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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Jan-Patrick Schmitz

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-08-15

Jan-Patrick Schmitz sells love.

Love?

"And passion, emotion, a sense of the moment, well-being," he said. "It's about a state of mind."

It's really all about a pen.

Mr. Schmitz sells the world's best-selling luxury pen, Montblanc. And as president and CEO of Montblanc N.A., he sells it in the company's biggest market - America.

He will not say how many pens he sells each year, but industry reports suggest that Montblanc accounts for 70% of the luxury pen market in America, a luxury pen defined conventionally as costing above $150. And through such sales - and sales of Montblanc jewelry, watches and accouterments - the German-born Mr. Schmitz accounts for 25% of the company's global revenues, Montblanc's single largest market.

So what's a German doing selling Montblanc in America? Isn't it a Swiss-made pen?

"No," Mr. Schmitz said.

Perhaps French, named after the famous mountain?

"No," Mr. Schmitz said.

"We let people think that Montblanc is Swiss or French," he said. "But we're actually a German company, founded exactly 100 years ago in Hamburg. We just don't emphasize our German provenance. We sort of let it stay under the radar. Americans simply wouldn't associate a luxury watch with Germany. Cars and engineering, yes, but not watches."

But Montblanc does have a Swiss connection: its parent organization, Compagnie Financiere Richemont, is based in Geneva. Richemont owns Swiss prestige brands such as Piaget. It has a French connection, too: Richemont owns French luxury brands, including Cartier.

Cartier is just ahead of Montblanc in contributing to Richemont's annual revenues, which were $4.63 billion for the year ending March 31, 2005.That represented a 10% rise above a comparable period for 2004-2005.

Richemont's profits of $629.3 million were an eye-popping 71% above the previous financial year. Little wonder that Mr. Schmitz talks dreamily about his products - he has the sales to support his love for Montblanc.

His personal love-affair with Montblanc began when he was growing up in the northern German town of Flensburg as the son of a businessman, Michael, and a linguist, Helga. When he graduated from an undergraduate institution, his father had a present for him.

With a flourish, and some sentiment as well, Michael Schmitz presented his son with his personal Montblanc, an heirloom.

"I was moved to tears," Mr. Schmitz.

Those tears quickly evaporated when his father told him that although he would also give his son money to attend Southern Illinois University, he would have to fully repay the money once he'd received his MBA.

At Southern Illinois, Mr. Schmitz raced through a two-year program in almost half the time. Since his high school sweetheart Nathalie Tiepoldt, an investment banker, had been transferred from Deutsche Bank's office in Toronto to its Frankfurt headquarters, Mr. Schmitz moved back to his country.

There he applied to Montblanc, whose Hamburg headquarters weren't very far from his hometown. On his first day at work, he received a surprise.

It was the job of comptroller for Asia. Soon Mr. Schmitz found himself in Japan as president of Montblanc's operations there. In his six years there, he expanded Montblanc's market share significantly - Montblanc has 70 markets around the world - and the brand became the market leaders.

What was it like for a German to work in Japan?

For one, he learned the delicate art of negotiating with people of other cultures. He learned patience. He learned that good business is often the result of good personal relationships.

He did not learn Japanese.

Why?

"I left that to my wife," Mr. Schmitz said. 'She became totally fluent in the language.

They had hardly returned home to Hamburg when he was named president and CEO of Montblanc's biggest operation. Mr. Schmitz was 35 years old when he came with wife and two young children to America.

His biggest challenge in America was the fact that Montblanc was already a well-known brand by the time he arrived in New York in 2003. So what to do?

Mr. Schmitz set about opening Montblanc boutiques, and stepped up advertising the pen as an "ownership experience." One of those ads features a film star who almost never does commercials, Johnny Depp. Mr. Depp had been a longtime user of Montblanc pens. Another star Mr. Schmitz roped in was Julianne Moore.

He felt that both these stars would enhance Montblanc's appeal to the majority of its customers, women.

"Women see the Montblanc as a treasured gift for their loved ones," he said.

Now he's about to launch limited-edition commemorative pens, one honoring the late Greta Garbo, and the other in felicitation of the Julliard School of Music.

Why these models now?

"They are icons," Mr. Schmitz said of Garbo and Julliard.

He added that had Garbo lived, she would have turned 100 next month, just like Julliard and, of course, his beloved pen.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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