Nathalie Felber: “I ask a lot of questions. That’s my approach.”

 

 

After her father’s unexpected demise in 2010, Nathalie Felber took over as CEO at traditional Swiss company Dietiker AG. Her father, Urs Felber – a driving force in establishing leading design brands such as De Sede and Vitra – purchased the furniture manufacturer from Swiss retail chain Migros in 2001.

At Dietiker, located in Stein am Rhein, Schaffhausen, high plastic swinging doors lead from one production hall into the next. The doors are opened by pulling a cord suspended from the ceiling a couple of meters in front of each doorway. Each time Felber performs this simple operation, she does so with a ceremonial flourish that belies the industrial surroundings. Wearing a black business suit with high heels to match, she strides ahead and opens each set of doors as if they were theater curtains about to reveal a new stage, and we are given a view of yet another area of the company.

“At Dietiker we employ a staff of 160, of which approximately one hundred work in production,” she tells us, switching between English and German from sentence to sentence – and speaking each language with a charming French accent. Located in the vast halls of the building are, among other things, the production department, a color laboratory, the logistics center, and an upholstery workshop where special orders are taken care of. Here, Felber introduces us to Heinz Mehr. Mehr has been working for the company for over 20 years and is their man for special requests. Just now he’s busy refurbishing an old chair. Felber comments: “People can become very attached to their favorite chair and don’t want to exchange it for a new one, so they opt to have it refurbished instead.” Sometime chair legs have to be shortened or corners rounded, but, she emphasizes, “always with the understanding that the result has to be just as good.” A compromise on quality is out of the question.

Proportions either make sense or they don’t.

The employees in the color laboratory are also specialists in their field, mixing the colors in the company’s own lab according to the customer’s specifications. “Many custom-made orders end up being serially produced,” Felber explains. In fact, quite a few universities, hospitals, financial institutes, companies, insurance companies, public institutions, and restaurants feature on Dietiker’s customer list. “As a rule, however, our overall goal is to ensure that our employees can work well in different departments and that they continue to acquire new skills.” To guarantee the necessary flexibility, most of the workstations in the other departments are on rollers so they can be moved around according to where and when they’re needed.

The Felber Collection

Dietiker’s new furniture concept is based on an equally pragmatic approach: 17 objects are assembled modularly and allow over a thousand distinct ways of combining frames, upholstery units, woodgrains, and sizes. Certain elements can even be switched within the three different product groups, which comprise chairs, tables, and lounge furniture.

“The modular concept plays a pivotal role and extends throughout the entire new collection,” Felber tells us. The new concept is not just aimed at creative individuals who enjoy decorating their homes with a distinctive touch. “Furniture that can be dissembled into separate elements is a great advantage for hotels and restaurants, too, because if a part needs to be washed, repaired, or replaced, it isn’t necessary to invest in an entirely new article. Besides being sustainable, our approach also reduces customer worries about really using the furniture.”
“At Dietiker, it’s the practical details that count most,” she remarks to us over her shoulder as she goes to lift up a chair which she energetically throws up on a stack of other chairs. “You see,” she laughs, “the quality is in the details.” Each chair has been designed so that it doesn’t come in contact with the other chairs when stacked. The small synthetic buffers used for this are easily replaced and ensure that the wooden elements and the frames don’t get damaged.

Hundreds of questions, one answer

“The idea that everything had to be just this way, the way it is now – came to me one morning as I woke up,” Felber reveals, but immediately adds: “To be sure, I’d been thinking about this and asking myself lots of questions for many weeks.” When Felber develops something, she starts by thinking about what she would want, not the potential customer. “I asked myself: What am I looking for? What do I need?” And also: “Something else I kept thinking about was the showroom scenario. The space available for exhibiting in showrooms is extremely constricted. So I asked myself: How can we make the most of the limited space available?” In the end, the answer to all of the above turned out to be the ideal solution not just for the business concept, but for our sales people as well: “Now they can transport the entire set along with them in their cars and assemble it when they reach the customer. Four frames plus seat elements and backrests in different colors and materials.” The compelling modular concept becomes clear as soon as it is used. “You have to be able to touch it,” Felber says and searches for a catalog. “We really only still use our print material to show further combinations of the objects on display,” she adds and pauses briefly to get another coffee from the machine. “Other questions on my mind were: How can I keep my inventory small? How can I compete price-wise? And suddenly it hit me: Everything had to be modular.”

If you want to continue for another 140 years, you need to do something new. You cannot just do the same things all the time.

Nathalie Felber studied economics at the Univesity in Tel Aviv, and holds an Executive MBA from the University of St. Gallen as well as from the Rotman School of Business in Toronto. “My father was a very unconventional man,” she remembers. “‘I’m Swiss, but not practicing,’ is something he liked saying,” she tells us. “He was a real character. Everyone who ever met him, remembered him. Sometimes I wish I were like that, too, but I’m not. I have a strategic mind.” Still, growing up in an unconventional, modern family meant that she has always dared to approach things from a different angle and question existing structures. “Initially, this must have been really annoying for everyone around me. I’m sure some people think I’m bossy and even a know-it-all, but I really need to understand exactly how things are done. Because who knows? There may turn out to be a different or more efficient way of doing something? After all, you only get answers if you ask questions.” She smiles: “I think, they’ve gotten used to me here now.” And so, the only question that remains unanswered is: Why did nobody think of this before? Felber chuckles, and says: “To be honest, I’ve been asking myself that, too!”

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