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FLOS, 40 YEARS OF LIGHTING DESIGN THAT WON OVER EVEN JAMES BOND
Flos, one of Italy's major companies in the lighting business, is a "family affair". Founded in 1962, the company has been controlled by the Gandini family since 1964. Piero Gandini worked as a director since 1996 and in 1999 he became President and CEO. A company with a strong international trend, Flos (www.flos.com) makes about 75% of its earnings abroad, which totalled 103.18 million euros in 2006 (+14.63% compared to 2005). Known for the innovative and futuristic solutions it introduced throughout the decades, it can boast within its catalogue some design milestones such as the "Arco" lamp of 1962, designed by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni and immortalised in the James Bond movies.
President Gandini, after 45 years of life what is the "engine" which pushes you to continue in your work and take on new challenges?
Imagination. After all, we come from a product-minded culture. We have always developed our design as a result of great investment in innovation and research. The ability to adapt to change has led us to move away from the simple design of luxury products. The spirit remains the same and it requires that the designer take personal risks alongside us, in search of new design solutions. Our working method is founded on instinct rather than planning: we don't use market research, we don't follow fashion trends, we don't ask ourselves whether a certain type of product would suit a specific customer.
So for Flos there are no target clients or market segments?
Exactly: our ideal customers are people who use our products. People, not "targets". It doesn't matter whether they are wealthy or poor: we propose solutions in a very wide price range, from the high to very high price bracket to markedly affordable ranges, without a specific positioning. Essentially it's the idea that counts.
That's a fascinating strategy, but one that cannot transcend from the difficulties resulting from an ever more competitive global market.
Today's world is definitely more complex, much more than it was a few decades ago. Flos cannot think of "shielding" itself behind its brand name which is a known reality at this point. Our desire to re-evaluate ourselves and test new markets is always alive. To compete you need originality, uniqueness and innovation. In this aspect Flos sets itself apart from its smaller competitors because it has the ability to invest in technology, innovation, communication, marketing and distribution. Of course we are also better equipped financially. But that alone is not enough. A product, if it is going to sell, has to provoke emotion.
And so we are back at the conceptual phase. Designers still play a central role in your business model, correct?
We are looking for draftsmen, creative professionals equipped with the type of spirit I just described: they mustn't think in terms of positioning, but rather work with us for a long time to consolidate our mutual objectives which ultimately must match up. With this approach, a brand name is not a "must": whether it is Philippe Starck or a complete unknown, it makes no difference provided we are on the same wavelength.
Given that your business model is based on the sharing (of premises and goals) between industry and design, let's talk about how Flos has changed over the past few decades. How did you equip yourselves to access international markets?
Flos started out as a very verticalised business. But today competences are increasingly shared and managerial responsibilities are not only assigned to company directors but also to middle management. Years ago, our export managers used to travel abroad two or three times a year. This model is now outdated: today you have to compete in every region across the globe, including first of all one's own interlocutors. Thus export managers have transformed themselves into area managers - employees or not - with the task of checking the processes and overseeing a particular area. Managers are given a budget based on results, not only in terms of brand positioning, achieved via ad-hoc communications campaigns. The scenario has become extremely complex and one cannot improvise. Rather than overseeing a market in a sloppy way, it is better not to be present at all.
That spontaneity which is the key to the conceptual phase disappears when you are facing organisational challenges.
I like to see spontaneity only in the creative process. If we are talking about systemising all processes, creating a supply chain, becoming a global company, you have to have a large team, everyone has to coordinate and work together. We can no longer live by episodes. The investment must be at 360 degrees. Only in this way can one remain an international player. I use the term "remain" on purpose, because from the start our calling was to look beyond Italy. Around 1970 we were just born, but we already had a subsidiary in Germany. Having decided to export not only a different product, but a new idea, we needed a network of people covering mature markets such as Europe and were simultaneously involved in the company's mission. In other words, we were design aficionados, with a market development responsibility.
With over four decades of experience, what do you think is the difference between the national and foreign markets, not just in Flos' positioning but also in its perception?
Our way of doing business certainly varies between Italy and abroad: back home we are recognised as a high level lighting business, whilst abroad we are a designer brand. It follows that we are a niche company, although niches tend to grow larger and larger, whilst in Italy our customer base is more evenly spread: we are rooted in both geographically and in terms of preference. Abroad we remain a unique company who was able to penetrate the market thanks to our innovative design.