Founded in 1915 and specialized in drawing and writing instruments, Caran d’Ache exports its products to 90 countries. Carole Hubscher, president of this family business of 300 employees, is committed to staying in Geneva, but is concerned about the drastic increase in energy costs.
This content was posted on Feb 22, 2022 – 10:27 am
Series: women in charge
Women are still largely underrepresented in the upper echelons of the economy. The 20 companies listed on the main index of the Swiss Stock Exchange, the SMI, for example, have only 19% of executives in their management, none of whom hold the position of CEO. Switzerland is a poor student by international comparison in this area. SWI swissinfo.ch has decided to give the floor to the heads of Swiss companies whose activities are spread all over the world. Representatives of the Swiss economy who address the most pressing challenges currently affecting their activities, between energy prices, relations with Europe and Switzerland’s place in the globalized economy.
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swissinfo.ch: What have been the main developments at Caran d’Ache over the last ten years?
Carole Hubscher: First, we decided to have a single logo and a single brand, in this case Caran d’Ache. It was not an easy decision because the prices of our products range from two francs to over a thousand francs. But as we stand for excellence in all our product categories, we believe this single-brand strategy is justified.
Second, we put a lot of emphasis on digitization. This includes the development of internal tools, as well as the implementation of e-commerce and our presence on social networks.
What actions are you taking to make your brand better known around the world?
This is our third major development. Our philosophy is that everything we do must fuel our brand. In addition to producing pieces of excellent quality, we have established several partnerships with designers, artists, architects and, more recently, with ambassadors. In doing so, we chose to work with experts in our field and not with personalities known to the general public. This strength of our brand is also our best asset to protect our inventions.
What about e-commerce and social networks?
We started selling online in Switzerland in 2012 before expanding to Europe and eventually to the US and Japan. The pandemic has greatly encouraged internet sales and many of our outside retailers have recently opened an online presence.
When it comes to social media, we focus on Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn. This helps us to promote our brand and better understand our consumers’ expectations. Finally, we offer online courses on YouTube.
Is demand for your writing products likely to drop sharply in the smartphone and all-digital era?
One might assume so, but reality shows otherwise. The year 2021 was also the second best year in our history. Consumers probably write less than in the past, but our products allow them to develop their creativity, an increasingly valued quality.
Carole Hubscher in a nutshell
Carole Hubscher joined the board of directors of Caran d’Ache, her family’s company, in 2002. In 2012, she assumed the presidency and, since 2021, she has also held the position of CEO.
Previously, Carole Hubscher held several responsibilities, namely in the American distributor of Caran d’Ache in New York and at the Geneva headquarters of the same company. She has also worked for the Swatch group and as a consultant for a brand and as a partner in a company active in the architecture of premium and luxury brands.
Carole Hubscher is a graduate of the Geneva Hotel School and holds the Management Development Program of Harvard Business School. She is married and the mother of three children.
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But Caran d’Ache remains very low-key about his financials.
In fact, because these numbers are only of interest to our competitors.
Your writing and drawing products have been made in your Geneva workshops since 1915. If you decided to move, would these items still be seen as Swiss?
Some of our European competitors have decided to move most of their factories to Indonesia or South America in order to maintain only a few small production units in their home country. Despite this, its products are perceived as partially European.
However, Caran d’Ache did not choose this relocation strategy. The construction of our future factory in Bernex, in the canton of Geneva, is proof of this. In other words, we want to maintain the veracity of our Swiss Made seal, the authenticity of our brand and the trust of our customers. And if we were to relocate, we would lose the considerable know-how of our employees, trained over decades.
We are also linked to some key suppliers based in and around Switzerland. Of course, our strategic choice to produce in Switzerland increases our costs, but we compensate for this disadvantage thanks to our ability to innovate.
Is Geneva’s workforce really more innovative than other parts of the world?
In Switzerland, we not only have excellent universities, but also universities of applied sciences and quality internships. The combination of these different training courses is an asset in the formation of highly innovative teams. At our company, we emphasize continuous innovation (eg in manufacturing processes) rather than disruptive innovation.
There are a plethora of watch makers in the world, but only a handful of players in their industry. How do you explain this?
Pencil making may seem very simple, but the reality is infinitely more complex because unique skills are required, not to mention the very substantial production tool. In fact, it takes more than 35 steps to produce colored pencils; this number of steps is even 50 for graphite pencils. In other words, the barriers to entry in our sector are considerable, mainly because the number of suppliers is very limited. We are the only manufacturer in the world to control all our product categories in-house. In that sense, we have no head-on competition.
Are you satisfied with the framework conditions in Switzerland?
Basically yes. I particularly appreciate the exceptional stability of this country. On the other hand, I’m worried about energy costs, which have quadrupled recently. The status of the framework agreement with our European neighbors is another cause for concern.
“I am not in favor of quotas for women. I prefer to promote skills and equal opportunities”
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You represent the fourth generation of a family involved at the highest level in the management of Caran d’Ache. How to guarantee succession in a family SME?
This is a crucial matter! It is important to pique the interest of members of the next generation very early on, but never force them. Personally, I hope that one or two members of this next generation will be interested in taking over the management of our family business. And to minimize the risk of conflict, we have prepared a letter outlining the rights and duties of our family members.
Are you thinking about going public?
This is not the case because we value our independence. This approach allows us to remain agile and adopt long-term strategies. This way of operating has worked well for a hundred years and we see no need to change, even if stock market financing allows us to implement certain expansion strategies more quickly.
Are you in favor of female quotas?
Absolutely not. I prefer to promote skills and above all equal opportunities. In addition, the majority of the Caran d’Ache board members are female.
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