Following 20 years in leadership roles in different parts of the world, Nabil Francis took over as CEO of Felco in 2021. Driven by the gardening craze, the company saw a significant increase in sales that year.
Since 1945, Felco has been producing pruning shears and other pruning tools used in viticulture, horticulture, and arboriculture in Les Geneveys-sur-Coffrane (NE), as well as cable shears for professionals. Last year, its sales jumped by 30%. As a result, Nabil Francis became the new head of the company as its majority shareholder. He will guide Felco through the challenges that lie ahead: maintaining production in Switzerland, digitizing sales and developing connected devices. With this growth, the SME aims to double its production capacity in the coming years. Here we meet with Nabil Francis.
How do you explain the sales boom that Felco SA experienced in 2021?
Nabil Francis: The pandemic sparked a renewed interest in gardening as a hobby for many people. Thus, Felco now has a growing number of enthusiastic amateurs among its customers who are looking for professional tools. Beyond the actual tool, they are buying into emotion, because the act of pruning is something important: you sculpt nature with your pruning shears.
The other reason is that many of our competitors source from Asia and have been held back by the shortage of raw materials. We manufacture our pruning shears in Switzerland and have not been too inconvenienced by this. We are proud to promote local distribution channels, even if this presents big challenges due to the cost of labor in Switzerland and the strong franc.
Only 7% of your tools are sold in Switzerland, the other 93% being for export. How do you stand out from the competition?
Francis: We sell our products in 120 countries around the world. As a result of our Swiss quality and the high performance of our tools, we are ranked number one in several wine-growing regions, such as California. We have seven subsidiaries around the world that help us distribute our products. We are unique in that we position ourselves at the top end of the market, which remains a niche for the field. And we have a unique approach to interchangeable parts. People bring us their grandfather's pruning shears, found in the garden shed. We can repair them because the parts we made 75 years ago are still produced today.
You took over the management of the company in 2021. What led you to this decision and why?
Francis: My wife is the granddaughter of Felco's founder, Felix Flisch. When I met her twenty years ago in Sri Lanka, I was starting my career in the building materials industry, an activity that I pursued until last year in various countries in Asia and Europe. When the opportunity to take over Felco came up, we gave it some thought. I came to visit the premises. I was already on the board of directors, but that doesn't give you a full view of the company's operations. I realized that I was captivated by this iconic brand whose tools can be found all over the world. I told myself that there was potential, that there were great challenges. And I threw myself into it.
What are those challenges?
Francis: Continuing to produce in Switzerland requires us to be very good in production processes. We are already well into automation, but this requires investment. Today, Felco has over 320 employees: 280 in Switzerland and 40 in our overseas subsidiaries. We hired a lot of people last year. This also requires investment. It is important that Felco remains a family business, with its associated culture, a tradition of caring and putting people at the center.
Another challenge is digitalization, especially in online sales. We have to adapt constantly, and also in terms of the way we communicate. For example, our website has a lot of technical information as it still focuses too much on professionals. We need to adapt it to a wider audience.
In your opinion, what is key to a successful change of direction?
Francis: I think it is a combination of continuity and change. You need to know how to keep what works, in line with company values, without forgetting to adapt to change because the world is constantly evolving.
Is there anything new you wanted to bring to Felco?
Francis: For me, growth is essential to a company's well-being. It also allows us to constantly question ourselves. That's why I wanted to be a little more aggressive in terms of growth objectives. And when it comes to innovation, I prefer the optimism of action to the pessimism of intelligence. In Switzerland, we like things to be done well, and we often want to be perfect. But then, we are afraid of failure when we are faced with something new. Being good at innovation requires us not to fear failure. If you launch ten innovation projects and two are successful, that's good. You don't have to wait for all ten to succeed on the first try.
What are some of the innovations at Felco?
Francis: We are developing innovative electro-portable pruning shears: with one click, we can cut 45 mm of dry oak. We are also launching digital solutions to support people working in the vineyards, allowing them to geo-map a plot and report, for example, a sick vine.