When industry legend Stephen Fass took on a new role with Häcker last year, the company made export manager Sven Herden its new managing director, own brand. Tim Wallace asks him what changes he’s making and what impact Brexit is having on the company’s retail network
Think of Häcker and you’ll normally think of Stephen Fass. A true industry veteran, Fass has been with the German kitchen giant for nearly 40 years, building the Häcker brand into one of the most successful and respected in the UK market.
But nothing lasts forever and, last July, Fass took on a new role as ‘international consultant’, exploring the growth potential of new markets, such as Africa and North America. It’s hoped he can add significantly to the €466 million overall turnover the company achieved last year.
Running the UK operation now is former Häcker export manager Sven Herden, an affable German whose easy charm makes him an ideal replacement. Herden has been with the company since September 2011 and is well-versed in the company’s culture and brand philosophy. He’s not exactly an unfamiliar face to his dealer network, either.
So how is he finding the job so far and, post-Brexit, where does he see Häcker going from here?
Q: How easy was it to take over Stephen Fass’s role?
A: Stephen started in 1977 – a year before I was even born! He was the first Häcker person to enter the market in the UK. So they were big shoes to fill, plus Stephen, as we all know, is an Englishman and now they’ve asked a German to run the business! [laughs].
Personally, it’s fine though. It’s a great opportunity. We’ve got a great customer base in the UK and the potential to grow the market together with the team.
Q: So it’s been a seamless transition?
A: There’s an expression in England that if it’s not broken, why fix it? But will we continue in the same way? I don’t know. People are different, I’m not Stephen Fass. We might make slight adjustments. I’m still located in Germany. I’ve got the option to move house if I want to. So I have to work in a different way. I have to pass more responsibility on to the team in the UK.
Q: And Stephen is focusing on new markets?
A: Yes, he’s very good at building up a network. And one big advantage for me is knowing he’s still around. I can call him or drop him an email and within five minutes I’ve got the answer. That’s great because it makes my life a bit easier – even though I fully understand and appreciate that after such a long time it was not easy for him to put the UK operation in someone else’s hands. But it all happened very smoothly – consistency was very important.
Q: What sort of adjustments will you make?
A: We’ve appointed an office manager who’s running the London office. It means I’m out more with some of our reps seeing the customers, because that’s really essential to me. When I’m in the UK my intention is not to stay for three or four days in London office. I might be there for a couple of hours, but I want to see customers in their premises.
Q: Stephen told us Häcker is happy to just “plod along”. Would you agree?
A: [Laughs] He had to explain that to me. It’s a good description, but maybe I would explain it in a different way. And not just say we’re plodding along. It’s much more than that. I’d say we try to focus on what we’re good at. We supply our customers with the best products and service. That’s how we’re working – we value the customer relationships we’ve got and have an open discussion with our customers.
Q: How much has Brexit affected Häcker and its dealers?
A: I would call Brexit a challenge, but not a concern, as we feel very confident and are more than well positioned to meet all possible challenges in the foreseeable future together with our partners.
It is very difficult to say whether the impact has been exaggerated or not. That’s why I feel very strongly that it’s important that we keep calm, stick to facts and carry on with what we are doing.
Q: Will you increase prices?
A: We definitely won’t increase 2017 prices, although the pound has dropped, so the only price increase will be our usual annual and very moderate rise in prices. Bear in mind that we dropped prices in 2016!
Q: Are some companies taking advantage of the situation?
A: I wouldn’t be surprised if other kitchen suppliers exploit the situation to their advantage, but isn’t this somehow the nature of business? And if this situation encourages other kitchen retailers to come on board with us, then why not?
The UK market is, and will be, one of our most important export markets. We’ve invoiced retailers in pounds sterling since 1977 and will continue with this – it’s a huge advantage compared with many other kitchen manufacturers that invoice in euros.
We have also recently employed new order processors and want to expand our team even more. We are selling kitchens to more than 60 countries worldwide – so whatever the requirements will be in the future we will be able to meet them.
Q: What are the main challenges facing Häcker dealers?
A: One is that they’re very busy. Business is picking up, but it’s sometimes challenging and difficult to get the right stuff in place. So, in other words, they have to find fitters, they need designers. We try to help in the best possible way. This is really challenging for the dealers and I think more German kitchen manufacturers are trying to enter the UK market if they haven’t already.
Q: How do you differentiate yourselves in a crowded market?
A: Our philosophy will always be that we don’t want our dealers to promote the Häcker name. They are their own brand. The end consumer wants to buy from the local hero who is well known.
The product is important, but it’s more the package we’re offering. A lot can go wrong. We try to guide the dealer from the very beginning, right through until we receive the order and have an open communication. Our own people unload, so the dealer doesn’t have to.
Q: So your approach is very different from branded stores like Schüller’s?
A: Yes, it will always be the dealer’s decision what he puts on display and how he displays the kitchens. We won’t say if you’re putting this kitchen on display you have to use this kind of tile, for example. That’s the biggest advantage of an unbranded product.
Q: And you’re looking for more dealers?
A: Of course, we’re looking for further growth and I think there’s potential in the UK market to grow the business. There are always areas in the UK within a certain radius where we haven’t got any dealers and where we’d like to find more. We’re looking for consistent growth every year.
Q: With the emergence of social media platforms, is the way customers buy kitchens changing?
A: Yes, the amount of information available to the customer is massive. So our retailers have far more questions from them than in previous years. Now they know exactly what they’re looking for.
Q: Do they think they know more than designers do?
A: It’s a valid point. That makes it more and more important to us that we provide more detailed information about specification to our customers, so they’re able to answer their end consumer’s questions. We need to match their expectations.
I also know from retailers that any comment they make to a customer is on Facebook 20 minutes later, rightly or wrongly. I don’t want to judge it, but that’s always the risk. It’s a challenge.
Q: What makes a good retailer and a bad on?
A: The financial guy would say the good retailer is where there’s a sufficient credit limit [laughs], but I would say a good retailer is where we’ve got the basis to work together in a way where the retailer understands the idea of selling an unbranded product and being the brand. Someone who understands the Häcker philosophy and the different products we’re offering.
A bad retailer is one who tries to use the Häcker name, maybe because of his own weakness – a retailer that doesn’t understand how to use the opportunities in the different ranges we offer.
But you can turn a bad retailer into a super account. It takes a lot of work and time, but I believe it’s worth doing. It’s about training, open communication and understanding each other.
Q: What’s your view on the rise of smart-home technology?
A: It’s gimmicky, but from time to time you need these kinds of gimmicks to offer to customers. I think it will become more and more important in the future. I think some of our retailers will jump on this trend, but the majority will not be sure. The UK is conservative, but not as conservative as Germany, when it comes to technology. But there’s definitely an opportunity.
Q: Why do German suppliers not embrace the traditional side?
A: When Stephen explained the UK shaker style and suggested introducing the UK shaker style door, it was unknown to me. UK manufacturers are good at this. But there are people looking for a German-made product with a British touch. That’s why we introduced our shaker-style Oxford range – ‘English shaker, German maker’.
Q: Do we need a shake-up in the way kitchens are sold?
A: Yes, when you only sell a physical product, it’s very easy for the consumer to compare prices. But if you start to think about the idea of selling a concept, selling a package, where far more things are involved than just a carcass, you’ll have the right approach. But different kinds of consumers have different expectations. It might work in the London area, but not in the north, for example.
Q: Should they charge a nominal fee that can be redeemed?
A: A difficult question. We recommend that the designer should charge for it. It could be an option, but it always needs to be the decision of the retailer. It might be easier to charge for the design if you’re a busy retailer rather than the one that’s desperate for more orders.