Caran d’Ache, the Swiss manufacturer of writing instruments and color products, has Carole Hubscher at the head of its Board of Directors. Caran d’Ache is a jewel in Switzerland’s manufacturing industry, a family business with a strong ethos of sustainability, and their factory in Geneva is a model for employing happy people.
Carole, you became head of Caran d’Ache in 2012. Have you now taken your father’s place?
Yes, definitely. It took a while.
You don’t have brothers?
No, we are an only girls family.
Before working at Caran d’Ache did you work in other places?
When you are in a family business it’s so important to take the time to see elsewhere what’s happening. I worked in different places to gain experience, to see other companies, other ways of marketing or working around the branding of your company.
Did you always think that you would work here?
No. One very wise advice I can give, it’s so important in a family business that you don’t put too much pressure on your kids to make sure that they are taking after you. Both my parents were very clear about that: make sure that you do something you are passionate about. You only have one life and so you have to make the most of it. So no, I didn’t know. Everything was open, which was fantastic.
“Today is a super day. We are launching a collaboration with Warner Bros. in their new movie called Justice League.”
When did you discover your passion?
It’s after my first experience working for Caran d’Ache in New York that I fell in love with the brand and the products, and the flame started, even though as a child I had a lot to do with the products. What is absolutely fantastic is the variety of our customers. From the child, to the artists, to the collectors, we have all generations, and very different sorts of customers; and to address all those customers is very interesting.
You are the fourth generation in the Caran d’Ache family business. Why is a family business important?
A family business allows you to look for the long term, and one of our goals is to make sure that you pass it on to the next generation in a better shape than you received it. A lot has to do with transmitting strong values, family values I mean, and the long term vision.
What are your Hubscher family values?
Hard working. (She laughs) It’s an interesting question because when you are going on with the generations of course there are more and more people, so for us what is important is definitely the hard working. The honesty in everything we are doing. The responsibility.
When Caran d’Ache started during the war in 1915 what was it producing?
Three entrepreneurs started the company. They bought a factory that was manufacturing soap in the centre of Geneva. They transferred it into a manufacture that could produce black lead pencils.
Because there was a big demand, it was an opportunity. There were of course other manufacturers all over Europe, but especially in Germany and Czechoslovakia. At the time everybody was writing and it was an important opportunity to develop such a high end, quality product.
But how come Caran d’Ache is now famous around the world for its colored pencils, named Prismalo.
Because we invented water soluble colored pencils in the 1920s. It was really the expansion of the black lead pencils that we knew how to manufacture. You have to bring innovation when you are not the first one in the market and when you have big competitors. Our engineers at the time invented a new technique.
Was it an immediate success?
No, not right away, but very quickly, yes.
Do children all over the world use these pencils?
Yes, especially in Switzerland, which has a special way of distributing the products to the classrooms. The state is providing the school materials to all the kids, which is not the case in most countries abroad where it’s the parents who have to buy the products.
How many colors do you make?
We have recipes for more than 500 colors, but our biggest assortment today contains a hundred and twenty colors.
Which is the most popular color?
White. Because of mixing that color with others, that’s the color we’re selling the most. It’s strange. Afterwards of course red, blue and green are the main colors. But the white is the number one.
“We produce the distance between Geneva to Rome every day, if you put the pencils next to each other.”
Since you took over the company what has changed?
There is much more transparency, the environment has changed completely. My father didn’t like to communicate very much, he was very discreet. I believe that we have a fantastic story to tell, and nowadays consumers want to know what is behind the brand. You have to tell the story.
What is behind the Caran d’Ache brand?
Quality that is Swiss-made. It’s like high end cuisine, you need the best ingredients. Everything is made here. Everything comes out of our ateliers here, so we have a full control of what we are producing. Sustainability nowadays is very important. You have a lot of wood dust coming out of the manufacturing process when we are making the pencils. We recuperate this wood dust and we make little briquettes that we use to heat the factory in winter. So we are creating our own energy. That’s one example.
How many pencils do you produce?
We produce the distance between Geneva to Rome every day, if you put the pencils next to each other.
Do you produce everything?
Everything. We are completely verticalised, and that’s unique in the world. When people ask me, “Who are your competitors?” I say, “I have many and none at the same time.” We have 300 people working here in manufacture, but more than 90 different know-hows.
What is the core business today?
Color and writing instruments. Color is part of our DNA. Not only the pencils, but also the fibre tipped pens, the paints, the pastels and in the writing instruments We are really the master of colors.
Why did you move into other writing instruments?
We start with the kids at school with the colors, and everything has a link with the hand. We are the tool of the creativity of the personalization. It’s this direct link that you have from your soul to what you want to write or what you want to draw. We offer a creative tool for every generation.
Nowadays in America they use biro pens and the fountain pen is something unique and special.
Hand writing has evolved as well, within this last century. Everybody had beautiful handwriting, and now handwriting has changed quite a lot.
Do you sell less than you did?
No. Computer notebooks and smartphones are a new competitor, but you don’t do the same thing with it. People write less for sure, but everybody still carries a pen or a pencil to write a quick note. The market is still in growth; even though it’s not a huge growth it’s fairly stable since many years and there is an increase for us.
In the global market?
There was a huge increase in the past few years because of the trend of coloring books for adults. Last year we produced plus 20 percent in volume.
Where do you sell the most?
Europe is still the historical market for us, but then of course you have certain regions where demand evolves, like North America and China. These are markets that are growing very fast for us.
Do you position yourself as a luxury brand?
A premium brand, yes. We are really trying to be the masters in everything we do. High end, Swiss made. We are always making sure to produce high quality products and to offer the best service to our customers.
Do you still have many competitors?
Of course there are a lot of mass market products on the market, but to our level I don’t think so.
What are you working on at the moment?
Today is a very special day, it’s a super day. We are launching a new collaboration with Warner Bros. in their new movie called ‘Justice League’. The three superheroes, Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, asked us to produce their pens. We are manufacturing the pens, and the launch is taking place this afternoon at 5 o’clock on all the social media.
And you have the collaboration with Paul Smith and Peter Marino. How do you work with Peter Marino?
Peter Marino made a special pen, his special pen, because when he finishes a mandate, for instance the latest boutique for Chanel , he always writes a thank you note to say how much he enjoyed working on this project And he always leaves his pen behind, which is a Caran d’Ache pen called the Varius Ivanhoe. Therefore, we gave him the Varius collection that he dressed up the way he wanted to have it.
Operator on the pencils cutting line
Operator extrusion of leads
Encapsulation of PRISMALO pencils
Drying leads in basket
At Caran d’Ache
“We are a love brand, definitely, linked to emotions.”
Do you have famous clients?
Yes, but we are Swiss, so extremely discreet. In 2015 we made a very nice exhibition, ‘Les Caran d’Ache de Picasso’, with original paintings and drawings of Picasso made with our products. That was for our one hundred anniversary, and beautiful pictures of the photographer David Douglas Duncan. Karl Lagerfeld is a big user of our pastels called Neocolor. The architects Peter Marino, Mario Botta, Norman Foster; we know them. And amongst fashion designers, we can mention Paul Smith.’ It is a love story between our two companies since many years and we havea very nice collaboration with him. It’s actually the companies, the designers and the people that work with our products who are approaching us. They want to do something with us, which is nice. India Mahdavi as well, lately.
What is your core? You have the pencils, the colour pencils…..
…the crayons, the fibre-tipped pens, the pastels, the mechanical pencil called the Fixpencil that is really renowned amongst architects. We have the small biro pen, we also have – you were talking about computers and new technologies – a pen that has a double function that you can use on your phone or on tablets or on paper. We are also producing high end writing instruments with a know-how that is comparable to high watchmaking. It’s a wide range of artists, collectors, or everyday people that are just using Caran d’Ache for their daily life.
People don’t always know that Caran d’Ache is a Swiss firm, and your name is by origin a Russian name, karandash?
Caran d’Ache means pencil in Russian and we named our company after a famous French caricaturist of the Belle Époque, Emmanuel Poiré. In Switzerland we are on the top 10 most renowned brands. We are a love brand, definitely, linked to emotions. People talk about Caran d’Ache and have experienced the brand for the first drawings you made for your parents, or the art classes you had at school. The first love letter you wrote and things like that, very personal souvenirs.
What about the pen and the luxury products?
That is the perfect gift. You never make a mistake offering a pen. It’s fine for a man, for women, for different ages also. A nice pen is jewellery that a man can carry.
Yet you are not so renowned for the pen?
It depends on which countries. In Switzerland everybody uses Caran d’Ache, we have by far the biggest market share here. It’s a small but important market, where people make lots of gifts. We are very renowned in other countries like Japan for instance, where quality pens are part of the culture.
Obviously pencils are something that you use and finish. Is a pen for life?
It depends. All our products are lifetime guaranteed. You couldn’t say that if you’re not sure of what you are making, and that’s also unique. To make a good pen is difficult.
Companies always try to have something new, but what is your classic?
The Ecridor Collection.
Do you ever change it?
Yes, you have to make it evolve slightly, but no big changes.
Do you make many new things?
Nowadays you always have to bring innovation and activity around your products in order to maintain the attraction of the brand. It’s not necessarily a new collection, but a new color for instance, or a new packaging.
The black pen is always a favorite?
We make so many colours, but our customers always like black. It’s like clothing.
Do you change the boxes?
Yes, but not very much. The Prismalo box, for instance, features the Matterhorn; and it will remain the Matterhorn. This is our chocolate box. We made a slight evolution, otherwise on bestsellers like these you don’t change things, but we are always bringing new assortments, new colors.
What is the main feature of your own job?
Work on the strategy, making sure that our values are “lived” by everyone in the company. Just for the time being, I’m travelling constantly because I want to be near the markets. It is very important to understand the market so I’m constantly with clients.
Does the market change?
Very fast. The market is changing so fast nowadays.
In which way?
Retail, the way it exists today. I was in the States three weeks ago, in the middle of North Carolina, just to see a mall over there and the parking lot was always empty Some of our clients are selling our products to Amazon, but we’re not selling to them directly, we have our own e-commerce boutique.. It’s growing very fast. It’s the reality of today’s market. In other words, we are using platforms that are more upscale, like Mr Porter or Net-a-Porter, or the web shops in England like Harrods for instance.
Is your best moment Christmas?
Yes. Definitely. The gifting season.
At the beginning you said that each generation wants to pass the business on to the next. How are you preparing them?
There are six members of the next generation, they are below 15. We are preparing them by influencing, and by the way we’re raising our kids and transmitting our values.
What are you doing to pass the business on in better shape?
Each generation has its own challenges. For the generation of my father, it was certainly the diversification and internationalisation of the brand. In my generation, it’s definitely this new era of fast innovation in terms of manufacturing processes, but also distribution.
Geneva, October 18 2017
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