When Ulrik Garde Due, CEO of Georg Jensen, needs a comfortable place to hold a business conversation in New York, he needn’t bother with a restaurant reservation or choosing a hotel lounge. His newly-remodeled boutique on Madison Avenue—filled with natural light, sofas, an espresso bar, and of course the gleaming silver objets, tableware and accessories that Georg Jensen has crafted since 1904—provides a perfect setting. Elite Traveler Editorial Director Laura Hughes joined Garde Due at the espresso bar this spring, when the executive was in New York for a few days of vacation with his family. He spoke about how a career path across three continents prepared him for the top job at his homeland’s marquis brand; relaunching archival designs while adding completely new pieces to the collections; and the best part of life in Scandinavia.
ET: Your career path has included positions in Europe, Asia and North America, at firms ranging from the fashion category (Burberry, Celine) to ship broking. How have those experiences prepared you for the leadership role you hold today?
Ulrik Garde Due: I learned how important it is to follow your instincts and make sure that whatever you do, you do with passion, and to evolve with it in a natural way. I started in shipping, and was a diplomat, and in real estate, which all taught me different things. But I ended up in luxury retail and knew that was the right thing for me. I was never afraid to change paths when a position wasn’t maximizing my abilities. But the most important lesson is to mix the passion for what you do in work with your life.
ET: You are originally from Denmark. Where do you call home now?
Ulrik Garde Due: My base is London, which is where my family lives. And I have a pied-a-terre in Copenhagen, where I work four to five days a week. So I commute, but it’s only a one-and-a-half-hour flight. There is something about that contrast—the energy of an international city like London and a laid back place by the sea in Denmark—that is very motivating and stimulating to me. It’s also good for business to have about a day per week in London since so many contacts opt to travel through London.
ET: When the opportunity arose to lead Georg Jensen, did the fact that it is a Danish company add appeal for you?
Ulrik Garde Due: I grew up with Georg Jensen, as it is a part of any Dane’s upbringing. I remember the first time I felt a piece of Georg Jensen. My father gave me a Georg Jensen letter opener for confirmation, when I was 15 years old. And he had gotten it from his father. So it is very precious to me. That is something about the brand, it represents timeless design that can be handed down, from one generation to another. It was wonderful for me to have experience at international groups and then come back to one of the few Danish luxury brands. I had been on the board of Royal Copenhagen already for five years—it has the same ownership as Georg Jensen—so it was a natural move professionally since I was already acquainted with the brand. I joined one-and-a-half years ago.
ET: At that point, in 2007, what condition was the company in and where are you taking it now?
Ulrik Garde Due: Then it was losing focus from the real values of the brand. Georg Jensen was focusing on jewelry and watches, and forgetting its lifestyle heritage. Stores had become jewelry and watch stores. Now we have a new store concept that lets customers feel like they have walked into a Danish home. The concept exposes all of our products in a new way. It’s important for us to also focus now on emerging markets, the parts of the world we haven’t worked in aggressively, especially China and the Middle East. And now we have a great focus in the U.S. Our new store concept opened here in New York last November and Bal Harbour opened in January. The response in Bal Harbour has also been phenomenal. Customers there knew the brand well, but now they enter the store, and they see a piece of silver hollowware their grandmother had, and it makes them feel at ease and at home.
ET: Do you participate in the design process?
Ulrik Garde Due: For me, success for a brand like ours is all about the product. We have a lot of focus on our product development, ensuring it maintains a strong Georg Jensen expression. We have to stay very true to the spirit of Georg Jensen across all categories. The archives are a goldmine, they are unbelievable. They contain so much. Our iconic pieces can be made very relevant in today’s world. And we also create new of course, as seen in this year’s Fusion collection. So design is a balancing act of archival pieces and new designs.
ET: Do the artists who collaborate on Georg Jensen collections always have a connection to Scandinavia?
Ulrik Garde Due: It is great for us to work with both Scandinavian and international designers, as long as they understand the Georg Jensen expression. Soon we will announce a new creative director, who has an international profile and understands the Georg Jensen aesthetic. We have not had a creative director since 2007.
ET: What are the most important pieces we’ll see in the Georg Jensen collection this year?
Ulrik Garde Due: Hollowware is very relevant now because these are investment pieces. People come into the boutique and say, “I’d rather buy beautiful silverware than stocks.” You can’t go wrong, especially with timeless designs like these. Also, they are popular on bridal lists and as collectibles. Today people really want to have ownership of real quality and craftsmanship. Even in these times, people definitely still want quality in their homes. Our designs are also relevant today because they are not too flashy. Bling bling was so important over the last few years, and it is really disappearing now. Our sophisticated, elegant designs are what people want in their homes.
Also, our “price pyramids” are very important, since they offer clients good gift ideas ranging from $100 to a couple of thousand dollars. If clients don’t want to buy a piece in sterling silver, there are stainless steel options here as well. These are items they can pick up for any occasion. In a similar way, we are becoming a strong internet gift seller as well.
ET: What is the overall price range for the Georg Jensen collection?
Ulrik Garde Due: The entry price is about $100, or $125 for jewelry. Then it goes all the way up to the most beautiful hollowware Henning Koppel fish dish for $150,000. It takes 750 hours for a silversmith to make by hand.
ET: What are your goals for the rest of 2009?
Ulrik Garde Due: To work aggressively to position the brand as THE Scandinavian luxury lifestyle brand. Whether through our wholesale accounts, public relations, or our own stores, we want to enhance our positioning. Before it was confusing what we stood for. But once you enter this store—which is one of six new stores to have opened in the last four months—you understand exactly what we stand for. Next, we have shop-in-shops in Harrods, Galleries Lafayette in Paris, La Rinascente in Milan, Brown Thomas in Ireland, and our first corner with Bloomingdale’s in New York. That is all coming in the next five months. Then this year we will also open in China and the Middle East. It is a challenging year, but a year we should use to get better at what we do. We are streamlining our back office and operations, and investing in creativity. You don’t stop. You speed up creativity to stimulate consumers and have great new launches ready for 2010.
And, we are relaunching our Heritage jewelry pieces from our archives. They will be styled in a different way, so they look cool again.
We also have new ads running in 2009 that show a Nordic summer night. They will put a human element into the product. For the time we live in, it is very much about emotions, values, quality, craftsmanship, timeless design—these are all Georg Jensen and what people relate to today.
ET: What recent trip, among your leisure travels, stands out in your memory?
Ulrik Garde Due: I love sailing. And sailing through the Swedish archipelago is the best holiday you can have, for me, if the weather is good. I have a boat in Denmark, so it is easy to go up the coast. I’ll sit with the kids in the morning, and we’ll point on a map and say, “This rock is where we are going to sleep tonight.” It’s very healthy, with fishing too, and it makes for a good contrast to the everyday life.