A healthy shelf life | Monocle

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“No, managers and management are not referred to here,” says Vitsoe managing director Mark Adams, sitting in his office in London’s Camden Town surrounded by a wall-full of the 606 Universal Shelving System by Dieter Rams, a design that the company has manufactured since 1960. “We have leaders and we have mentors. Leadership is conferred by people deciding to follow.”

Like Rams’ designs, Adams’ approach to his position is democratic, no-nonsense and single-minded. It was undoubtedly this special determination and vision as managing director that brought Vitsoe back from the brink.

Roughly 35 years after Niels Vitsoe established the company with partner Otto Zapf in Germany, the once triumphant marque of modern design was flailing – even if it did distribute Rams’ shelving – and run by an octogenarian with no succession plan. In 1993, around the time of Niels Vitsoe’s 80th birthday, Adams – who owned the licence to distribute Vitsoe product in the UK – got a call from the bank saying the company was three weeks away from closure. As its largest customer, the bank and the Vitsoe family asked Adams to help. And so he did; remortgaging his house, closing the German arm of the business and shifting everything to the UK in the process. “We lost everything,” explains Adams. “And we gradually rebuilt it absolutely from zero.”

Almost 20 years on, Vitsoe is now a buoyant business. It has standalone stores in London, Los Angeles, New York, Copenhagen, Munich and Tokyo.

Its recovery has been long but a team effort Adams puts down to his staff. “First and foremost, [we look for] character. Skills are second,” he says. “People can learn the skills but you can’t change the character.” The final stages of the recruitment process involves all applicants spending a trial day at Vitsoe, with old-timers sitting down at the end of the day – for “as long as necessary” – to assess their potential. In this position, Adams sees his role as editor-in-chief, instead of managing director. “Whenever we have lowered the bar, normally because we’re desperate to recruit [...] it’s nearly always a mistake.”

This meticulous recruitment style has helped forge the friendly atmosphere at the Vitsoe HQ. Its buzzer is answered by whichever member of staff happens to be nearest, not by a receptionist; coffees are taken around a communal canteen table. It’s truly a happy family, albeit a rather large one, with far too many siblings now jostling for space.

And it was this factor that, late last year, forced Adams into offering Vitsoe arguably its third lease of life. In December, he offered loyal customers and suppliers a chance to buy bonds in the company. Vitsoe needed to raise a fair sum in order to build a new home. The invitation came in the form of a charmingly familial – and beautifully designed – document, in which Adams set out his plan and included his mobile telephone number in case there were any queries. He succeeded, and plans are now being finalised on the new production building that will be located in the West Midlands.

What led to this decision to turn to the Vitsoe community to secure the company’s future instead of venture capitalists? “Because it is almost without exception the beginning of the end when you start bringing in people whose interest is just financial,” he says. There is more to it than that: he has sought to create a different type of company, defined by collaboration and shared interests.

“We wanted to symbolise that we’re all in this together,” says Adams of the illustration he chose for the cover of the bond document, a three-sided knot. “Bring in the venture capitalists and you are not all in it together.”Respecting his two forebears – Dieter Rams and Niels Vitsoe – is to this day Adams’ primary mission. With good reason, he says, “When the chief executive of Barclays knows nothing about the Quakers [who founded the bank], or why the Quakers set the business up, when Cadbury can be sold in six weeks flat and 200 years of values can get chucked away; that is what happens when you start with the naïve assumption that ‘they can come in and take 20 per cent and it will all be the same’. So we ain’t gonna risk it.”

Mentor, editor-in-chief and gatekeeper: not the usual roles a managing director would see himself as having. Given that the company almost collapsed because its patriarch hadn’t planned for the future, Adams is determined to make sure Vitsoe is braced for it. The company recently secured the global rights to Dieter Rams’ original furniture designs, and has since released the 620 Chair Programme and 621 Side Table.

Yet Adams’ hope is for Vitsoe to go beyond Rams one day, perhaps even go beyond furniture. He is open to what he calls “living experiment”. “The world is going so fast,” he concludes. “What we are doing now is allowing our minds to be completely open for where this company could be.”

The rules

  1. What time do you like to be in the office at your desk?
    It was 07.10 this morning.
  2. What’s best to prepare for leadership: an MBA or on the job?
    I am deeply sceptical of the whole MBA world.
  3. Describe your management style.
    It’s more about leading, articulating a vision and persuading others to follow.

  4. Are tough decisions best taken by one person?
    Ultimately, yes. But one person has to be relentless in gathering the opinions of others, far and wide, before taking that decision.

  5. Do you want to be liked or respected?
    You cannot stand for something and be liked by everybody.

  6. What does your support team look like?
    A company of great people. I don’t do PAs.

  7. What technology do you carry on a trip?
    An iPhone and iPad and, for the last 28 years, a Braun ET 1866 [designed by Dieter Rams].

  8. Do you read any management books? I would say The Selfish Gene [by Richard Dawkins] is a good one.

  9. Run in the morning? Wine with lunch? Socialise with your team after work?
    The bike is my run. Wine at lunch? I would say virtually never. The last time was probably 18 months ago with somebody I thought I should keep company.

  10. What would your key management advice be?
    It’s about looking out for others rather than yourself. It’s about modesty, self-effacement, altruism. It’s about less ego. That’s my advice; doing it quietly.

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