When Lutz Bethge joined Montblanc in 1990, he signed his contract with the Montblanc pen his wife had given to him on his birthday a year before. More then two decades later, Bethge is still with the Hamburg-based maker of writing instruments and luxury goods – since 2007 as the company’s CEO – and that first pen continues to go everywhere with him. “It’s my lucky pen, so to speak,” Bethge explains. “I always have a number of writing instruments with me, of course, but this one I always carry, for leisure or business.”
With roots stretching back to 1906, when a Hamburg banker and a Berlin engineer decided to produce fountain pens, the Montblanc of today is as recognised for its watches, jewellery and leather goods as it is for its writing instruments. For the past 20 years, the company has presented an award for arts patronage – the Montblanc de la Culture Arts Patronage Award – to individuals around the world. In 2011, the UK award went to HRH the Prince of Wales for his long-standing support of the arts.
On Montblanc’s close affinity with arts and culture
You could probably say that reading and writing form the backbone of civilization and culture. And, of course, Montblanc has its roots buried deep in the culture of the written word, so we have always felt an affiliation to arts and culture.
I also believe that, in today’s world in particular, we need to broaden our minds. When you talk to artists, with their different views and takes on society, when you visit a gallery or go to a museum, you can open your mind, widen your views and feel inspired; I think this is extremely important.
In a world where governments have so many pressures to handle that there is no longer the support that arts and culture require, the creative community relies on committed individuals and corporations to provide this support. One thing’s for sure, there would have been no artists like Mozart or Michelangelo without the unconditional support of patrons, and this is why I believe Montblanc has to play its part as well.
On why writing by hand still matters in the modern world
If I write you a letter I’m giving you the most precious gift that I can – my own time. Today writing has become very much a functional thing, but if you really want to show someone how much you love them, how much you care, how important they are, you write them a letter by hand. I always like to explain this when I’m at a university talking about Montblanc and I’m asked why I believe a company like ours can succeed in the writing instrument business in today’s climate. I always say, “I’m sure you’ve all received love emails or texts, but one question – does any lady keep those emails or texts in a little box with a ribbon around it?” They look at me like I’m crazy. “And now for the brave ladies: who still keeps handwritten letters from boyfriends in a box with a ribbon around?” And you wouldn’t believe how many raise their hands.
This, I think, is the difference between the function of writing and the emotion of writing; you open your soul to the person you’re writing to, and this will always be the case.
On Montblanc’s diversification into other product areas
Montblanc was seen as the pinnacle of writing tools, and we believed the craftsmanship component could be extended to other products, so we started with leather goods and watches. Even though this was, perhaps for some people at first, a daring thing, our customers didn’t doubt us; they believed we could excel in the same way we had excelled in writing instruments because of our manufacturing competence. Of course, it required us not just to label the products but either to build our own factory or buy a factory where we could then make our own products, because deep in our hearts we are craftsmen.
On the remarkable growth of the watch industry
Writing instruments are the core of our brand – our roots – because this is where we create our values, those of a successful and cultured lifestyle. Today, I believe we are the only brand in the luxury pens sector really trying to develop and grow the market.
We do a lot to continue developing the writing implements business, but the growth rate in this category is lower than the growth rates that can be achieved in watches, jewellery and leather goods, where you have a large number of different brands investing a lot in different markets.
Writing instruments still represent the largest share of our business, but we believe that in the next five years, without seeing a decline in sales of writing instruments, we have a chance to grow watches to become our biggest category – it’s certainly the fastest growing category for us right now.
On why chronograph watches are the company’s best sellers
One of the things we discovered when we were looking into the watch business was Nicolas Rieussec, the inventor of the chronograph and a man who was writing time with ink. We thought, “Wow, that’s a sign!” And we decided to develop a movement that somehow resembled his original idea [which used needles filled with ink, when pressed, to mark finishing times in horse races on rotating discs]. We couldn’t use ink so we took inspiration from the rotating discs and implemented it on the watch.
It was not intentional that we sold more chronographs – it was more intentional that we started to develop the Rieussec chronograph because we liked it as a concept – but in the end it was our customers who decided. Today, of our ten best sellers, nine are chronographs.
On the challenge of balancing quality with volume
Quality has to come first, whatever product you make. It was my predecessor who started the process of diversification into new areas and in the mid-1980s he saw that the only way forward was to aim for the premium part of the market. In a very brave move, he stopped 70-80% of the volume of the business to concentrate on the high-end, because he could not tell his people to work extremely diligently and be extremely careful in the morning, and in the afternoon to work as fast as possible. Ever since, this has influenced the way we work.
For more information on Montblanc’s complete range of products please go to montblanc.com