Is there such a thing as furniture in the age of do-it-yourself and cheap. And if such a creature exists, where did it come from, how does it survive and what’s in store for it?
I f home is where the heart is, we are increasingly concerned in making this heart look its best. In times where everything and anything can be interchanged, traded up, and disposed of, home remains one of the last rare spaces we can truly appropriate and call our own. So it’s hardly surprising that more and more of us take such extreme care of our home decoration, for interior design increasingly provides us with one of the last few opportunities to play around our evolving identities and tastes, to express ourselves or even display social statuses. The rise of interior design as a full-on business is a testimonial to the growing interest we demonstrate to making our homes as aesthetically pleasing as possible. For better or worse, many brands have taken up on this trend, be it on the mass consumer market side – Hello, Ikea and followers – or, at the other extreme of the spectrum, offering bespoke and luxury furniture.
Yet some players in the market have been there long before interior design became just another trend, managing to take their business forward into the 21st century while adapting to the drastic modifications this sphere of activity has witnessed. Teo Jakob is one of those: it is almost refreshing to know that this Swiss company has been originally created as far back as 1914 in Bern. The family-owned business – and it crucially remains so to this day – was then producing rustic, sturdy furniture, but it all changed in 1950 when Theodor Jakob took over his late father’s small business and boldly decided to move away from traditional furniture towards a much more modern offering. He re-christened it Teo Jakob five years later and opened its Geneva shop as early as in 1957.
The right mix
Teo Jakob is thus a well-known figure of the interior design and furniture market in Switzerland, and all the more that it crucially settled in both French and German-speaking parts of the country very early on. What’s more, with its sleek, minimalist lines, the furniture carried in the Teo Jakob shops is instantaneously recognisable, setting this small-size chain apart right from the start in a sea of interchangeable furniture shops.
Upon meeting Isidoro Celentano, CEO of Teo Jakob for the past seven years, one thus immediately wants to know the secret behind the constant success of a family business that managed to stay afloat in a fast evolving market. Remarkably, Celentano himself seems to mirror the multifaceted identity of the Teo Jakob business: born in Italy, his family moved near Zürich when he was eleven, he originally trained in the mechanics field, but also holds an Executive Master from Zürich University, and went on to dwell for some ten years with the wine export business. A bi-national – he holds two passports, French and Swiss – his exposure to the main Swiss languages and cultures, his adaptability and liking for new challenges made him a natural CEO of Teo Jakob, which boasts nine stores in seven cities across the country. He never felt constrained by the company’s originally Swiss-German roots. Seven years after embarking on this new adventure, Celentano is pleased with Teo Jakob’s status as “a small company but a big player in the market,” while acknowledging the challenges of an activity that keeps having to deal with new constraints everyday – the adverse currency exchange not the least of them. “It is important to keep adapting,” Celentano points out. “With the increasing use of new technologies and the proliferation of online shops, it has become easier for consumers to compare quality and prices on the Internet.” This is the reason why Teo Jakob decided to set itself apart by offering integrated services to its customers rather than just furniture whose demand is so dependant on the fluctuations of an ever weaker euro.
“We are much more than just a furniture shop,” enthuses Celentano. “We don’t just furnish a room. We come up with a whole concept for the customer’s space so that whatever the customer puts in that room will fit in with the initial concept.” Tailor-made interior design is another way of putting it. “We are neither in competition with the architect nor do we do the architect’s job,” explains Celentano. “If anything, we make the architect’s life easier,” which is why understanding the customer is key to this whole process. We have all been there. Seduced by a luring picture in a glossy brochure or by a display in a shop window we were quick to buy a piece of furniture only to realise later that it wasn’t the right type for our space or needs. The reality of everyday life is quite often far removed from the dream world of stunning airbrushed pictures and window displays. “The customers need help and advice, so we work with them from an early stage, we make a complete planning for them and then let them decide how they want to proceed,” explains Celentano. “Taking the time to find out how they live in their daily life and what they expect from their space is really important”.
Strategy for the coming era
“I came to instil new ideas into the company, which was relying on a very specialised workforce and wanted a new, outside take on its way of doing business,” says Celentano. He came first with a five-year strategy that spanned 2005 to 2010 – the year the company celebrated its 60th anniversary – and which focused on the specificities of the Swiss market, leading to some modifications in the retail department. New shops were opened, others resized, and all with the total support of the workforce. Celentano’s current strategy plan, which will see the company until 2015, now focuses on the changing nature of the interior design business, with customers becoming more and more knowledgeable, notably through the Internet, and having more and more precise ideas of what they want. Teo Jakob’s complete customer support and care means that the company can still set itself apart from its competitors. “We offer pre- and after-sale customer service,” confirms Celentano, a tailor-made experience that ordering furniture on the internet cannot replace.
A good reputation is fundamental, especially in a small market, and Celentano seems to be very much aware of this: “Word of mouth is important to us”. Likewise, the quality and uniqueness of this service can justify a possible price difference, even though Teo Jakob’s pricing structure remains remarkably competitive. “Since most of our manufacturers are located in the euro zone, we function on a daily exchange rate system,” explains Celentano, something that helps the company keep its price at a level comparable to those set in the euro zone.
For all the good health of Teo Jakob, Isidoro Celentano constantly thinks about the future, something he knows is particularly delicate for small-sized family-owned businesses. If a possible move would be to expand the company to other neighbouring markets, Celentano feels Switzerland offers more than enough opportunities for now to ensure the growth of Teo Jakob. “We have decided to stay within Switzerland for now. It may be a small market, but there is still plenty of scope for expansion here in the next few years,” he confirms. In times of gigantic businesses that always seem keen on taking up the world – and the stock market – by storm, Teo Jakob are happy to go against the trend, electing to focus on keeping on doing what they do best, taking care of their customers and furnishing their homes with exquisite, sleek furniture. It may sound traditional to some, but in a market where margins keep being pushed down and where trends change in a snap, this is the stuff of the future, and something that might see Teo Jakob keep on celebrating jubilees for a long time.
Worker ’s paradise?
If Teo Jakob seems to have found the right formula to furnish private homes despite the challenges of the market, “catering to professional environments can be even trickier,” says CEO Isidoro Celentano. But this is one task Teo Jakob is well up for.
“There, too, our strategy is similar. We take the time to figure out the image of the company and understand their profile, working space and vision. And we make sure that the tailor-made furniture and interior design we propose fits the company’s working space and functional needs,” he explains with a precision that may well be rooted in his engineering background.
Article by Swiss Style Magazine