Interview with Carole Hübscher

Established in 1915, Caran d’Ache is one of the leading writing instrument and luxury stationary suppliers in the world. For nearly a century, the family-owned business has been at the forefront of innovation in its industry and has uniquely offered its international customer base the colourful options needed to experience the joys of writing. An example in environmental management, Caran d’Ache is one of the few companies in Switzerland that has been ISO certified. More importantly, the company has throughout its existence emphasised what it considers its core asset: its people.

After running down a rainy Geneva street, we alight at the family’s flagship store to meet with Carole Hübscher, chairwoman of Caran d’Ache since 2012. Here we get to know an incredibly talented woman who speaks to us about a career that has prepared her for the family business, the changes over the decades, but mostly of people and pencils.

Leading up to the family business

“My parents never forced us to join the family business,” affirms Carole Hübscher while sitting at a small wooden table in the Caran d’Ache flagship store in Geneva. “Unless you’re passionate, and you’re really willing to join the family business, there is no point in forcing anyone to do so.” Despite Carole Hübscher’s commanding ease within her present role, her career began in a much different realm. After studying hotel management in Switzerland, Hübscher worked in hospitality for a while before fulfilling her life-long dream of moving to the US. There she worked for a Caran d’Ache distributor.

“I ended up staying two years,” says Hübscher. Her eyes sparkle in fond remembrance as she adds, “I really started from scratch. I packed products in the warehouse then I was promoted to the mailing room. It was a very good way to learn about the products and not just gain the perspective of the owner’s daughter. Coming back to Switzerland, there was an opportunity within the international sales department of Caran d’Ache. I took over that position for a few years. I then decided to go for a PMD at Harvard to consolidate my business background in 1997.”

Instead of diving back into her own family business, Carole Hübscher decided to join another. The Swatch Corporation, established and owned by the late Nicolas Hayek, hired her as International Marketing Manager. She smiles reminiscently as she remembers the business tycoon: “Mr. Hayek asked me to meet him when I joined the company and in his shrewd way put the question to me: ‘Are you planning to come over here to learn how to make watches, and then you’re going to go back to Caran d’Ache, and make watches too?’ I answered:‘We already make watches. Are you planning to make Swatch pencils?’ He laughed and said, ‘Fine, you’re hired.’”

“When I look back at my different experiences, I find them all very rewarding. After having my first child I took some time off and then started my own business,” states Hübscher. Her matter of fact way of relating such an audacious and diverse career path is disarming but reveals an underlining ethos present within every business decision. Throughout her various endeavours, Carole Hübscher’s interest in the family business never wavered. “I have been a board member since 2002. Over time, I started to work more closely with my dad, so I took a few days off from my own company to be at Caran d’Ache. I shadowed him for five years. Then one and a half years ago I took over.”

People and Pencils – The Mission of Caran d’Ache
Image courtesy of Caran d’Ache

Innovation meets Tradition

Leaning back in her chair, her hands toying with a Caran d’Ache pen, Carole Hübscher explains what her family business means: “This brand stands for so much. It stands for a lot of Swiss tradition.” Asking her how she manages to include innovation into a tradition-heavy brand, she is immediately roused by the question: “That’s where my branding experience has been an asset. I think one part that is extremely important is to respect your heritage. You know we’re nearly 100 years old and this success has been built on innovation. We were the first to launch the clutch pencil, and today it’s something that everyone uses. We are the only company in our field to have the knowhow needed to manufacture the wide range of products we represent. Sometimes people ask me, ‘Who’s your competition?’, and I say, ‘It would take me ages to talk about my competitors, because I don’t have one but many.’ But they’re all specialists in one field. Our competitive advantage is that we are specialists in many different fields. We are unique.”

Caran d’Ache is a family business that provides a family product, a fact best exemplified by its product range offering distinct offerings for every generation. Carole Hübscher goes further to remind us of a key ingredient to the company’s success: “It’s all 100 % Swiss made. The quality has been our goal at all times. You have a lifetime guarantee on all our products. That is what makes us different.”

99 years later and still going strong

Nearly a century of family ownership is no small feat as many who have come and gone can confirm. We ask Carole Hübscher how the business has fared throughout its history and which strategic turning points amounted to the biggest impact. “Our business has been through a lot. In the 1930s, for instance, it was difficult to get wood for our pencil production. We needed to find alternatives and we designed pencils with a metal body. We also tried to produce our pencils with Swiss fin woods which were hard to work with. This year we have for the first time launched a pencil made entirely of Swiss wood. It took us nearly 70 years to figure it out,” she says.

But Carole Hübscher is keen to emphasise that ceaseless fine tuning and the subsequent accomplishments are owed to the dedication of what she calls the “Caran d’Ache family”, which includes not only the company’s owners but also the firm’s employees. “The family alone wouldn’t be able to do it. Of course, there are values that have enforced our success but it ultimately comes down to our excellent people.” Just behind Carole Hübscher’s seat is a large vertical screen which displays images from the Caran d’Ache factory and its workers. “In our flagship store it is very important to me to show the people that are working in the Ateliers. We are a real manufacturer with real people. Without them, their work and passion, we would not be able to do all what we do. Our people stay an average of 14 years with us and represent more than 90 different professions”, she opines.

People and Pencils – The Mission of Caran d’Ache
Image courtesy of Caran d’Ache

A pivotally strategic moment for Caran d’Ache has been its geographic expansion. Today, the brand is represented in over 80 countries and each market has been a different experience for the family business. “We expanded to Asia with our luxury products. We diversified and made small line extensions. It is great to observe the differences in product perception from one market to the next. In Asia, we are much more known for the writing instruments than for the colours. In Switzerland most children get their Caran d’Ache pencils every fall before the new school year starts.”

Fatherly Guidance

Carole Hübscher builds on a heritage which was to a great extent built by her father. Clearly fond of his mentorship, she smiles when thinking back to the time she used to work with him side-by-side. “When I shadowed my father we sometimes had different visions. It could be hard to convince him as he had been working in the company for the last 50 years. E-commerce, all those social networks and channels, were something he could not understand. He was weary of anything that could damage the brand. But of course we had to get involved in these things,” Hübscher reflects. “Our ways of managing the company naturally varied. My father had been in charge for over 20 years and ran a tight organisation. I have a different style”.

“I want people to be involved in the decision making. That way they are part of the decision, and they want to make it work.” Her father still comes in frequently and Carole Hübscher is very much aware that she is privileged in having been accompanied by the elder generation during her introduction into the business. “My father got to enjoy watching us being successful, and that’s beautiful.”

Though similarly invested in passing on the family’s principles, she does not push the idea of working for the family onto her children instead focusing on teaching them the ideals the family business thrives on. “What we do at the moment mostly is to encourage values in our children. It’s extremely important to instil values from the beginning. We teach them things like managing their pocket money according to the three S’s, an idea produced by my brother-in-law Etienne, which means that part of their money goes into Savings, another into Spending and the third S stands for Sharing. Its values like these that instil respect of others. This is an important factor in making them responsible owners.”

People and Pencils – The Mission of Caran d’Ache
Image courtesy of Caran d’Ache

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The Social and Environmental Responsibility of Caran d’Ache

From the beginning of our conversation Carole Hübscher underlines that an area closest to her heart is the CSR policies Caran d’Ache has put in place. “There are two aspects; the human aspect and the ecological aspect. Ecology is very much our value and has been for many years. Naturally, the procurement of wood lies at the centre of our production. We aspire to use even the waste particles of wood that remain after shaping the pencils, and we make little briquettes to heat up the factory in the winter. Water is another key element in our factory to mix the colours and to clean the final products. In and around the factory we have best practices in place guiding us on how to use these resources. We only use FSC wood and have an ISO ecology certification. We are among the 0.2 % of all Swiss companies that have this certification.”

The second variable of the Caran d’Ache CSR strategy is that which clearly lies closest to Carole Hübscher’s heart; people. “Education is very important to us and we provide internal apprenticeships. We have people that pass exams to be the mentors of these programmes. This helps us in enabling the knowhow transfer internally. We really try to promote the people, to move them from one place to another within the company. It generates an understanding and conveys the message that with us they can evolve. We also have a sociologist who supports our people individually.” It is this commitment towards the extended Caran d’Ache family of employees that has undoubtedly established Carole Hübscher as an exceptional leader and visionary.

Into the Future

When prompted to share a glimpse of what the future may bring her family’s business, Carole Hübscher shares that one ambition includes creating more flagship stores which relate to consumers the fabric of the company and help the public understand the Caran d’Ache story. “As opposed to being represented in a department store where staff is under a great deal of pressure to know many different brands, having our own boutiques carries the advantage of allowing us to make the experience more personal. We can design it to be in line with our own values whilst putting forward certain products according to our priorities. I believe these flag ship stores to achieve a great balance between good branding and a positive customer experience.” Caran d’Ache’s enthusiasm has proven contagious for the last 99 years, as a family, which prides itself on craftsmanship, now triumphantly distributes its products globally. With Carole Hübscher at the helm and more than delighted to carry on whilst improving upon the work of those before her, a century more appears as just the beginning of what’s to come.

Tharawat Magazine, Issue 21, 2014