SHARPENING UP FOR A DIGITAL FUTURE
The chances are high, that a person reading this article, had owned or used a writing instrument from Faber-Castell.
It could be that set of colour pencils you received as a child. Or that sleek ball-point pen in your pocket right now. One thing’s for sure; it is a brand that that has transcended generations and borders.
Faber-Castell’s history dates back to 1761 in the town of Stein, just outside of Nuremberg. A carpenter, Kasper Faber started producing a small pencil factory, which little did he know then, would become the world’s largest pencil empire and one of the most successful “Made in Germany” stories.
Over here, its local outfit Faber-Castell Malaysia - which operates the largest eraser manufacturing plant in the world - recently celebrated in 40th anniversary. In attendance, CEO Daniel Rogger and executive board member Countess Mary von Faber-Castell, wife of the late Count Anton-Wolfgang von Faber-Castell who helmed the eighth generation owned family business since 1978, until he passed away last year.
“He was always so happy when people recognised the brand,” the Countess reminisce.
Going back to its roots - the wood-cased pencil - Count Anton saw an opportunity in the cosmetic industry
“When waiting at restaurants, or checking in at the airport, he would look at the writing instruments on the table, (he’d) start conversations with people, asking their perceptions of Faber-Castell and if they are happy with the product.”
Countess Mary, once a cosmetics executive for major brands in New York, met her future husband over business. The late count was on the lookout for new business ideas when sales of its once top selling product - the slide rules - fell off drastically in the late 1970s, following the invention of electronic calculators.
Going back to its roots - the wood-cased pencil - Count Anton saw an opportunity in the cosmetic industry. “He was looking at something adjacent to his existing business.” By 1978, Faber Castell started producing eyeliners and lip pencils (OEM) for industry players.
“We met and like they say, the rest is history.” says Countess Mary of their encounter in New York. She went on to lead the cosmetics division of Faber-Castell, a division that generates over 10 percent of the company’s total revenue.
For a company that has 257 years of history - having gone through two world wars, the industrial revolution and then digital evolution, isn't it a wonder how does a company, that relies on pencils and pens as its core business, not only withstand the test of time but produced record numbers, just last year?
The adult colouring book trend helped lift Faber-Castell to record sales of 667 million euros in 2016 / 2017
“It was the adult colouring book trend.” says the Countess of Faber-Castell’s record sales of 667 million Euro for FY16/17. “At first, I couldn’t understand who it was. Then I realised it wasn’t necessarily the stay at home mums; it is quite often business people who wanted to relax.”
She is, however, realistic. While the colouring book trend helped boost sales, for Faber-Castell to stay ahead, turning to the online world, to keep in line with the digital trends is imperative.
“One of the areas that is really important to us now is attracting professional and hobby artists. Digital platform is the way to share art; Brazil has been very advanced in that.” says the Countess of Faber-Castell’s 365 thousand followers on its Brazilian Instagram account, one of many social media accounts of the company that garners massive followings.
“We are actively meeting with bloggers. Quite often, they are the new journalists,” adding that she believes the need for people to ‘do something by hand, something personal” will continue to support Faber-Castell’s growth. “The transition is happening very quickly. And we’ve been very successful reacting to it.”
Countess Mary was unhesitating to say that she ‘married into the role’ when her late husband took up his inheritance of a highly successful entrepreneurial dynasty in 1978, along with the responsibilities that came with it - responsibilities taken on by the Countess too.
My husband had built the company dramatically in his lifetime and none of the children had the experience to take it on. My husband and children saw it too
“For years I had no title on my card; I just have my name,” she says, adding a smile, when asked about working in a family business. She has headed Faber-Castell’s cosmetics division since 2014.
“I think he made a decision putting me in the executive committee, but I didn’t even know at the time. He did it when he was ill,” referring to the final days of her husband Count Anton. Countess Mary was appointed to Management Board of Faber-Castell on January 1st, 2016. Count Anton passed away three weeks later at age 74.
Perhaps one of the most significant decisions the Faber Castell, as a company, had to make was selecting its next CEO, upon learning of Count Anton’s illness.
The couple had four grown children who could potentially take on the helm and ‘keep it in the family’. But they brought in an outside CEO, in the form of Daniel Rogger - a decision taken with the company and employee’s best interests in mind.
“My husband had built the company dramatically in his lifetime and none of the children had the experience to take it on. My husband and children saw it too,” the Countess reminisces the difficult period. “You have huge social responsibility to your employees and their families. You can’t learn at that level when the company is so big.”
“He was also trying to be sensitive to his children and not make anybody feel like they were forced to do something,” she adds. Count Anton was a former investment banker who, at first, felt little desire to take on the family business. “He always thought he was going to go back to London,” the Countess says with a laugh.
I am the remains of the 8th generation and doing a bridge to the 9th generation
Two of the countess’ children, including eldest Charles von Faber-Castell are currently involved in the family business and, hopefully, will take up the mantle someday. The Countess, meanwhile, says she has no plans of slowing down anytime soon.
“I always say, the sooner you become obsolete, the better. But if it’s just coming to Malaysia to talk about the brand makes me happy, and if I can contribute in another way, I could do that too.”
“I am the bridge. I am the remains of the 8th generation and doing a bridge to the 9th generation.”
“The 9th generation has to already start thinking about the 10th and 11th generation - to find opportunities, to find things that would fit us and do better than other people,” says the Countess, espousing the company’s motto “Doing ordinary things extraordinary well.”
Podcast of the interview: