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Robert Ettinger on leather, skiing, and building a family business

Robert Ettinger is the third generation to take over the business that bears his family name. Ahead of its expansion in to the Middle East, we ask him what makes family so important

Robert Ettinger on leather, skiing, and building a family business

Robert Ettinger is the third generation to take over the business that bears his family name. Ahead of its expansion in to the Middle East, we ask him what makes family so important

You didn't want to be involved with the family business,
did you?
Well, the business has been in the family since 1934. I'm the third generation to be involved. Obviously, as it was a family business my father wanted me to carry it on, but he didn't push me. He sent me to be educated not just in England, but also in France and Australia. He wanted me to be an international man just like himself – my father spoke six languages.

Then he sent me to Germany to work in a German manufacturing business, they made luxury products out of marble. I was an apprentice for almost two years. In Germany, you end up doing every job while an apprentice at a company. So I started in the factory, then moved on to the jewellery department, then the packing department, imports, exports, etc. You get to see how the whole business works.

After that I moved on to a jewellery company in Canada. I had always been a keen skier in my life, and when I came back to Britain – when I should have been involved in the company, I guess – I met someone who told me I could become a ski instructor. So I did my exam, and that's what I did for the next four years. I skied all over Europe and America. I was outdoors, getting fit and improving my skiing every day. That's what I wanted to do.

What changed?
My father came to me when I was about 35-years old. He said, "Look, you've got to make a decision sometime in life about what you want to do. You can do whatever you want, I am not going to force you, if you want to be a ski instructor for the rest of your life do it, or you can join the family business:. I sat down and thought about it, and it was a hard decision to make. But obviously I decided the family business was my thing. It was in my blood I suppose.

It was meant to be.
When I joined I was a salesman at first, travelling and selling. Then I moved on to design and marketing, and eventually I became CEO. It's quite daunting to become the leader of a business at first, but once you know the ropes and you've done it for a few years you get excited to move it forward.

The last 20 years – incidentally, that's when we received our Royal Warrant – has really grown in terms of the brand. Ettinger now sells in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and China, we've opened up shop in New York, and now we're here in the Middle East.

Do you find it harder for a smaller, more niche brand to compete with the market leaders of luxury?
Well, the big boys have billions to spend on advertising and marketing. What we're finding now though is that it is the niche brands are really taking off. A lot of people see brands like ours as a real luxury.

I mean, if the big brands are everywhere and everyone has their products, is it even a luxury anymore? Yes, they are beautifully made products at the end of the day, but they are now commonplace.

 

What does the term 'luxury' even mean anymore?
It is the most overused term in the world at the moment. It's used to describe just about everything. What is real luxury? I think it is attention to detail, and I think it should be used to describe something that isn't too readily available in the world. I think business has made the luxury industry too big.

You've got to have teams in the factories who really care about the products they are making, not just churning stuff out. We invite many journalists to our factory in Birmingham, and when they've left they are surprised by our workers, how they love making these products. They put their soul in to our products, and that is luxury.

Ettinger has expanded rather quickly. But surely – to keep the brand exclusive, and keep that traditional level of manufacturing – there must come a point where you have to turn down business. That seems counterintuitive…
You're right, but there are levels of that. I think you can have a factory employing a thousand people making luxury products, but still be niche. The big boys have tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people.

We have grown as a business – we have doubled the size of our factory in the last couple of years, because we don't want to say no without a reason. I was in China the other day, and a company came to us and asked to put our products in eight stores. I said that's fine. But then they asked to put us in 120 stores. I said we can't do it. We won't do it. We'd lose control.

Once you get too big, things run away from you and there's a danger of losing sight of things. Ettinger still has room to grow, but we're never going to have tens of thousands of staff. No way.

How do you keep your standards so high while expanding the business? If you suddenly have to produce more goods, something's got to give right?
It's all about training. In fact, what's interesting is that Walsall, the town that we're in, is an old leather town in England. Up until about five years ago, a lot of factories were closing down. They were losing business to the Far East. So all of a sudden, we had this supply of well-trained leatherworkers.

Obviously we employed them. Now we are taking on apprentices. Our factory is made up almost entirely of women. Women seem to be much better at making intricate things then men, and even then training takes five years. We're passionate about the training, you have to be. Everyone who joins the company will sit next to some of our most senior people. They learn by looking.

Going back to when you were young, what would you say to someone who owns a business and would like to get their son or daughter involved in the next generation?
My advice is to give them some freedom, let them work for other businesses. I think it's very important because it lets them see how other businesses operate, and how different companies and CEOs do things.

That means when they come in – if they do join the business - they have their own ideas, and don't just do the same thing the business has always done.

 

When it comes to a family business, the stereotype is that you only get a job because Dad gave it to you. Not necessarily based on your own skills. When you joined, did you have something to prove?
I think you have to prove to your staff, to your team, and to everyone in the business that you are dedicated. For many years I was doing lots of different jobs, running around the world.

I was sent to Paris, for example, and told to grow an English luxury brand in France. That was a tough assignment, and I did many of those. I would go to the factory every couple of weeks, but I would arrive at six or seven in the morning. That way when people turned up they could see that I was dedicated, not just a lucky son who inherited a business.

A lot of family businesses fail.
Maybe the people at the top were not right for the role, but were forced in to the company.

A friend of mine runs a family manufacturing business. He's the managing director, and he's very good, but he employs a lot of his family in business. He actually turned to me the other day and said, "If they weren't family they probably wouldn't be working here". So many family businesses in the luxury world are no longer a family.