HAMBURG: Marc Fielmann has had a busy week. In view of the spread of the coronavirus, emergency plans and preparatory measures are also an issue at Germany’s largest optician. At the Barmbek head office, there is now also a disinfectant dispenser at the reception desk. The 30-year-old, who runs the company alone after the retirement of founder Günther Fielmann, courageously shakes the visitors’ hands in greeting and offers water and naturally cloudy apple juice from the Lütjensee farm, where his father runs an organic farm. Then he has another request: The conversation should not just be about the coronavirus. However, it’s impossible to completely avoid it.
Hamburg Abendblatt: The spread of the coronavirus is worrying people around the globe. Have any Fielmann branches already been closed?
Marc Fielmann: Not yet. The most important thing is to respond prudently and stay calm. We follow the advice of the authorities as a company. We have set up a staff unit to coordinate the measures and bundle the precautionary measures. In the meantime, contingency plans have also been drawn up, based on the various scenarios. Of course, we are constantly updating this.
What is it like for you personally? Are you still flying? Have you already cancelled appointments?
We’ve cancelled all trips to and from Asia for some time now and now also to and from Italy. This is more of a precautionary measure. Personally, my next flight is in a fortnight. I haven’t cancelled it yet.
Let’s move on to the company: What has changed in your everyday life since you started running Fielmann alone?
A little more work (laughs). And – this is a qualitative difference – the staff look even more closely at my decisions. It is both an aspiration and an obligation to do justice to this.
Do you see yourself more as a cooperative or authoritarian boss?
That’s where times have changed. As customers and employees change, we must also adapt. It’s no longer like holding court. At least I don’t do that, but I am on the road a lot in the branches and also in the head office and don’t merely receive visitors in the office. Transparency and networking are important in the age of digitalisation. This also includes dealing openly with mistakes.
Do you call people by their first or last name?
Personally, I use last names. If someone wants to call me by my first name, they have to speak English to me. I derive a lot of my behaviour from my interactions with customers, whether it’s clothing or the way I address them. We have a mission statement for which I have to be a role model.
How do you see the trend of wearing sneakers and jeans in business?
I come to the office without a tie on two or three days a week. I think it has to be authentic. In the branches, where we also want to interact appropriately with an 80-year-old lady, different rules apply than in our digital departments. For me, this also reflects the diversity we need in the company.
The company Fielmann was and still is very closely associated with your father, Günther Fielmann. How are you accepted as a – very young – successor?
This varies a lot. My name has always given rise to feelings and emotions. It already started at school. I was always treated differently, either too nice or too unfriendly. But very few of them were really normal. I’ve known that since I was young. I also came into the family business with a lot of expectations. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to study in London beforehand, to work in other companies and in our branches, so I wasn’t just born with a silver spoon. And my father and I are so far apart in age that we have complementary skills. With us, the transformation process, if you will, is linked to succession.
Are there situations in the past months when you missed your father at your side?
No, we worked together for eight years. Of these, three and a half years on the executive board and one and a half years as chairman of the executive board. It is a huge luxury to have such a long period to get prepared. My father was an excellent teacher. He’s not out of the world now either, but we already separate professional and private life relatively clearly.
Does he still come to the office?
No, but I meet him regularly. The proportion of time we spend talking about the company has become significantly smaller. He has many other topics: his organic farming, his social commitment and, of course, his private life.
And he can also let go?
Yes. I think that is the calming effect of aging.
"My name has always given rise to feelings and emotions."
What is your personal agenda for 2020?
The planning will be driven by our Vision 2025. The bottom line is, yes, we are making what we do anyway even more professional, we are digitalising, we are internationalising. There are some major steps this year. We will enter at least one more market by opening our own shops or making an acquisition. We are relatively far advanced in the development of key technologies in digitalisation. There will also be some innovations. And for me, a big highlight will be the opening of our new flagship store on Mönckebergstraße, which will also become our biggest branch in Germany and where we will present a great many new things.
The conversion has been significantly delayed. When will the opening be?
I now know quite a bit about building regulations and statics (laughs). We have just built a 15,000 litre tank for the sprinkler system in the basement. Customers can feel very safe. The opening date is mid-June.
How much is the investment?
Four million euros. There will be 90 employees working at the branch.
Can you already give us a little insight into what innovations are planned?
Yes, but bear with me if I don’t reveal everything yet. For some time now, we have been pursuing an omnichannel strategy, i.e. a combination of physical, personal advice and digital services. We will now present this in Mönckebergstraße. Among other things, there will be a 3D preview. This means that customers can digitally try on glasses via a screen. This will increase our selection from 10,000 to 80,000 pairs of glasses. And, this may sound a bit boring at first, but we will fully digitise our waiting time management. This does not only apply to online appointments. There will also be time slots where you can do something else before the appointment. We have been working with a Berlin start-up for some time now.
Does this exist in other branches?
We have introduced this in about a dozen branches in Berlin and also in a handful of Hamburg branches. More are to follow, but it is not being rolled out everywhere. The needs at the locations are too different for that.
Long waiting times are an ongoing issue at Fielmann. And how is the online appointment system used?
Last year we handled half a million appointments this way, and this year the number should at least double. That would be more than ten percent of all appointments.
Then we come to a question that you have been asked for years: When can I buy glasses online from Fielmann?
There are three key technologies. One is the 3D process of trying on the glasses, which we’ve already talked about that. In the retail stores, you can try on glasses that are not in stock, but it is of course also a preliminary stage for online sales of glasses. There will also be a world first from us in this context, which eliminates discrimination against people who wear glasses.
You have to explain that to us now.
People with severe refractive errors cannot see themselves well in the mirror when trying on lenses because they are not wearing their corrective lenses. We want to change that. The second step is the so-called fitting process. The optician needs to know how the lens sits on the nose so that they can fit them correctly. We have a patented software solution for our branches. We will also offer the 3D survey online in the next twelve months.
But then you haven’t had an eye test yet.
Exactly. That is the most complex thing. You should be able to take a simple visual acuity test online in the next twelve to 18 months. I can’t reveal anything else yet as we have two ongoing patent applications. But the smartphone will determine their visual acuity, and I think by 2021 at the latest, you will be able to order a good pair of single-vision glasses online from Fielmann. The main reason why we haven’t offered this so far is that up until now, it hasn’t been possible to guarantee the quality. We have now developed a process where customers can start and, in simple cases, complete the purchase of glasses online using their smartphone. In more complex cases, such as when the visual acuity is very high, customers are directed to the store – and the reason is explained to them.
Is this then the breakthrough for online business?
We rely on an omnichannel model. We’ve had to put up with quite a bit of criticism for not offering glasses online. But we haven’t abused the trust of the customers. The industry, by the way, has also changed its mind in the meantime. After all, there is no one left who only sells glasses online. All of them have either opened their own stores or found partner opticians. The market development confirms our strategy.
What does this mean for the branch network? Will you still be able to achieve the 50 new openings and the modernization as announced?
Yes, this also includes relocations and space expansions. The two factors why Fielmann is not growing faster are staff and floor space. When we are able to expand branches, we often see double-digit increases in turnover.
The share price has recently developed positively. Nevertheless, there are always very different analyst assessments. How do you perceive this?
I don’t read through every single analyst report, but our specialists naturally filter out the essential points. Basically, I see it very rationally; I studied finance in London myself. The analysts’ different assumptions can quickly lead to different prices, which they then report. Whether that is always justified is something else.
2019 was a special year for you personally: 30th birthday, wedding, sole occupant of the Fielmann boss’s chair. Are you happy?
Yes. I’ve found my place.
Was there anything that surprised you?
Everything works very well with the staff and the team. I am grateful for that. We have already changed a lot in the past months. I’m pleased about that – after all it’s not a matter of course that everyone will get on board.
And how’s your private life?
You grow up (laughs). A friend told me that when you have a ring on your finger, it’s a trust factor in negotiations.
Source: Hamburger Abendblatt © Hamburger Abendblatt. Text: Hanna-Lotte Mikuteit/Oliver Schade. Photo: Daniel Bockwoldt/DPA