DANISH, BUT SPECIAL

WALKING THE HALLS WITH HENRIK LINDBERG

Lindberg has been known as one of the biggest names in the eyewear business for some time now – at least to insiders. Quite naturally, we here at EYEWEAR magazine jumped at the chance to visit the company at home in Denmark. During a day’s visit in Aarhus, we gained some deep insights into a brand that is typically Danish, and totally unique at the same time. Just look at the folks behind the company; only one of the managers holds a position he actually went to school for, while everyone else just did what came naturally. The company also covers the entire value chain all the way into retail, including production, marketing and distribution. Mostly directed by owner Henrik Lindberg, the brand cultivates a family atmosphere with a knack for unconventional initiatives. Henrik (“too old to love fruits”) approaches every new task with vigor and a love for details. In our interview, he revealed that he is keeping an open mind while directing the company. We made the acquaintance of a well-traveled cosmopolitan with multifarious interests; funny and quick-witted, culturally literate and with an artistic attitude. Asked about his most important task, he said it consists of walking the halls at company headquarters. And since we like to keep things moving, we went and joined him on one of his tours.

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Henrik, what has been inspiring you over the past few weeks?
Hmmm… the way we at Lindberg go about our business is rather unconventional. We still consider ourselves a small company, but are active all around the world – in more than 100 countries. Over the past few weeks I’ve been doing lots of traveling, visiting many eyewear tradeshows; including Silmo in Paris, IOFT in Tokyo, Hong Kong Optical Fair Show and CIOF in Beijing. These shows are always a great opportunity to learn about the needs of our customers and the business in general. I can soak up lots of inspiration, which I then attempt to implement together with the Lindberg design team.

Speaking of “Lindberg” – when and where did it all get started?
Our workshop was founded 28 years ago. The idea for our first glasses, the Air Titanium, came to my dad while working as an optician. He was very creative when it came to choosing materials to craft eyewear from. Maybe his motivation was that he himself depended on wearing glasses at the time, and simply was not satisfied with what was out on the market. I’m an architect and had my start working in that field. One day, my dad consulted me about solving some manufacturing problems. After analyzing the situation, we realized that the production of our eyewear required investments of time and money, as well as more manpower. That’s how I ended up coming onboard full-time.

What were some of the most important milestones after founding the company?
The first milestone surely consisted of creating a unique product that had not been available before in this shape and form. Customer simply loved our product, but opticians practically hated working with these glasses, because their construction was much more complex than anything seen before. The tools we provided to opticians during our first generation required a high level of craftsmanship on their part to fit lenses into the frames. Not every optician was able to do it. But consumers loved the light weight of these first-ever titanium glasses. They were anti-allergenic, the hinges constructed without screws, and so on. With our building block system, opticians could individually tailor glasses to their customers‘ needs. That was a remarkable step in our history.
Another milestone was really an extension of our first one. Due to the complex nature of our product concepts, we found ourselves unable to work with conventional distribution structures and partners. For us, keeping in close contact with opticians was paradigm. After joining the European Union, we were able to ship our glasses to other European countries without extensive formalities. No matter if an optician was based in Rome, Hamburg or Copenhagen, deliveries required the same level of effort.

How would you describe the Lindberg philosophy back then and today?
Our philosophy is the same as in the early days. For instance, we have never used a single screw in any of our glasses, and never made any compromises in choosing the materials. Lindberg is synonymous with design that people can wear. Opticians are able to tailor the glasses to the individual wearer’s facial shape. And customers have a chance to choose from a variety of styles and colors.

One of your competitors once called Lindberg the Apple of the eyewear business. Is that a compliment or gross misjudgment?
Well, when we hear something like that, we are of course flattered. There are some parallels, naturally. One similarity is that many competitors in our business will keep an eye on what kind of products Lindberg launches and how we act. I always can’t help but grin when Apple comes out with a new product, like currently the iPhone 5. It seems that all media in the world can’t cover any other topic for some time – it’s an incredible amount of media attention for a product that, with a similar design, is only two centimeters longer than its predecessor and only available in two colors. No question, the product has great design, but in our business, the requirements regarding the range of models and colorways are entirely different.

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Are there companies in other industries that are similar to Lindberg?
Among Danish companies I would point to Bang & Olufsen. It’s an old, established family business with a similar philosophy to ours. Bang & Olufsen also knows how to stand out from the competition in terms of design and quality. They don’t make any compromises in their work, despite the fact that many of their competitors are offering much cheaper goods.
Another Danish company with similarities to our business is Ortofon, an audio equipment supplier. The company is a global market leader for magnetic sound pick-ups in record players. Ortofon is striving to make lasting improvements on their products and I respect that a lot. And a company in the automobile business that is doing a great job in terms of design and quality is Aston Martin.

This brings us to your favorite subject… It’s no secret that you have a great interest in racing. How come?
Well, up until a few years ago I liked to spend my free time on my sailing boat. I was practically born into that sport. But I also happen to love speed, and if you want to go fast on a sailboat, you need to rely on teamwork, much like here at the company. So you can’t make your own decisions anymore. When we had children 15 years ago, the team aspect of sailing became too complex for me. So then I started kart racing. By now, I’ve moved on from a kart to a historic racecar. With racing, it’s all about you – you make all the decisions for yourself racing against others, not with them. I love the combination of speed and control in direct competition against other drivers. That’s it.

We’ve covered a lot of private ground, back to business. What exactly is your job at Lindberg?
My job at Lindberg is… walking around.

OK, that’s easy.
Yes, it’s almost as if I was doing nothing. Well, I was the first employee at the company, so I know every detail from the ground up. But I was never the type of person who likes sitting in an office.

That’s plain to see. You have your own, sparsely furnished little hut right in the middle of the company, between production and marketing. There’s a small desk and a simple bed in there. Did your wife banish you from your own home or is that an absurd kind of quirk?
Neither. My old office was just this kind of room full of paper. And every week, more paper kept coming in. At some point, I would pack all the paper stuff into a box every year between Christmas and New Year’s and store it at our warehouse. And then I noticed that in all of 15 years, I never looked into one of these boxes even once. So one day I arrived at my workplace – like I said, full of paper – and asked myself if there was a different way to set up my workspace. And two months ago I locked the door to my office and moved into my new “home.” It’s a small Swedish hut, furnished quite minimalistic. Kind of fitting to our philosophy at Lindberg. Shall I take off my jacket?

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If you like. How much of your workday is spent on design?
Well, I’d say I spend 24 hours every day with design. To me, design is not only about creating a certain style of eyewear. Design is also about how you run a company, for instance. Everything has to work together somehow. A good product design is not enough, if the design of distribution networks or human resource development is not working. For me, everything is design in a way. Currently we are putting strong emphasis on the topic of retail interiors, certainly another milestone in our development.

Why is POP-marketing, meaning a characteristic Lindberg shop interior, so important?
We want to have control over how our products are affecting consumers. And if you want your products to be featured at high-value locations at the optical store such as shop windows, you need to give the optician some tools for presentation. We have created a flexible POP toolkit, allowing optical stores of all different sizes to present Lindberg eyewear in an adequate way.

OK, so design seems to be an overarching concept for you. Hardly surprising, since Denmark is known for its strength in designs. What is typically Danish in terms of design?
Usually we’ll say that Danish or Scandinavian design is always about the functionality of the product. The catchword is “simplicity.” It’s all about clean solutions. We always ask, What is the fundamental need behind a product? Functionality is a relevant design element to us. If you take a look at the Air Titanium… the first thing you will probably remember are the hinges. Instead of hiding the hinges inside the frame, we are obviously showcasing their functionality.

Would you say that Lindberg is a typical Danish company in terms of designs?
In many regards, I would say yes. But over the past few years, our designs have also gotten more complex. In many regions of the world, simple design is not that much in demand. Customers there are looking for something more than just a clean, toned-down style.

Is there a certain design element Lindberg is known for?
Well, it’s probably the light weight, flexibility and the customization options of our glasses.

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What separates Lindberg from other eyewear manufacturers?
First of all, we can claim that we are constantly implementing our very own design ideas and techniques. That is very important to us. The fact that we are handling everything ourselves is a great advantage and gives us flexibility. We are also able to still supply spare parts for glasses that have not been part of our range for years now.

Which model has been the most successful so far?
Generally speaking the frameless glasses across different categories.

And which glasses were the greatest plunder?
Ten years ago we launched some sports glasses, since we felt the need for wearing Lindberg even when we’re out skiing. But reality caught up with us quite fast, and people simply did not want to buy these glasses. I don’t think it was because of the design of the glasses, but more due to the fact that Lindberg is just not known for sports. People will rather want sports eyewear by Oakley or adidas. So we decided to exit that segment. For now! Let’s see what the future has in store. We still believe in the product, even today.

Walking the halls at your company, we instantly felt the family-like atmosphere. Is there a special philosophy behind your Human Resources?
Well, at first we always thought we had to be at the company 24 hours a day. Those who were first to leave for home at the end of the day somehow seemed… weak. That was pretty shortsighted on our part, because people would almost be falling asleep at their desks. So one day we flipped the switch. Since then, overtime is only allowed on business trips. We also try to include our employees in many processes, and many of them have been with the company for more than ten years now. Our hierarchies are rather flat and we take great care of our employees, which makes them feel great about being here. But we do not have a designated Human Resources department. For us, leading and developing our staff is up to all our managers.

Is there a specialized distribution philosophy behind Lindberg?
Yes. We’re aiming to keep the distance between ourselves, the opticians and the customers as short as possible. We’re offering a great number of individualized solutions, so customers need to be able to reach us directly. About 70 to 80% of our orders consist of only one piece. Customers can have their glasses fitted at the optical store for the length of the temples, the width of the bridge… it’s all entirely customizable. We then try to deliver the individualized frames as quickly as possible, while the lenses supplier gets to work on the lenses. In 95% of all cases we can make it happen within a single week.

Are you focusing on a certain type of optician?
Yes. Opticians that sell our glasses need to understand the Lindberg philosophy and be able to process glasses with their hands. Our glasses tend to look rather clean and minimalistic, but they still require certain technical abilities when it comes to processing them, for instance fitting the lenses.

What are your strongest markets?
Our largest markets are Germany and the US.

And how about Asia?
Well, Asia is a growth market, of course and also very important for us. We have been active in Japan for 22 years, in Hong Kong for 20 years and in China for eleven years now.

How would you characterize the typical Lindberg customers?
Most of all, these are people who care about the way they look. People buying our glasses are looking for comfort, and usually have an interest in design. But not always. Like I said, our most successful glasses are the ones without frames, which also means that their design elements take a rather subjugated role.

Although there are more independent companies in the eyewear industry than in any other market, we’re noticing a trend towards consolidation. One of the most recent acquisitions is that of Alain Mikli by Luxottica. When will Lindberg be up for sale?
You’re certainly not the first to ask that question. But interestingly enough, there have not been that many actual requests to date. This is probably because our processes are highly complex. And complex businesses like ours are not that easy to integrate into other structures. So right now I can definitely say that Lindberg is not up for sale. But on the other hand, we always need to keep in mind what is best for our company in the long run. Lots of things are changing at the moment. The big guys are constantly getting stronger and opening their own stores. We’ll have to see where the journey will take us.

What’s your take on these acquisitions and how do they affect the image of a formerly independent label?
We’ve seen many instances when the collections of a label were split up and styles would also be offered by the other labels of a manufacturer. This, of course, leads to a strong degree of watering down. But there are also examples where labels can stay the way they’ve always been. In those cases, customers will hardly notice a change.

Is Lindberg by now the largest independent eyewear label?
No, I don’t think so.

Number two, maybe?
Quite possibly, yes.

Do you see yourself competing against the major players or against other independent labels?
In my opinion, the customers are not focused that strongly on our brand. They’re much rather looking at the style and functionality of a product. I think it’s very important to offer customers a unique product – backed up by great support.

And finally, what is Lindberg’s greatest asset?
Our philosophy.

Henrik, thanks for showing us around.

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