“I see my role as a balancing act,” says Rosa Lladró, second-generation owner of the eponymous Spanish porcelain house. “I have a responsibility to the family, I have a responsibility to my staff, I have a responsibility to Valencia and I have a responsibility to the fairytales that we have made our business.” Surely that’s a lot of responsibility for the 40-year-old president? Ms Lladró pauses, smiles and replies in precise but heavily accented English: “Yes. But I was brought up to expect this.”
Rosa and her younger sister Ángeles Lladró (the company’s vice president) were immersed in the company ethos from an early age, growing up in the porcelain workshop that her father, Juan, now 84, and his younger brothers, José and Vincente, founded in 1953. “You can’t draw a line between where the family ends and the firm begins. The business has always functioned through a committee, I have always valued open discussion and debate.”
This emphasis on family values clearly extends to Ms Lladró’s relationship with her staff, and the factory’s central courtyard of pink cobblestones features an open-air swimming pool, a basketball court, a giant chessboard and an al fresco restaurant. “Our business is completely reliant on human skill. We don’t use machines because although they seem to help at first, they produce limitations in the long run and by then the skills are lost.” Although innovating through collaborations with young designers such as Barcelona’s Jaime Hayon, the manufacturing process remains almost unchanged from the one used by the Lladró brothers in the 1950s.
“We’re a global business but we’re also a small creative workshop. I don’t try to second-guess the market. I’m not hung up on market research, it’s more about imagining the next step in the story and allowing our artisans to go there.” Running the firm by consulting and listening is key for Ms Lladró, who involves family members and workshop artisans in decision making. “Maybe this makes me a soft touch in some ways, but it’s also a great safety net against rash decisions, especially in these uncertain times.”
Uncertain times is something of an understatement. As one of Valencia’s leading companies, Lladró has not been immune to the region’s dramatic decline. Walking through the Mediterranean city, it’s hard to imagine that this port was outstripping national growth figures until the middle of the last decade. Sun-bleached building sites are studded with abandoned cranes and youth unemployment has soared to almost 50 per cent. Heavily reliant on that quintessentially Spanish mix of old economic sectors – manufacturing, property and construction – Valencia was left exposed as big business collapsed in 2008, with almost 200,000 jobs disappearing in 2010 alone.
“I know we’re one of the lucky ones,” says Ms Lladró, “but I’ve had to make some very difficult decisions.” Even before the global recession, Lladró’s key markets in Europe, Japan and the US seemed to have reached maturity, with sales falling in 2003 and the company ending the year in fiscal debt for the first time in its history. “I had to lay off staff who have been with the company for many years, and you can imagine as a family operation that’s painful. We also had to begin developing a much more serious strategy in new markets.”
This change in tactics has marked the beginning of a rebirth for the company, with the rapidly developing luxury markets of China and India becoming a focus: they sell through 50 locations in China alone. Walking around the museum at the company’s main site, named Lladró City of Porcelain, it’s clear that the garland-bedecked Marie Antoinettes, ethereal ballerinas and frolicking cherubs that built this unashamedly chintzy empire have been joined by figures of Hindu gods and Chinese dragons. The company’s most opulent offering – a limited 100-piece imagining of an Egyptian queen boating on the Nile – retails for €130,000 and was specifically developed to decorate newly wealthy homes, from Mumbai to Shanghai.
As radical as these changes to the product line may be, Ms Lladró is clear about where she sees the future of the company. “Being in Valencia is the key. We’re a small family workshop at heart and you can’t break that up. It would be like breaking a figurine into pieces. Everything is very close here; in 20 minutes you’re at the beach, in an hour you’re in the mountains. It really influences how we run the business; there’s something in the blood.”
Family duty is obviously a guiding light for Ms Lladró. Would she have aspired to managing a company if she hadn’t been born into the Lladró dynasty?
“I don’t think I’m a natural manager,” she answers. “I think perhaps an artist would have made more sense. But I’m incredibly passionate about preserving our work for future generations. We’re the kind of company that the modern world seems quite keen to erase.”
What time do you like to be at your desk?
Whatever it takes to get the job done.
Where’s the best place to prepare for leadership: an MBA school or on the job?
I believe that every job you take makes you see business from another angle. Practical skills are better than abstract thinking.
Describe your management style.
I try to be consistent and be the same person in the office that I would be at home with my family. The same on Sundays as I am on Mondays.
Are tough decisions best taken by one person?
I believe in discussion until everybody agrees. It’s the only way that you can run a family firm because no one likes a dictator in the family.
Do you want to be liked or respected?
I would like to be respected. But if I do something that conflicts with my morals just to be respected, then that’s not OK for me.
What does your support team look like?
My father teaches me something new every day, and also my sister. We work closely with our board of directors, who I think must be the smartest and most honest in Spain.
What technology do you carry on a trip?
I always have my BlackBerry and my iPad, for everything from Facebook to my morning news.
Do you read management books?
No. I like to read the financial press instead. I try not to read very much about Spain; I know the situation!
Run in the morning? Wine with lunch? Socialise with your team after work?
I run in the evening and then have a glass of wine to unwind.
What would your key management advice be?
You have to listen and be open-minded. Learning how to combine perspectives can be the most important management tool.