It is safe to say there aren't many companies like Vitra or many CEOs like Rolf Fehlbaum, chairman of the Swiss furniture maker. On the front lawn of Vitra's main manufacturing plant in Weil am Rhein, Germany, is a sculpture by Claes Oldenburg of an oversize hammer, pliers, and screwdriver joined in an arch. On the grounds are buildings by cutting-edge architects such as Frank Gehry and Tadao Ando, who are not known for their contribution to the manufacturing landscape.
Fehlbaum himself is the antithesis of the golf-playing, PowerPoint-happy exec. His enthusiasms range from 1960s-era toy robots to Marcel Proust. Fehlbaum's peers may boast MBAs; Fehlbaum wrote his doctoral thesis on Claude-Henri Saint-Simon, a 19th century French utopian socialist. Why hire Iraq-born architect Zaha Hadid, who is now famous but in 1993 was a theorist who had never built anything, to design a utilitarian factory building? "I was fond of her drawings," says Fehlbaum, 62.
Interesting, but does all this make any sense as a business? For Vitra, yes. Fehlbaum's passion for art, design, and culture has given the company, based in Birsfelden just across the Swiss border from the factory, a unique identity among those willing to pay up to $6,000 for a chair. The company museum in Weil am Rhein, a Gehry design, attracts more than 60,000 visitors a year. Fehlbaum insists, though, that hiring famous architects wasn't a marketing move. "If you have identity, you don't think about it, it comes naturally."
Vitra began in 1934, when Fehlbaum's father, Willi, started selling equipment for store displays in Basel. (Vitra is short for vitrine, or shop window.) It became a furniture company after Willi saw chairs by the legendary designers Charles and Ray Eames during a visit to the U.S. in the 1950s. Willi, who died on Dec. 31 at age 89, formed a joint venture with U.S. furniture maker Herman Miller (MLHR) to market the Eameses' designs in Europe. Rolf became involved as a translator for his father. The two found they argued too much, and so, in 1977, Willi ceded full control to his son.
Back then, sales were less than $10 million a year. In 2003, Vitra registered sales of $258 million -- down from 2002's revenues of $288 million, before corporate buying slumped throughout the industry, but still enough to make Vitra a leader in the market for high-end furniture. Fehlbaum won't disclose profits but says Vitra finances its own growth, including a current effort to build its presence in the U.S. Vitra chairs are a familiar sight in airports, or in the offices of corporations such as Dutch bank ABN Amro (ABN) -- and in the German Parliament. The Eameses' designs remain a mainstay, but the Vitra line also includes dozens of more modern creations.
Fehlbaum always hires outside designers, gives them free rein -- and never designs anything. "I don't have the gift," he says. He considers himself a curator of creative work. Not that he doesn't care about business. "We are not do-gooders," he says. "You have to have business discipline." At the same time, owning the company with his younger brother Raymond frees him from the pressure to deliver maximum return every quarter. "The desire of an entrepreneur is to create an oeuvre, a beautiful work," says Fehlbaum. Funny how that passion translates into success. By Jack Ewing in Birsfelden, Switzerland