Keeping the venerable Swarovski brand fresh and reaching new fans in Asia is a challenge that Lars Schmidt embraces enthusiastically.
Brands and people are Lars Schmidt's passion.
In August 2019, he followed "a heart's decision" to leave an automobile brand and join Swarovski -- the 126-year-old Austrian producer of the world's highest quality crystal, delicate jewellery and accessories.
As senior vice-president for Asia South and managing director for Southeast Asia and India, Mr Schmidt is pursuing his passion for raising awareness of the Swarovski brand through collaboration with multinational teams and partners to accelerate the company's long-term growth.
The family-owned Swarovski, he says, represents values that he can relate to: diversity and inclusion.
These values are not just reflected in employees who come from all across the spectrum. They are also carved into genuine and authentic product design that empowers individuals, identities and dreams regardless of their origins.
These values, in his view, have become even more important at a critical moment for Swarovski, which has embarked on a transformation to stay relevant to consumers and thrive for another century or more.
The urge for change has come in the face of multiple challenges ranging from the emergence of competitors who provide cheaper crystal products, to the rise of young consumers whose preferences change really rapidly.
The shuttering of retail stores worldwide because of the Covid-19 pandemic has been especially challenging for brands like Swarovski that thrive on the physical experience of showing off their products. Lockdowns have driven consumers into online marketplaces, forcing primarily brick-and-mortar businesses to adapt or die.
"The crisis is a challenge for us where we have to reinvent ourselves," Mr Schmidt tells Asia Focus. "That's why we are currently going through one of the biggest transformations in the 126 years of our history.
"We are changing and adapting a lot of things in terms of how we work and what we do. We're lifting our centre of gravity, where we previously may have positioned ourselves as slightly more commercial and a little bit over-commercialised. We are now positioning ourselves toward attainable luxury."
Swarovski opened its first Instant Wonder store in the Milan Galleria earlier this year and plans 27 more in major locations across the world. Photo courtesy of Swarovski
Based in Singapore, Germany-born Mr Schmidt leads his team in executing business strategy while operating stores in India and Southeast Asian markets. He also has an overarching role in supporting the teams in Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
Amid Swarovski's attempt to reinvent itself, Mr Schmidt is also tasked with ensuring his team walks in the same direction to achieve the new vision. This involves changes in pillars such as organisational restructuring, products and distribution.
The company has merged its internal functions and teams under the "One Swarovski" banner with the same vision and direction to take full advantage of its potential and strength.
In May last year, the company appointed the Italian fashion stylist Giovanna Engelbert as its first-ever creative director. Her arrival came with Swarovski rebranding in every touchpoint -- from the redesign of logos and packaging, the release of bold-hued jewellery and new concept stores, to a rebranding campaign that emphasises the diversity of its customers all over the world.
The new brand identity provides a fresh and sparkling look that "celebrates crystal in all its forms". It also offers collective and personal invitations to "ignite your dreams" -- a message that is conveyed through 28 Instant Wonder stores that are being launched in key global markets in North America, Europe and Asia Pacific throughout this year and 2022.
The first store in Southeast Asia is now open at The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, following Milan, Paris and New York. It gives a glimpse of the company's future direction, which aims to rejuvenate itself and stay relevant to a new generation while also maintaining its appeal to existing customers.
"As a Swarovski team and as a brand, we always have been bold in the decisions that we have made," Mr Schmidt notes.
"I have more than just confidence in the team that we will be able to implement the new strategy with excellence. We will make sure that Swarovski will be positioned in the way we are planning it to be. We will make sure that, with that new positioning, we will ignite the dreams of our customers throughout the region and globally."
NOT A ONE-MAN SHOW
Mr Schmidt has had a passion for brands since he was a child. It started with luxury cars such as BMW and Porsche, the pride of the country he grew up in. He eventually worked with those brands before joining Swarovski.
These are all "great brands with great people behind them", he says. He perceives luxury brands as embodying the dreams of people, either those behind the brands or the consumers who buy them, who translate their passion into extraordinary goods.
Because people are the core of successful brands, Mr Schmidt values the diversity and experience of his team -- with a good mix of international and local members who clearly understand their particular areas and respective markets.
"It is, fortunately and luckily, not a one-man show," he says. "I'm only a very small piece of the bigger picture. It is, of course, challenging, especially in the current situation. With the team and the experience that all of us have, I think together as one team we can master any kind of challenge.
"Diversity and inclusion are not just two words that we write on our agenda. We actually live by those two words. It's something that is extremely important to me, personally, but also important to me in my role as an employee of the Swarovski brand and company."
The teamwork spirit and a family-owned business model are the strengths of Swarovski that Mr Schmidt believes have helped the company and its brand go through a series of transformations successfully.
Founded in 1895 by Daniel Swarovski and his partners in Wattens, Austria, the big focus of the business in the early days was on crystal objects and collaborations with well-known designers and fashion houses.
Fast-forward to 1976, when the company introduced its first crystal figurine, a 2.5-inch-tall mouse designed by Max Schreck, which started the whole animal figurine series and a new business line. Swarovski jewellery was introduced a year later, followed by the company's first retail store in the 1980s.
This was a significant shift from being a crystal object supplier to becoming an actual retailer with its own branded products, sales channels and store concept, said Mr Schmidt.
In the 2000s, the fashion industry started to be disrupted by the internet and e-commerce. Swarovski adapted with another brave decision to launch its first online shop in Europe in 2001, one of the first global luxury brands experimenting with the format.
"I think it gives us a bit of an advantage that we have 20 years of experience in e-commerce, but also, this time now with the crisis," says Mr Schmidt.
"The company and the brand have proven that they can reinvent themselves, whether it's through a crisis or whether it's through a change in customer behaviours, trends or preferences."
COLLABORATION IN DIGITAL ERA
Moving forward in the digitised era, Swarovski has expanded its digital footprint in many regions, including Southeast Asia and India where e-commerce has been booming during the pandemic.
The company launched an online shop for Malaysia and Singapore this year. India and Thailand will follow in early 2022. Customers can tour the store virtually by visiting Swarovski.com. The service includes video calls with store staff who show off the latest products and help place orders online.
The company has also begun selling products via Line Shopping Thailand, Zalora Singapore, and Farfetch, a luxury fashion retail platform headquartered in London.
"Digitisation is important. But we don't look at these online platforms only as a sales channel," says Mr Schmidt. "The world is also evolving when it comes to how we communicate, and we try to look at the customer journey and the customer experience from a holistic perspective.
"To make it seamless, it's not [a choice between] an online shop and a retail store. It needs to be omnichannel where it's all connected and all seamless for the customer."
Online stores can partially compensate for losses caused by retail outlet shutdowns during the pandemic. But he thinks that they can't replace the offline retail world, especially not for a brand like Swarovski that is well developed and mature in several markets with a high density of stores.
"To me, online is just one part of the customer journey. For brands like Swarovski and for most of the other luxury and attainable luxury brands, I think offline retail will remain very important," he points out.
Along with digitisation, Swarovski will pursue more collaboration with partners, fashion brands and designers. It has a good record of collaborating with global brands including Adidas, Nike and Chanel to develop products from shoes to bags and accessories.
The company has released collections of popular characters, including those from Line Friends, Harry Potter and Disney, in partnership with their creators. The collaborations are even extended into the sphere of the Korean Wave, in a nod to the influence of the South Korean entertainment industry on global consumers' behaviours and fashion trends.
For example, Swarovski has partnered with Korean production teams to place its products in shows, including the 2019 romantic television series Crash Landing on You. The leading female character played by Son Ye Jin was often seen wearing Swarovski jewellery.
"We are very strong with those collaborations, and we have a long experience of more than a hundred years of collaborating with friends having a lot of potential," says Mr Schmidt. "Collaboration is also something that the young generation or next generation is really interested in.
"We all know, for example, whenever Supreme and Louis Vuitton or any of these brands collaborate, there are massive queues outside of the stores," he says, referring to the American streetwear brand and the French luxury icon. "Those products are sold out immediately, and usually there is a younger customer who is going after those products."
EXPOSURE TO PEOPLE
Mr Schmidt believes that living in Asia for nine years, plus travelling extensively throughout the region, has helped him better understand people, culture and dynamics. In return, it has improved his ability to manage multinational teams better and smoother.
"Understanding, especially in a diverse region like ours, how people are different and how they see things from other perspectives is important," he says. "Because only then you can really understand how they think, and see how you can support them and how you can get the best out of them.
"That is what I have learned and what I truly believe in. The beautiful thing in this is to realise that we are not all the same."
He enjoys meeting and talking with people to broaden his horizons, he adds. "I think we are all a result of our experience and the exposure we have and the people we spend time with."
In his free time, he likes to go running. He's passionate about fitness and exercise, and also enjoys sailing -- something he hopes to do soon as travel opportunities start to open up. He also likes to visit malls to explore new brands and their concepts, and learn how they reinvent themselves -- an activity that comes naturally for someone who works in the fashion and retail industry.
"It's important for me that I maintain my passion for what I do, especially from a work perspective, but also, in my personal life. At the same time, [I] try to have a good balance between work and life, especially when everything is virtual -- I often feel that we are all working even more than we did before Covid."
And despite shifting to the luxury fashion industry, he will always have a passion for cars.
"I think I will always have that. It is in my German blood," he notes with a grin.