Interview with Gemla´s Benny Hermansson

Swedish furniture taking sustainability to the next level

Gemla Fabrikers is Sweden’s oldest furniture maker. A great heritage to cherish, but how do you keep such a company contemporary? We spoke to Gemla’s CEO, owner and entrepreneur extraordinaire Benny Hermansson to discuss what they do to keep developing as a company.

It’s almost seven years since you stepped in as owner, what drives you to work so hard with Gemla?
– My driving force is finding a business model that adds value and building a business with survivability. Throughout my professional career, I have always worked with business development, making things a little smarter, better, simpler and a little more customer-oriented and trying to understand what people value and want to pay a little extra for.

We reckon everyone is aware of a 160-year-old furniture company, but is that enough to keep sales going?
– People don’t buy furniture from us for sentimental reasons. When I came in and started marketing and reintroducing Gemla as a brand, people often said ‘what a fantastic heritage, what a cultural achievement!’, but it’s no use if people don’t want to buy what we make, so it’s about keeping the company contemporary, keeping it relevant.

When I came in, we were already making nice things, the VILDA chair by Jonas Bohlin had been developed, the COLLAGE chair by Front design studio as well, the Bow sofa made by Lisa Hilland, the Mats Theselius T 13 armchair – but they weren’t selling very well. Nobody was out there informing people about our products, and that’s what had been missing. The older generation of interior designers knew about us, but most people did not.

Since then we have taken it step by step. The first 18 months we did really badly. 1.5 million, money we didn’t really have, just disappeared. But that was the cost of getting sales going and if we had given up then, we would have missed out on the growth we are seeing now.

You were a guest on Johanna Hulander’s design podcast ‘Inredningspodden’. There you mention that you took some chairs to the Milan Furniture Fair. Why was that trip important and what did you find out?
– Yes, that’s right, it was fun to be part of Johanna’s podcast. That trip to Milan was one of the first things I did, as a test before I stepped in as Gemla’s CEO. I wanted to get a feel for whether it was just me who thought it was nice stuff or whether others felt the same way and there was a lot of interest; people liked the product and thought it was different from what they had seen elsewhere. That trip gave me the right feeling, so I went home and started discussing a partnership with my business partner at the time.

I’m from Ljungby, which is three miles from Diö, so when I was asked to step in here, I was very aware of Gemla as a company. The guys in the factory only knew that it was some guy living in Stockholm who had bought a stake in the business, but when they heard my accent they said ‘Let’s give him a chance’, haha.

How do you view the concept of sustainability and how does Gemla incorporate it into the business?
– We started a major project as soon as I came in, looking at all the sustainability aspects we could think of. From wood certification and artificial materials to tanning and finishing methods. We did this a few years before sustainability became a requirement, as I feel it is now, so we were ahead of the curve. But it cost, both in time and money.

Another aspect of sustainability is that we only make things that someone has already decided to buy. We don’t have stocks of items that we then have to dispose of, and in this way we don’t contribute to overconsumption. In addition, bentwood and the technology we use is extremely resource-efficient. Our manufacturing process creates very little waste. And the stuff lasts an incredibly long time, which is also a relevant aspect of sustainability.

Always durable, natural materials.
Always handmade in Sweden.

But what we do is not 100 per cent perfect in every way. There are lots of things we can do better, for example the little protector pads under the chair that are still plastic. I don’t know how we’re going to replace them. It also bothers me that a lot of boxes are sent out that are probably only used once. I’d like to find a box that you can fold up and send back so you can at least use the box eight or ten times. I also want to stop using shrink film to protect our products in transit. We have to keep on asking questions, down to the smallest detail.

Who are Gemla’s main target groups?
– It’s the interior designers. But really, it’s the final customers, because if the restaurateur, for example, doesn’t like our stuff, it doesn’t really matter who has designed it. It has to appeal to the person who will be running the place, to be stuff that will last a long time, to be beautiful and give the place something extra. And in the end they have to appeal to the person who is going to pay to sit on the chair during a dinner.

How do you work to build these relationships?
– We seek out the interior designers we think are good, but sometimes it’s the other way around, and they have spotted us. We were decorating a boutique hotel in Amsterdam and they had just found our stuff and thought it was great, and it turned into an order for both tables and chairs.

And fairs are quite important; many people go to the Stockholm Furniture Fair. A German interior design company based in Berlin, studio karhard found us in Stockholm and since then we have furnished a wine bar in the KaDeWe department store in Berlin, a restaurant and a music theatre. We also helped to design Sony Music’s headquarters in Berlin.

It can be a bit slow at first, but interior designers are also looking for honest and quirky things of good quality, because it becomes a kind of hallmark of their work, so if we have any tactics, it’s to try to identify the best interior designers and try to start working with them. But there’s not much difference between working abroad and in Sweden. We work with many of the very best here, ranging from JOYN studio who have decorated Astoria and Frantzén to Wingårdhs who have designed Concepció by Nobis in Palma, Mallorca, and they work on an international stage.

Once you have established contact and have a positive experience, that architect often comes back. For us, building that network has been incredibly important. The fact that things are going as well as they are for us now is because this group of contacts has grown quite rapidly in the last four years.

Were these relationships established seven years ago when you stepped in?
– No, there was very little, there were not many active contacts. And no real active sales work, that’s what we’ve done, I’ve been out knocking on doors and had chairs with me. And we have produced some simple leaflets, a few films and started exhibiting at fairs. In June we will exhibit for the first time at the Milan Furniture Fair. We want to exhibit every year at the furniture fairs in Stockholm and Milan and every other year at ORGATEC in Cologne.

A chair’s journey from the woods to the warm welcome at the restaurant. From Småland out to the world. Boundless, where everything is possible.

How much time do you spend on relationship building with architects?
– You could say it’s 50 per cent and then 50 per cent on running the company and 50 per cent on doing other things. So I keep myself busy. In the future, I might go down to full time! Haha. Sure, I spend a lot of time at work, but now it’s starting to roll, so we need to be able to reap some of the rewards of what we’ve worked hard to sow for a few years.

How important are export to you?
– Very important, and it will increase. Today, 30-35 per cent of what we do is exported, from almost zero. My ambition is that 80 per cent will be exported and 20 per cent will be sold in Sweden. Our craftsmanship and quality ambition mean that we must go beyond Sweden and build on our relevance in Europe.

How far do your exports go?
– We sell a lot to Australia, where Swedish design is very much in demand. We are negotiating with a Japanese distributor with 50 outlets in Japan, working both with the private market and projects. We work with South Korea, but then we sell selected products, and they are transported in larger quantities in the most sensible way possible. Similarly, we work in the US along the seaboards, and interior designers have found us and like our stuff and have incorporated us into their projects. We don’t work in the US so systematically, but our reputation is gradually growing. Our main focus is on Europe.

What tips do you have for other companies to improve their exports?
– I think you have to choose, both in terms of the products you develop and the customers you target. You have to be incredibly goal-oriented and find your thing. We have chosen hospitality as our focus and the premium segment within it. So our potential buyers know exactly what we are about.

Then you need to work on the story of the company and demonstrate your creativity. The wine bar and studio we opened in Stockholm is an excellent example, opening a wine bar is not obvious for a furniture producer. We didn’t have anywhere where customers could come and try out our chairs, or check leather dyes and textiles so we said: ‘Okay, is there any clever way we can arrange that without incurring excessive costs? The solution was our combined studio and wine bar.

Gemla Studio and showroom during the day, wine bar with natural wines in the evenings. Welcome to Magnus Ladulåsgatan 10 in Stockholm!

Finally, Gemla is located in Diö in Småland, if someone were to come to your area, what would you recommend them to see and do?
– Johan Sjöberg’s fantastic collection of chairs has a permanent place in the carpenter’s shop at Huseby mill, which is well worth seeing. It is 11 km from here to Älmhult, where you can visit the Ikea Museum. In Värnamo there is Vandalorum, a museum for art and design. They usually have great exhibitions. The Ljungberg Museum in Ljungby is worth seeing, and you can stay and eat well at PM & vänner which has a good restaurant, furnished with Gemla chairs of course!