reliable 3D method of trying on glasses, a 3D fit system that is accurate down to the millimetre and an online sight test. Fielmann Ventures is currently developing these key technologies, in part in collaboration with technology companies and innovative start-ups.
So, in a couple of years we won’t need a bricks-and-mortar optical store anymore?
As soon as the technology is market-ready we will be able to offer glasses online at Fielmann quality standards. Nevertheless, lots of customers will still come into the store. I imagine that they might find a pair of glasses online and get them fitted in the store. The future is in the connection between personalised advice and digital services.
Source: WirtschaftsWoche, Text by Melanie Bergermann, Volker Ter Haseborg, Photos: Paula Markert for WirtschaftsWoche,