Interview with Maria Fatté, and Maissa Fatté, Au Gant Rouge
On November 9, 2017, representatives from the business, art, and culture scenes gathered at Au Gant Rouge’s flagship store in downtown Beirut to celebrate the renowned family company’s 150th anniversary. Loyal to its core business for a century and a half, the Melki family has provided its customers with top of the line houseware, tableware, home décor and more. The anniversary was marked in style through a collaboration on an exclusive tableware collection created by distinguished Lebanese designer Rabih Kayrouz and French porcelain plate manufacturer, Raynaud Limoges.
However, what was celebrated that night was more than just the acknowledgement of a milestone for a family business. The anniversary recognised the perseverance and sheer force of will it took for the Melki family to keep Au Gant Rouge going to this day, into its fifth generation of family leadership.
Au Gant Rouge has come a long way from when it first opened in Beirut’s Souk El Tawile in 1867. The family makes little of the hardship it has known along the way.
By all rights, the business should have come to an end in 1975 when the Lebanese civil war resulted in the destruction of stores and businesses in the downtown core of Beirut. Au Gant Rouge was not spared the devastation. With the entirety of its merchandise either stolen or burned.
But instead of folding, the Melkis set up a new store in nearby Ashrafieh, and restored the business to profitability once again. When the time came, Au Gant Rouge was one of the first to return to Beirut’s rebuilt downtown where it stands proudly to this day.
Tharawat Magazine had the opportunity to sit down with Maria Fatté and her daughter Maissa to discuss what goes into keeping a business thriving for a century and a half, the strength of female leadership, and why continuous innovation is the way forward.
Your family is now in its fifth generation of running Au Gant Rouge. During that time, you have seen more than your fair share of adversity. Can you tell us some key moments that defined how you got to where you are now?
Maria: My father’s grandfather founded the business in 1867. The first two generations built Au Gant Rouge into a respectably large operation that sold everything for the home, like tableware, decorative items, gifts and more. Actually, until this day we have not wavered from that core business and represent brands from all over the world. Most of them we’ve been in business with for over 60 years. The third generation was my father who was a medical doctor, and consequently, it was my mother who took over the company when we were kids. This was when things got very tough, and we went through hard times. When war broke out in 1975, our store was destroyed, everything was burnt or stolen. So we re-opened in a space in Ashrafieh. In time, we expanded until we came back to the new downtown in 2003. We were amongst the very first to make a comeback to this area. Hard times are upon us again. Since the Syrian war, the economy is still suffering. It’s a day-to-day struggle, but we are still here.
To what do you attribute your family’s ability to make it through such trying times?
Once you’ve owned and managed a company over so many generations, you have a responsibility to keep it going. It’s in our character to be hard workers, to believe in our business, and to believe in our country. Our belief in this family business is that it’s here to stay. We want to take it further, as far as possible for future generations to enjoy. We survive by always following the market trends. What’s the market demand? What do people want? What is it that they would like to buy and are asking for but can’t find elsewhere? We’re continually developing new brands. We now also offer more affordable and younger brands. We expanded into sculptures and artworks rather than providing only tableware, decorative items and gifts.
When you started working with the family business, was it something that you chose or was it expected of you?
Maria: I did my economic studies at the American University of Beirut, earning my BA and then MA. But I didn’t want to join the family business straight out of university. I believe I needed to gain real-world experience, so I worked at the Central Bank of Lebanon in the Economic Studies and Research Department for seven years. I knew from the beginning that I was going to join the family business eventually because there were only two in my generation; my sister and me.
My daughter Maissa followed a very similar path to mine. She studied in Beirut and then went to London and after seven years, came back to join the family business. We’re pleased that she’s here because to go onwards, you need an injection of new blood in the company. It’s nice to be able to share our experience with her while bringing in her new vision. This combination of experience and a younger way of doing things will propel us forward.
So, with Maissa recently joining, that makes three generations of strong women at the helm. Usually, in family businesses, we see it being passed down from father to son, but you took over from your mother. How did it come about that your mother was in charge of Au Gant Rouge?
Maria: My mother ran the business all these years, and she still does. My father became a doctor, and he had only sisters. So the business was left to my parents, and while my father focused mainly on his medical career, my mother took over the day-to-day of Au Gant Rouge.
Maissa: My grandfather was still always involved in the business. He was an active man who gave his time to culture and museums as well. He was a great personality who sadly left us earlier this summer. He would’ve loved to have been there for our 150th celebration.
It was a significant milestone, and beautiful for my grandmother to witness. She was the one who rebuilt the whole business after we were so affected by the war. She’s very fierce and a decisive risk taker. She is also still working with us in the business.
With three generations actively represented in the business. So how do you keep the lines of communication open between you?
Maissa: It’s not always easy because we have differing points of view on different issues and ways of approaching everything. We do have at least one meal together every day where we try to discuss topics openly. We try to come up with compromises. And sometimes we divide and conquer. Each person takes care of different tasks according to their natural strengths. For example, I’m taking care of everything that involves social media right now. I love being in sales because that’s my background, so I like to be in the gallery with customers because it’s vital. My mother looks after corporate gifts, wedding lists and relationships with suppliers and architects.
Maissa, how do you feel about the way your family business has gone about integrated you as a next generation?
Maissa: I knew they wanted me to come back at some point, but they never put too much pressure on me.
They let me be, they let me have my own experience and let me come back when the time was right. And they also took the time to teach me a lot in the first few months about how things work. They embraced some of the improvements I wanted to implement when looking at some of the older techniques they were using. They gave me room to come up with new ideas that we could try out. It was nice because some of these new ideas we saw come to life during the anniversary event. Looking ahead, we’ve set some priorities, and we’re working on them in 2018.
What is the technology today that’s going to have the greatest impact on what you do moving forward?
Maria: Overall we feel new technologies are usually a net positive for us. For example, in the old days, people could only buy your products if they physically entered your store. With the advent of online shopping, we see new avenues to sell our goods. Today, it’s common practice for a young couple to put their wedding registry online. We deliver everywhere in the world, so the new technology has taken us from a local market to a global market.
Has the family ever been tempted to go into a different industry?
Maria: We did not diversify into different industries but providing all things needed for the home, we expanded our product range. We’re big enough to have a number of brands and a number of products. Also, bear in mind that we are a relatively small family. So if other families that are larger want to divvy up the company and take different paths, that might be easier for them than it would be for us. I think being a small family has had a lot to do with our longevity. If you are in a large family and everyone wants an active role in running the company it can put a strain on both the business and the family.
With the 150-year milestone, you must have spent a lot of time reflecting on the past. But casting an eye to the future, what do you see as your greatest wish for the business?
Maria: We want what every business, family otherwise, wants which is to keep growing. To go higher, get bigger, have more brands, and more products. We want to follow the market demand diligently and be ahead of consumer trends. We hope that the continuous injection of new blood will push us to develop our business more and more. This is what we work towards every day.