In times like these, taboos no longer exist, Marc Gläser
echo-interview, February 2016

In times like these, taboos no longer exist

Elipslife echo - interviews with prominent business leaders

In times like these, taboos no longer exist

echo-interview with Marc Gläser, CEO of Stöckli Swiss Sports AG

elipsLife echo: Mr Gläser, Stöckli AG can look back on 80 years of skiing tradition. Since then you've also entered the market for bikes and other outdoor goods. How would you define the Stöckli brand today?

Marc Gläser: Founded in 1935, our company has quite clearly positioned itself today as a manufacturer of skis, textiles and bikes with its own, strong sales organisation. We're not only the sole ski manufacturer in Switzerland but also one of the leading sports retailers with 14 of our own stores.

Why should skiers and bikers buy Stöckli goods?

Stöckli offers products of superb quality. Our skis are manufactured exclusively in Switzerland and with their ''made in Switzerland" hallmark represent all the quality attributes you associate with our country, namely precision, longevity and innovation. And for years now, our products have been scoring successes at the Ski World Cup completion. So there are numerous reasons why you should choose Stöckli. The Stöckli brand belongs in every household, just like other typical Swiss products such as Rivella, Ricola or Elmex.

Compared to the big ski manufacturers, Stöckli is a niche player. How does your company hold its own in competition with the major foreign companies?

We need to differentiate here. In Switzerland, I don't see Stöckli as a niche player. In volume terms we're in third place. And when you look at skis costing more than 800 Francs, the high-end segment we concentrate on, we lead the field even. Here, with our market share of around 35%, we're one of the big players. Swiss consumers appreciate and value goods produced in their domestic market. This is a real home advantage for us.

So you're successfully playing the Swiss card?

Recent surveys have shown that among male consumers over 40, "Swissness" has become an important topic again. And I can't imagine there's a company out there that's more Swiss than we are. We probably offer more "Swissness" than any other domestic firm. This starts with the basic materials we use which, where possible, are always sourced in this country. We at Stöckli do not talk of a "factory" but rather of a "manufaktur", a term emphasizing products made by hand. Our highly trained professionals fashion skis with great craftsmanship, passion and dedication. For us, our manufaktur, our handicraft, is synonymous with Swiss made, something we're very proud of.

Abroad, too, "Swiss made" has a special significance. I recognized this fact during my time in the watch industry. It's a term associated with quality, innovation and precision; but also with honesty, a cosmopolitan mindset, multi-lingualism and democracy in the sense of finding solutions through consensus. All these attributes have positive connotations.

echo-interview, February 2016

How do these elements you've mentioned play out in your export markets?

We're positioned differently abroad: Whereas in our domestic market we have a markedly broader spectrum of activities, our focus abroad is on the premium sector. We're talking about market shares between 1 and 3% depending on the country in question. Here we're clearly a niche player. In many countries, we're 30 to 40% more expensive than the competition. So also in terms of price, we focus on an up-market segment.

Which are the most important markets for Stöckli?

Our biggest market is Switzerland. Neighboring countries, especially Austria and Italy, are also major markets for us. In Germany we're gaining increasing momentum as well, boosted by the successes of downhill skier Viktoria Rebensburg on her Stöckli skis. We also do a lot of business in the US and Japan. Exports account for roughly 50% of our total production.

Given its status as a skiing stronghold with its own major ski manufacturing industry, isn't it remarkable that Austria is one of Stöckli's most important export markets?

People like to stand out from the crowd. They can do this, for example, by purchasing a certain brand or product. Not all skiers want to be seen with cookie-cutter equipment, mass produced for the domestic market. And Austrians are no exception. The consumer wants to underscore his or individuality via a brand. The person who uses a branded product is stating that she identifies with the brand and the attributes associated with it. What I'm saying is that today it's no longer good enough just to manufacture a high-quality product. You need to use your brand to reach out to your target group. And for this, you need effective communication.

echo-interview with Marc Gläser

Skiers Tina Maze and Julia Mancuso, as well as biker Jolanda Neff are all prominent "poster girls" for your company. Does this show that Stöckli is focusing on women in sport, or is this just a coincidence?

To give you a provocative answer: Successful female athletes generate a very good return on investment. With female racers we achieve excellent cost-effectiveness because the contracts are more favourable. In addition, since top performance potential is comparatively thinly spread, we can calculate the chances of success more accurately. If you have the top seven female athletes under contract, the chances of a subsequent podium position are far stronger than with the men. With the guys, the competition between top performers is brutal and spread across a larger number of athletes. Nevertheless, we still try to keep both men and women in our pool of athletes. Back in 2010 it was, after all, a male cross-country skier, Mike Schmid, who triggered the hype surrounding Stöckli. And before that it was Urs Kalin, Ambrosi Hoffmann or Paul Accola who helped to raise awareness of the Stöckli brand.

What's more important: Great marketing or a great product?

Let me use a pyramid analogy: The foundation is crucial, and a strong foundation is always a strong product. All successful companies are founded on sound products. That said, since there are many companies offering great products today, it all comes down to effective communication. Manufacturing a cool product doesn't get you anywhere if no one knows about it.

In your opinion, what do you need to be a successful entrepreneur?

You have to be curious, have an open mind and be passionate about what you do – and always prepared to take calculated risks. The term "entrepreneur" speaks for itself, something which my father – a successful entrepreneur himself – always drummed into me: The entrepreneur is a decision-maker, a doer. He or she seeks out opportunities, trends, possibilities. This person is always on the move and, as I said, ready to assume risks.

echo-interview with Marc Gläser, CEO of Stöckli Swiss Sports AG

Stöckli employs 250 regular members of staff and almost as many temporary workers. Are occupational pension schemes a topic for new hires?

When it comes to appointing people to management and senior executive positions, this is definitely a topic. This is also a question of age, no doubt. Up until I was 40, I never really thought about making provisions for old age. Now it's becoming ever more important for me. Managers and senior executives tend to be 40 and older. In our lower ranks, mainly the numerous skilled workers and sales personnel in our retail organization, there are only few people older than 30. Old age provisioning is not a pressing topic for this group, at least not yet.

Switzerland has a well-developed three-pillar system which combines government and private provisioning for old age. Will this system survive into the future do you think?

In principle, I find the Swiss system very good. The fact people are living far longer now has put it under pressure, but this is not an unexpected development. In 1960, life expectancy was 71 and since then it has risen to 84. To carry on regardless would be quite simply naïve. We have to keep a very close eye on these altered circumstances. To ignore them would be fatal. The change in crucial parameters means we have to adapt our old age provisioning system accordingly. There are no two ways about it.

Our old-age pension system is coming under severe pressure because the ratio of beneficiaries to contribution payers over the last 50 years has slumped from 6:1 to 2:1. We can't continue building on parameters, calculations and benefits that no longer reflect current realities. It would be foolish to close our eyes to these altered circumstances. There are several solutions we could look at to make the system sustainable. Among them could be raising contributions, adjusting benefit payments and tapping new revenue sources such as raising value-added tax. The goal of our old-age pension system in Switzerland has to be ensuring that our senior citizens are able to lead their lives in dignity.

Regarding the pension fund, it's vital we put a severe damper on expectations. Or, alternatively, we'll have to pay in more to maintain the level of benefits. I believe this latter approach would resonate with contributors because ultimately they will receive most of the money back. In my view, it would be wrong in this context for the government to prescribe everything in detail. Voluntary contributions should be up to the individual. This should also apply to the third pillar. And in this case, the government needs to raise the tax deductible element. Today's cap of around CHF 6,800 is only a limited incentive in my view. So here, through more generous incentives, It would be a simple matter for the government to make private pension arrangements more attractive and to motivate our citizens to save more for their old age.

Marc Gläser in an echo-interview

Understanding the proposed changes to the retirement and benefits system in Switzerland (AVG 2020) will need a communications effort. Is this a topic in your company?

Not yet, but it is on our radar. The person responsible for this topic, our CFO, is in contact with our insurers and will inform me in good time when this becomes a matter for employee communications. I am very keen indeed that we find sustainable solutions for our employees in this connection. When I see how hard our people work for this company, I intend to make sure that they are properly looked after when they reach retirement age.

Should pensioners also have to do their part to recapitalize the retirement benefits system in Switzerland, or is this topic taboo?

In times like these when everything is in flux, taboos no longer exist. Whole economic sectors are confronted with radical changes. Digitalisation, the Internet, the strong Swiss Franc, e-commerce are all developments are impacting our retirement benefits system. Sound, fair and financially sustainable solutions are consequently all the more important. At the end of the day, we're all going to have to tighten our belts. And to be fair, we need to make sure that the belt-tightening applies to everyone.

Many aspects of the proposed changes to the AVG are controversial. But cutbacks look to be inevitable. What's your take on raising the pension age for women to 65?

This is an absolute must in my view. I see no reason why we should cling on to this anachronism. Women have always had a longer life expectancy than men. Moreover, I'm an advocate of equal pay for men and women. Our company has rigorously implemented this policy.

Our ageing society and rock-bottom interest rates are putting pressure on our pension funds. Are they – and indeed all of us – going to fall victim financial promises that can't be kept?

I wouldn't use the term "victim" in this connection. On average, all of us are living increasingly longer and staying healthier in the process. And this is a great thing! Changes compel us to adjust. It might be that we won't be able to fully honour promises made a long time ago. That said, I'm convinced that for most of us funds will indeed be available. Where we need to be concerned is in respect to those in the lower income bracket. In other words, we have to work on finding sustainable solutions for two-person households with an income of less than CHF 5,000 per month

If you could give advice to the pension funds, what would it be?

I would prefer, instead, to give advice to those still paying contributions: And this would be to identify the gap as early as possible between what they need and what they will actually receive in pension, and then to close that gap with their own private savings plan. To ensure the sustainability of the system, as I've already said, we need to seek out new, sensible revenue sources. In this connection, perhaps we should look at smart ways to tax inheritances.

Personal Profile
Marc Gläser
CEO of Stöckli Swiss Sports AG

Born in 1968, Marc Gläser was appointed CEO of Stöckli Swiss Sports AG on October 1st 2014, Switzerland's sole ski manufacturer. Following business administration studies at St. Gallen University where he majored in finance and accounting, Gläser worked for four years in brand management at Unilever and subsequently as marketing manager with Feldschlösschen. He then joined the Swiss design furniture manufacturer Wogg as co-owner, managing director and member of the Board of Directors. In 2004, Gläser moved into the watch industry and worked for eight years as marketing and sales chief for Maurice Lacroix S.A, becoming the company's CEO in 2012. Marc Gläser is married with two sons.

echo-interview with Marc Gläser