It’s one of those moments when I have to shake my head, focus my eyes and ask myself seriously, “Is this real or is this a weird dream?” It’s 4.30 in the afternoon, bang in the middle of the work week on a Wednesday, and I am swirling a glass of robust Chilean red, sitting in a room lined with bathtubs, urinals and washbasins and listening to stories of the World Wars. As it turns out, it isn’t a surrealistic hallucination brought about by one too many sips of the good stuff, but a bona fide business meeting with the eighth-generation descendent of the very European premium ceramic company, Villeroy & Boch.
Handle with care: Villeroy & Boch has survived wars and battles. Boch is now finding ways to survive the recession. Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
As a member of the supervisory board and former CEO of the 261-year-old company, it is only fitting that my meeting with the 73-year-old Luitwin Gisbert von Boch starts with some anecdotes on history reported in the first person. “After the Second World War, I remember we went to see our factory in Saar (in the border of France and Germany) and American soldiers were looting it. My mother, who is British, was livid and started shouting at them. They were so surprised to hear someone speak English that they left immediately,” Boch says. That moment set the tone for the modern era for Villeroy & Boch, headquartered at Mettlach, Germany. People were restarting their lives after the war and one of the first things on their shopping list was plates and glasses. The demand was there, but the company, and not for the first time, did not have a factory. So they dug into their past experience and rebuilt the factory from scratch. Earlier, it was destroyed by Napolean and there were no funds for rebuilding. So the management then proposed that the factory be built for nothing. Workers put down the hours they worked on a paper and worked for no pay. When the factory was redone, the dinnerware sold and some money started coming in, the workers got their salaries. “Then, to thank them, the company started a pension fund, the first of its kind.When Otto von Bismarck, the chancellor of Prussia, was working on the unification of German states, he studied our pension plan to lay down the social legislation,” Boch says.
Boch started working in the family business when he was 16. He did stints in all the divisions of the company before leaving for Switzerland for a degree in business administration. “My father insisted that I work before I go to university, so that I would know which subjects to leave. A lot of rubbish is taught and I didn’t want to waste time learning things that were not relevant,” he says. When he finished college, he joined the company. Over the next 40 years, he worked as general manager, plant manager, CEO and vice-chairman of the board of directors. Last year, he stepped down from active administrative duties and is now, among other things, an ambassador for the company, travelling the world looking for new markets and consolidating its position in existing markets. Despite this gruelling schedule and his age, Boch is sprightly, focused and has a wicked sense of humour. Our conversation jumps easily from art and culture to international business to urinal technology that prevents “spreading” (industry term for, well, spreading).
Six decades after the war, the global slowdown hit and Villeroy & Boch must now tackle the urgent need to rebuild itself, yet again. That’s why Boch is here. He wants to expand business in India and in the future, even look at setting up a manufacturing facility here. “We have been following the Indian market for some years, we are poorly represented here, so we have to do basic work establishing stores. We are doubling plans every year for the next five years. We are not going to produce in China; in ceramics, ‘Made in China’ is a bad tag. We are preparing the market and if things progress the way they are, there will be a day when we produce in India,” he says.
The company saw the shifting of global demand about 15 years ago and started focusing on markets such as Japan and South Korea. Last year, it bought a company in Thailand to set up its Asian base. Despite this early vision, Villeroy & Boch has been caught out badly in the recession. It recently announced that the 260-year-old Luxembourg plant will be closed and 10% of its staff fired. Does he feel he let history down? Boch claims he is pragmatic but concedes he is disappointed. “It is fantastic to have this long history behind us, but I think we should look forward and not back. There is no room for growth in Europe. We are spoiled, we are too fat, we are eating too much, we are overdone,” he laments.
He displays the same pragmatism when I ask him how he feels about the fact that none of his five children has chosen to work in the family business. He shrugs it off initially, says it’s no big deal, that he would rather his children do things they enjoyed than be forced to work in Villeroy & Boch. But he pauses and adds, “Of course, I feel sorry that they don’t. But that’s life and I have to cope.”
We move quickly on and talk of Picasso (Paloma, Pablo’s daughter, who used to design for the company), Pavarotti (who is one of Boch’s favourite sopranos) and the pope (who eats his dinner off a Villeroy & Boch plate when he is in the Vatican). I find myself having to focus my eyes, shake my head and ask myself the “is this a weird dream?” question again. I zone back to see Boch lifting the plate of hors d’oeuvres and squinting at the bottom. He puts it down, muttering angrily. I pick it up and look; it’s a local Indian plate, not a Villeroy & Boch. “Do you always do this?” I ask. “I have to,” he nods resignedly, “that’s the first thing I look in a restaurant. When I go to the bathroom, I look for the logo in the urinal.”
“What happens if you find a competitor’s logo there?” I ask.
“Then it makes my business in the bathroom very difficult,” he guffaws.