Interview with Robert Ettinger, CEO of Ettinger, United Kingdom

Gerry Ettinger founded the British luxury leather goods company Ettinger in 1934 after an accomplished career spent in the Italian and German film industries. In the mid-80s Gerry Ettinger’s eldest son Robert joined the business and in 1990 he was handed the reigns. Ettinger has grown to become one of the most renowned names in leather goods, which culminated in receiving the honour of the Royal Warrant to HRH the Prince of Wales in 1996.

The family business today prides itself on continually producing the finest hand crafted leather goods in the UK and as a result maintaining a customer base all over the world. The business has been honing its reputation for over 80 years and shows no sign of abating the hold Ettinger has on the market. In an interview with Robert Ettinger, CEO of Ettinger and former Chairman of the British Luggage and Leathergoods Association, Tharawat magazine discovers the secret behind high quality family-perfected craftsmanship.

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How did your involvement in the family business begin?

I joined the family business in 1985, but everything in my life seemed to be leading up to that very moment. My parents sent me to boarding schools in Austria and France where I learnt languages and discipline. I then embarked on a business apprenticeship in a German marble stone factory, which was also a family business, followed by work experience at Mappins Fine Jewellers in Canada. At Mappins I learnt everything about the luxury industry by working in every division of the business.

While I was doing this I sort of knew that I was being groomed. My father didn’t force me but
he saw that I had the right skills to join the family business. I always liked doing practical things. He had the foresight to give me the right opportunities. He was helping me make my way towards the family business but never by force. For a few years my passion was being a ski instructor and I did that professionally for a while. But eventually I ended up with the family business and I am very happy I did. My father sent me on various business assignments and really threw me in at the deep end.

I think my father really understood my other passions because he himself had a very different career before embarking on his own Ettinger adventure. He was a film producer in Italy and Germany and worked with noted German actress Marlene Dietrich, amongst others. He started the business together with his father and I am the third generation working in our business. My father was a very clever man and it was always a pleasure working with him. My brother is a shareholder in the business but he studied engineering and is an entrepreneur in his own right.

Does your brother support you acting as the chief executive of the family firm?

Yes, because I think he could see that I was always more suited to run the business. He is also a great entrepreneur but in a different way. We do exchange thoughts about the business regularly and I keep him updated. Of course he carries the Ettinger name and as a shareholder always stays involved to a certain degree.

Ettinger - A Lifetime Dedicated to Craftsmanship
Image courtesy of Ettinger

What was the defining moment in the history of your family’s brand?

I think the most defining moment was when we got the royal warrant in 1996. We did serve the royal family for a long time and then we got the warrant. It is a seal of approval and it means that your products are of a high standard and the royal family trusts you. It has helped us to sell our goods abroad. We get orders from everywhere in the world now. We are finding more and more people wanting to work with us.

This all led to an additional defining moment during which we decided to build the Ettinger brand. We used to also produce our goods for other brands but around 1996 we decided to make it all about our family brand.

In a world where technology is moving us fast into a new age, how does a business based on traditional craftsmanship represent an attractive opportunity for the next generation?

The next generation has to want to do it and has to understand craftsmanship. If they don’t it won’t work. You have to have your heart in it. You have to enjoy seeing people making something with patience and from scratch. In terms of our craft we are at an advantage in the leather industry because what we do cannot be done by a machine. 85% of the work involved in making leathergoods is still done by hand. It can’t be done any other way. Our craft can never be fully replaced by a machine unless you actually invent a robot that can do what a human can. Each piece needs to be hammered differently because leather is a natural product that is uneven and can’t be handled uniformly.

Many family businesses have been built around preserving a craft or trade. Do you believe that family ownership provides the right model for traditional expertise?

If it is a well-founded family business then it is about making the best product and not only about making money. I think as soon as you get too big, the pressure of additional shareholders, family or non-family, can lead to conflict. This has led to the downfall of many family businesses in our industry. Families need to be careful about how they distribute shares across their respective businesses over generations.

On what principles do you base the success of your business?

My brother and I share the same values and he loves the business. Even though he does not have a day-to-day role at Ettinger he still carries the family name and therefore the brand with pride.

But the Ettinger family is larger than just my brother and I, it includes the people who work with us. In our factory many of our staff joined us when they were 16 years old and today they are still with the company. I think a lot of people will say that it is old fashioned but in craftsmanship it has to be done that way because that’s how you guarantee the quality. The whole company is like a family. Our two general managers started with us when they were teenagers and today they are like brother and sister. They work hard and identify themselves entirely with the brand.

How many people work in your factory?

We have about 40 people who come in everyday from 9 to 5. But a trade such as ours is mainly based on what we call “outworkers”, who are craftsmen and women working from home. Our vans go out with the material and deliver it to our outworkers’ doorsteps. So our total work force is composed of about 80 people.

The factory is based in Birmingham and our job at the London office is to get in orders and do the accounts. I go to the factory at least once a week to speak to our workers and share with them the progress we have made. They are interested when I tell them about my trips, who we meet and how what they make reaches people around the world.

Ettinger - A Lifetime Dedicated to Craftsmanship
Image courtesy of Ettinger

How do you guarantee quality control?

It is important to be in the factory a lot to understand how difficult it is to make the product so that you can sell it properly. My family has an eye for quality. We are hard workers and we notice things. Also our relationship with our Japanese partners has tremendously influenced our way of doing things. In the beginning of our relationship they used to send back some orders to us because they said they weren’t good enough. So I went there personally to see what was wrong. They would inspect each piece and if they did not have the identical number of stitches per inch they would not let them pass, the products had to all be the same. So it was not a matter of skills but rather of a state of mind. We changed our culture to thinking Japanese. Today, we know that when our Japanese clients approve, the rest of the world will be delighted.

What does the future hold for Ettinger?

As of now we do not see the next generation coming into the business because the children are too young. In any family business one must not get too focused on guaranteeing that there will be a family member to take over but rather focus on having the right people in the business at the present moment. It’s all about running a good business. Even if one has children there is no guarantee that they will want to carry on and that is not a good thing or a bad thing but just a fact. In the meantime you have to offer the people who work for you good careers and a place where they can live out their passion.

Of course, we would always welcome it if there were an Ettinger representing the family business, however, it should never be a condition for the continuity of the business. There are people depending on us doing a good job now and establishing a structure that will carry on beyond our own lives. The family story does help us in terms of how we place our brand as people do like to buy into the story we represent. We continue to cherish this competitive advantage.

For now our main focus is to grow in new markets. We are already present in the US, Canada, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and the Middle East. We only pick one market at a time in order to do things properly. It is the hardest thing in the world to build a successful brand and we are competing against the big boys in our industry. But we are confident that our approach to finding partners – who are often family businesses as well, who understand our values and who want to form a long-lasting relationship – will get us to where we want to be.

Tharawat Magazine, Issue 22, 2014