Ligne Roset : doing it differently, by design

Careful craftsmanship, concern for customers, conservative management... Ligne Roset has carried the flag for french furniture making into the modern marketplace. As bruno allard explained to info.

Careful craftsmanship, concern for customers, conservative management... Ligne Roset has carried the flag for french furniture making into the modern marketplace. As bruno allard explained to info.

Ligne Roset has just finished celebrating its 150th birthday. But there is no hangover after the celebration. This is a company as fit and youthful as ever. The designers of its furniture are still world class like Erwan and Ronan Bouroullec and Inga Sempe. Their designs grace its London stores, just as they grace the many hundreds of Ligne Roset stores around the world. Recession has taken its toll, but such is the company’s adherence to quality, that it has outpaced and outsurvived many rivals. Ligne Roset has been in the UK since 1980, and today it has its place in many London streets. The Mortimer Street branch, in Central London, notches up the best numbers per square metre of any shop anywhere. The City showroom in Commercial Road is one of the largest in Europe.

Values as old as business itself – but anomalous in today’s cut throat commercial environment -- have proven their worth at Ligne Roset. This is a business that exemplifies the conservatism of the family business, the absolute triumph of design over caution, and the power of local over the centre. Bruno Allard, the head of the UK operation, says, ‘Ligne Roset does it differently to anything you will find in any company management textbook.’ <img1021|right> The importance of family continuity cannot be overemphasised in understanding the remarkable culture. Today’s members of the Roset family at the helm of the business, Pierre and Michel, are fourth generation. But their sons, Antoine and Olivier, aged 29, have already joined the firm and settled (respectively) into commercial (in the US branch) and finance positions. They work in the same area of France as the family founders, Le Bugey, near Lyon. Headquartered in Briord (Ain), there are six factories and most Roset employees live in the area. Many, no doubt, have served the business for many generations.

The Rosets began making material for French ladies’ umbrellas in the middle of the 19th century. They proceeded to make excellently crafted furniture, but in the twentieth century began to craft furnishing accessories, like lighting and mirrors. They became ‘cool’ in the 1960s, when they associated themselves with Marilyn Monroe and Jacques Seguela. They acquired unusual fame in the latter part of the last decade by providing the sofa, called the Togo, that became the hallmark of the Big Brother TV set. Bruno says, ‘Togo has been our iconic product since 1969. It is a best seller, our Chanel No. 5, it is an ever lasting product. It is 100% foam, casual, post-Hippie, the cool way to live.’

For all the celebrity, this is a reserved company at heart. The business preserves its family culture by committing itself to complete independence. The family owns the entire company, and it vows never to become indebted to banks or other investors. ‘We don’t owe anybody any money. The funds we make we keep,’ says Bruno. ‘We are committed not to buying any other business. We will never be taken over.’ Such caution has worked well for the firm, which Bruno says turns over €200 million, annually. ‘We are not large or small, but deliberately in the middle. This suits us well.’

The command of the creative department is held by Michel Roset. ‘If Michel wants to introduce any new designs, if he wants to work with Jean Nouvel, then he doesn’t need to check if the product is commercial. He can say, “I want to do something in the design industry. That is it.” Michel’s brilliance has ensured the company goes outside the box. Today it is regarded by the industry as the pace-setter in design. Bruno points to the recent triumph of Inga Sempe who produced a sofa that was higher than normal designs, more feminine than the typical product and less overtly padded. The result: a winner of numerous prizes. ‘She arrived and she designed it. It’s not the most commercial product. Michel can decide to commission what he feels is right. Every year I am surprised by the creativity, the risk. The more difficult the market, the more we take risk.’

Designers flock to present their ideas to Michel, sometimes merely offering paper drawings and prototypes. But Michel has the sort of eye that can spot a winner. He takes young designers rather than established stars, and people who are not attached to existing firms. The best of his choices become design stars. Many young designers have had a chance to shine at Ligne Roset, as the firm works with some 60 designers each year, and each product is made by a different designer. The needs of the product and its design are paramount, trumping commercial criteria at times. So the company will make proprietary machinery that makes the product if that is required. The result is not merely excellent workmanship – it prides itself on its sewing and on the quality of its foam – but it is also unfakeable, security proof.

Outside design, the directors have little interest in the ‘banalities’ of day-to-day management. This is left to country managers, and they have a quite remarkable degree of autonomy. They choose the sites for their stores, without reference to headquarters. Bruno says the centre takes no interest in how he runs his operations as long as he makes his budgets. At different times, he says, the company has even had its logo presented differently in different locations.

The power of local managers (and the indifference of the centre) can, admittedly sometimes work in strange ways. So when Bruno laid out his plans for an on-line selling presence to his other country directors, he was cold-shouldered. His colleagues in the US and France wanted nothing to do with it. They come from a conservative tradition of design questioned by Bruno, which holds that customers want to see and feel their purchases, and online only cheapens the selling process. Bruno was told by his French colleagues that he could set up his online presence in the UK, but it should not impinge on the other markets. He is waiting to see how this paradoxical (surely untenable) position works out, vis-a-vis his French and American counterparts, when he launches it in the coming year. Meantime he pushes ahead with some high-tech solutions to promoting his furniture with Sony and Playstation.

He also looks constantly at ways to promote the brand and make revenue. So he recently launched a contracting arm for Ligne Roset. This provides a service to provide furniture for hotels and other players in the hospitality sector. He is currently working with Hilton and Marriott; indeed, he has been asked to quote for a job involving the entire furnishing of a 650-room five star Marriott, with a deadline of completion before the London Olympics.

The text books would say that originality and design can take a business so far, before a wayward manager decides to push it beyond what’s commercial and the business is lost. Ligne Roset’s experience, 150 years on, shows the text books can be wrong. May they prove that for many more generations. -N.K.


<img1022|left>Un article issu de INFO Magazine,
Février / Mars 2011
une publication de la Chambre de commerce et d’industrie française en Grande Bretagne

Hannah Meloul, Editorial Assistant, INFO Magazine
Tel : +44 207 092 66 48
Site : - @ : [>]

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