Although she runs a large business selling prohibitively priced porcelain sculptures, Rosa Lladro seems uncomfortable with numbers. At least the two numbers that neither her communications agency nor she are ready to share are her age and her company’s turnover.
The latter is understandable. For, Rosa is president of a tightly controlled family-owned business that makes and markets porcelain figurines under the globally known Spanish luxury label Lladro. It may be a multinational brand selling across 120 countries, but Lladro is not obliged to report numbers as it continues to be a family enterprise.
In India recently on a six-metro tour, Rosa was travelling with her daughter. “My daughter is 27 and my son is 24. It should not make you think I am really old,” she says light-heartedly, sipping jasmine tea at The Oberoi coffee shop in Gurgaon.
Elegantly turned out in a no-fuss wine-colour dress, she looks like the distinctive, handcrafted, porcelain figures that her company makes—poised, polished and petite. Besides, she is exceedingly polite and likes to dwell on the beauty of her business than its commercial success.
Rosa’s current visit entails unveiling the sculpture of goddess Lakshmi, the deity worshipped for financial well-being. Ironically, the limited-edition Lakshmi is priced at a high Rs.6.50 lakh. The goddess comes with a diamond nose stud and only 720 pieces have been crafted for sale. According to Rosa, the customer response to Lakshmi has been encouraging even among non-Indians. “I don’t think it is nice to be exclusive. I recognize we are not affordable for many people. But it takes hours of work in that space and it is all handcrafted, which keeps the cost high,” she says.
The porcelain label started its India journey 12 years ago with a local partner, Spa Lifestyle Pvt. Ltd. The company markets a variety of figurines but “60% of our sales come from the Spirit of India collection comprising images of deities such as Ganesh, Krishna, Ram and others,” she explains.
Not only is the process of creating a figurine time-consuming, imperfections are not tolerated either. If the final product that emerges from the kiln is not perfect, the whole lot is discarded, Rosa says.
In the last few years, among their most luxurious and expensive pieces has been a sculpture titled the Queen of the Nile. Priced at €130,000 (around Rs.92.04 lakh), it is a large ship with Egyptian figurines. Only 100 pieces of the Queen of the Nile were created and 90 have already been sold. “It took us five years to develop the piece. You can make large pieces in ceramic but it is not easy to make big pieces in porcelain,” she adds. Her personal favourite is an older piece—Flowers of the Season, featuring a little girl selling flowers under an umbrella.
Lladro may be a feted luxe label but compared to other luxury brands, “we are not large. We have 1,000 people working with us,” she says.
She recounts the humble beginnings of the brand in 1953. Before it was born, Rosa’s father Juan and his brother worked at a porcelain factory where they painted plates. “Life was tough. There had been a civil war and money was always short. To make some extra money, my uncle and father started making flowers on the side which humble people could use to decorate their homes. Their employer thought that they were competing with them, which was stupid, as they never made plates. Both were fired,” she says.
The three brothers—Juan, Jose and Vicente—turned that loss to their advantage and began firing their creations in a Moorish kiln in the backyard of their home in Almassera, a small town on the outskirts of Valencia. In over 50 years, Lladro has established itself as a celebrated lifestyle brand with a network of subsidiaries and associated companies across the world as well as 18 boutiques in major cities.
Half a century later, the business remains family owned. There are no investors or partners on board. Currently, the biggest chunk of the company’s shares rests with Juan and his four daughters, who supervise the day-to-day operations with the help of professional managers. At 87, Juan still goes to office on most days, even if it is for a short while in the mornings. “I request him to attend office when I am travelling, which is frequently,” says Rosa.
She may have succeeded her father in the business, but will her children be interested in porcelain? Rosa is not sure. “My daughter likes the business but she does not like to work with her mother.” The son is currently attending to business studies. He may be interested but “I want him to start elsewhere; not where there is a mother and a grandfather to take care of him,” she says. “Today, the general rule is you can’t force your children to do what you want them to do.”
The company has not only remained family owned, it has also stuck to its traditional products—figurines. “Several other porcelain companies that started in the 18th century are still around. Yet we have become bigger and better known. Our core remains figurines,” says Rosa. She agrees that tableware could help scale up their operations but the idea does not appeal to the family. “We are doing lighting products in our new line. We are doing decorative plates but are not interested in tableware. Others have been doing that already for many years and they could be doing it better,” she explains.
"In parenthesis Rosa Lladro says that to her luxury means excellence in design and manufacturing. “If these do not go together, for me it is not luxury. It is not so much the popularity of the brand.” Rosa knows all the luxury labels in apparel, watches and jewellery. Among her favourites are Carrera y Carrera for clothes, Hermès for scarves, Prada for bags and shoes, Tom Ford for glasses and Loewe for clothes and leather jackets. She sports a TAG Heuer watch all the time. However, she insists that she is not brand loyal and often sources stuff locally."
She says that in the beginning, someone told her father that figurines had not been successful anywhere. Today, Lladro sculptures can be found in museums in Russia, Belgium and Italy. Some pieces have also found their way to prestigious auctions such as Sotheby’s.
Clearly, the family believes in following its instinct in matters pertaining to business. “We are anti-marketing. We do not do much publicity and we do not believe in market research. We talk to customers and people in different markets ourselves to understand their needs,” Rosa says.
Production is centralized in Spain, where Rosa works with 12 in-house designers and a dozen external experts. Besides, there are professionals to take commercial decisions but these are eventually cleared by the board, of which Rosa is a member. “There is no formula for successful business. It depends on instinct…on a moment in time…,” she says.
Japan and the US are Lladro’s top two markets, followed by Europe. But Rosa says that currently Europe is facing its worst. “It is seeing tough times. It needs to change. But I don’t think people know the way to go. The rest of the world, especially countries like China and India, have a huge opportunity commercially. But if they do the same things, they will get into the same place,” she warns.
However, the Spaniards manage to keep their sunny side up. “That is probably because we are generally happy. We like going out a lot and eating out a lot,” says Rosa. She recalls her childhood fondly and remembers being a “Spanish girl growing up in a large family”. Even now she prefers a peaceful holiday in her own country. “To relax, I don’t go far from home. I go to the beach ...like an hour’s drive from my house to a small village,” she says.
A former fine arts student, Rosa says she is managing the family business only because it is to do with the arts. “Else I would be sitting at home, painting…”