In the 1930s, a man named Gerard Ettinger had a career in selling luxury leather goods to major department stores in the United Kingdom. The business soon took his name, remained in the family since and grew to become a well-respected global niche brand.
Today, Robert, Gerard’s grandson, is the chairman and CEO of the Ettinger brand, whose products can now be found across 35 countries and online through the brand’s e-commerce website.
While most popular in Asia and the United States, the British brand has recently made efforts to venture into the Middle East.
In an interview with Aficionado, Robert Ettinger reveals the strategy of maintaining a family business in a time of globalisation, explains the detailed operations of the business and shares his views on the industry.
What are the dynamics of operating a family business in our time?
Many ask me this question. Maybe it’s because many brands used to be family-owned, but not anymore.
We’ve remained to be family-owned and operated. I’m third generation and I think it’s a challenge because, as the company grows, it becomes more international. There are inherently more problems with a bigger business; you have to produce more.
Any luxury good-producing business involves many years of practice and we’ve been very aware of this over the last few years. We’ve doubled the size of our factory in the past couple of years. Now this allows us to train and teach more people the skill of making leather goods and eventually grow the business somewhat.
But how did you manage to keep it within the family without selling out?
We’ve kept it within the family because we’re a fairly tight-knit family; there aren’t too many people. I think once it goes too far down the generations, there are too many people and shareholders in the family. That might cause conflict and problems. For now, it’s just my brother and I, our wives and children. That’s it.
We’ve also taken on a lot of experts in the business, people who are not part of the family, but are experts at what they do – whether marketing or sales or manufacturing. That is also very important. It is important to have a good balance between family and outsiders who can make good decisions and are very involved in the business.
What value do you find in the Middle East region?
Five years ago, the Middle East wasn’t ready for niche brands, but all the big brands were here. Then, 18 months to two years ago, we felt that now is the time to come in.
Sometimes, it’s about being in the right place at the right time, with a bit of luck and a bit of faith. It happened; the market is ready and it has been great.
What is your vision for this region in the next five years?
Ettinger is not aggressive, that’s not the nature of our product. We’re also a British company and I think British companies tend not to be aggressive about their sales and marketing – they like to find a good partner, have a long-term relationship and grow it steadily.
We don’t want to suddenly do huge amounts and be afraid to drop off; we want it to be slow and steady. In five years’ time, I’m sure there will be many more outlets and the brand will be more recognised.
Stepping away from Ettinger, do you think – in general – craftsmanship and authenticity are being compromised on by larger global brands?
I think you have to compromise slightly if you want to grow beyond a certain size; it’s inevitable. These things need human beings to make them and they need to be trained – that takes time.
In fact, our managers in the factory can actually tell who has made which item.
How do you run the business inside the factory?
We have full-time workers in the factory and then we have out-workers. Our products are 85 per cent handwork – you cut it with a machine and, at the very end, you sew it with a sewing machine, but everything in between is done by hand.
We have vans that go out to women in their homes; they do all this handwork at home. The next day, we collect everything and it goes back to the factory for the sewing and finishing.
We have now potentially well over 100 out-workers and roughly the same number of people within the factory.
You are known for putting efforts into preserving artisanship and craftsmanship in England. Tell us about that.
We have an organisation in England called Crafted. It is supported by Walpole, the luxury goods organisation that British luxury companies are members of. Every year, we pick ten or 12 young people who have a craft or a skill and need mentoring – I’ve been doing this now for many years. So they come to see me every two or three weeks for a year and we help them develop their craft and business acumens.
We’re just helping people become aware that crafts and skills are so important and are something we must not lose in the world, because, if we do lose it, after a generation or two you’ll never have it again. So, you’ve got to pass it on.