People want quality – who delivers?
Companies that deliver quality
It’s a fascinating exercise to look at phenomenally successful people and their businesses. Ignore the big brands for now, since their revenue models might depend on stock exchange transactions or obscure sources. People who have established highly successful businesses that may not be globally dominant do have one thing in common: they do what they do superbly well. And they continue to do that, while figuring out new products and solutions. But they always stick to their knitting and do the one thing that they do, really, really well. In a world rife with choice, but short on quality, especially affordable quality, consumers – whether businesses or individuals – look for the best possible buy for their buck. The internet gives them all the ammunition they need to compare price, performance, service and support. They want the best of what they can afford for what they regard as really important, and they will go to great lengths to get and keep specific services and products. They will even put up with price increases up to a point.
Take Filson for instance. Filson buyers are Filson fans. Filson makes bags, belts, boots and hats for travel, fishing, hiking, shooting – you know, manly stuff. They’ve done so since 1897 – the date is in their logo. They are so confident of the beauty of their products that they have partnered with photo agency Magnum. (A bag, artfully posed on a river-bank? Why not.) Their image is a celebration of the American male having a good time in the rugged wilderness. You might think that is pretentious twaddle. Who’d fall for that these days? You’ll be surprised. Filson has modernized the design of their products, for instance they have added bags to hold camera equipment and laptops, but their goods are always hand-finished, always made in America, in Seattle. The quality stayed the same. A Filson bag will last you a lifetime – good sound heavy-duty brass zips, made to measure in their factory, good solid bridle leather straps and brass clasps, good solid canvas, good solid stitching that does not fray. I know people who have had one Filson bag they’ve used for 15, 20 years until they are all soft and worn.
So nice to look at and own
A while back I went all the way to Portland, to one of the three outlet stores they have in the USA (they have another two in New York and London). Walking in there was a treat for the senses – it smells so good, the stuff feels so good when you touch, the colours of the cloth glow. OK, it costs fractionally more than similar products, but it will last years – it’s in an entirely different class. I bought a bag and felt good that I have spent my hard-earned money well. Filson knows that the people that buy their products are interested in quality and it is their first criteria. And they are very, very good at what they do.
Another, younger company has finally figured out what the world of the tech-obsessed traveller revolves around: getting all their “stuff” though customs and passport control and onto the airplane when they travel. Ever seen the typical traveller these days at an airport? Chunky equipment and wires everywhere – earphone cables, ipad, charger and cord, smart phone and charger (more cables), laptop (chunky in bag with more cables), etc. Watch them trying to “empty their pockets” at the scanners. Shoes and belt are easy, but watch them untangling themselves from their equipment to walk though. It’s awkward, to put it mildly. Enter SCOTTeVEST.
Their jackets, fleece tops and even shirts have pockets for the stuff that people want on their bodies when they travel – their electronics, keys, phones, cables, ipads, etc. Garments can have up to 26 pockets for specific things, all more or less discreetly hidden. I first saw one on a Geologist friend who was apparently welded into it. He had one on and two more in his suitcase. Then my husband got into it. Literally. Now, when I do the laundry, I have 26 pockets to check on each item. And despite the fact that wearers have all this stuff on them, they still look normal. All they do at the airport, is unzip the jacket, and put it in the tray. SCOTTeVEST has figured out their niche market and they do what they do very, very well indeed. Their buyers are professionals that travel, people who love tech, and they do love their SCOTTeVEST stuff. However, the company has not yet seen the test of time. Who knows whether they will be able to keep this high level of quality up in the decades to come.
Then there is the designer of the famous Eames chair. Yes, the curvy one made of formed plastic which has become the model for seating at almost ever airport waiting lounge in the world. Charles Eames, Jr. (1907–1978) and Bernice Alexandra “Ray” Eames (1912–1988), his wife, were American designers who worked in and made major contributions to modern architecture and furniture. Charles Eames understood even then that what people want is the best quality at an afforable price. His motto was: “The best for the least for the most.”
They wanted to make an affordable but beautiful modern chair for ordinary people with the seating formed out of 1 (just one) shaped piece of plywood. The result: the Eames Chair. Today, the Eames Design office is still going. The descendants of Charles and Ray work with the only two authorized manufacturers of Eames products: Herman Miller, Inc. and Vitra International. If you look on their website, you can see that the chairs designed by the Eames Studio are still be produced today, decades later, and you can also buy them at Herman Miller (the company, by the way, which sells the world famous Aeron Chair, the most comfortable office chair in the world.)
Richard Saul Wurman, co-founder of the TED Conferences, put a different spin on Charles Eames, in the film The Architect and the Painter, a 2011 documentary on the studio. He said: “You sell your expertise, you have a limited repertoire. You sell your ignorance, it’s an unlimited repertoire. The journey from not knowing to knowing was his work. He was selling his ignorance and his desire to learn about a subject.” In doing so, Eames passed on to his clients the extraordinary results of his learning and discoveries. What he came up with changed the world.
Quotes from The Architect and the Painter:
- “‘Never delegate understanding.’”(Charles Eames)
- “Charles’ first chair was beautiful, but it didn’t work. So it was a failure. (Good thing he didn’t give up, right?)”
- “Eames did an especially good job showing ‘the complex beauty of everyday objects.'”
- “Going to 901 (their studio/design office) was ‘like watching people take their brains out and knead them like dough.’” (former Eames employee)
And finally, RM Auctions
Up in Chatham, Ontario (not New York, London or Hong Kong), Rob Myers has, in 35 years, created the biggest fine-automobile auction house in the world, RM Auctions Inc., with annual sales of $500 million. Have you heard of them? Probably not, unless you’re a car connoisseur.
“They’re the San Antonio Spurs of the old-car world,” says Chris Bietzk, auction editor of London-based Octane, one of the leading classic-car magazines. “Their reputation is one of fabulous, relentless professionalism.”
That is, I think the finest compliment one could pay any service provider or product supplier. What gives RM an edge over its competitors is that it’s the only one with an in-house restoration facility where the standards of work is sky-high and the fabulous, relentless professionalism is demonstrated. At the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, where restored luxury automobiles are showcased, RM Auto Restoration dominates the field. In case you’re saying, yes, but they are selling products that are innately exclusive already, how difficult can perfectionism be? Well, they also sell to ordinary people. Clients with more modest budgets aren’t completely shut out. At RM’s Monaco auction, a 1953 Fiat went for $24,000, while a cheery green 1952 Vespa went for $17,000.
Cars, and collecting cars, as art
Rob Myers’ passion for cars means that he views them – and collecting them – as art. He hopes automobiles will one day be exhibited in one of the top museums for the works of art that they are, and hopes to introduce his grandchildren to the fine art of car collecting. All these years, RM has focused on doing what it does better than any other company can. The result: through economic crises, market downturns and constant pressure from other suppliers converging their services with services like his – muddying the water – so to speak, he is still doing what he loves and his company is flourishing. He says that much of his success has been because of his employees, who have been with him for many years and are highly skilled. Interestingly, on the website, each team member has their name, designation, personal contact phone number and e-mail address. Clearly every one is OK to engage with the public. Many companies don’t do that, preferring to keep their employees at arms’ length from their client base and create a faceless, generic public profile.
The point is…
Here’s the point: there’s another way to keep being profitable other than by being big and “having a Coke in every fridge in the world” or having a branch in every town in the country (hello Tim Horton’s), or being dirt cheap. There is even another way of looking at profit. The other way is to be the best you can be – to outdo everyone else in service and quality. Real service, and real quality. It’s the more difficult option, but it is the long, long, long, loooong term one. Many businesses, if they disappeared today, would not be missed. Their employees would leave no legacies, what they have done has not made the world a better place. Soon their premises would be filled with another shop or office.
Ask yourself, would you like that to be the case? Or would you, in your own way, like to change the world? (And still make money, like the companies I mention here.) Worry about that, if you will. It’s a good subject to be worried about. I worry about it non-stop. Do I know everything I need to know? Do I understand the problem? (Or am I just faking it?) How can I do this job for my client better? Can it be perfect? At least it’s useful worrying about the pursuit for fabulous, relentless professionalism.