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SPEAKING for his nibs

Karl-Heinz Handke: emphasis on craftsmanship

Karl-Heinz Handke: emphasis on craftsmanship  

"WOULDN'T MY wife kill me if I sent her an SMS message for Valentine's Day?!" asks Karl-Heinz Handke. So, what the President of the Western Hemisphere, Mont Blanc, sends his wife every February 14 is a message written with his very own hand, with that very personal flourish. Needless to say, with a Mont Blanc — the one handed down to him by his grandfather, when he was a little boy. This family heirloom will, of course, go to his daughter next.

Mont Blanc is keen on expanding business and brand profile. That's why the company — which started out as Simplo Filler Pen Company in 1906 — manufactures today not just writing instruments, but a whole range of lifestyle products including leather accessories, watches, and sunglasses.

But it is very keen on preserving the "piece of cultural heritage" tag that it has come to acquire over the years.

In his 20-year association with Mont Blanc, Mr. Handke is credited with introducing a new distribution system with emphasis on boutiques and diversification of image as a luxury brand.

World over, there are now plush parlours that exclusively sell Mont Blanc products. One was opened in the city last week at Leela Galleria, and Mr. Handke was here for the opening. But the changes do not point to the death of the fine art of writing in the digital age, insists Mr. Handke.

"The fountain pen business is, in fact, booming," he says. "We are doing well not despite electronic communication, but because of it!"

Mont Blanc makes watches and wallets only to make sure that the "brand aficionados" don't have to go out of the fold for other accessories and not because the pens are selling any less. Mr. Handke comes up with his own reading of history to validate the argument: writing was a symbol of art and culture when few could write. And then came a time when writing became "common" because just anyone could write. Now, as the world goes all digital, writing is again becoming an expression of culture and style.

Mont Blanc is all for turning the information technology revolution to its advantage, though.

In America and Canada, it has online refill stores. "There aren't very many pen shops in America and it makes no sense to expect someone to drive 50 miles to get refill for his or her fountain pen," explains Mr. Handke. "But we don't mean to do this in other places. After all, there is no replacement for the experience of hand-picking a pen, filling it up, and writing with it."

SPEAKING for his nibs

And it's the magic of the human hand that Mont Blanc really values. If there is one thing that marks Mont Blanc apart, it is the emphasis on craftsmanship in a "plastic here, plastic there" world, says Mr. Handke.

He fishes out his wallet and says, running his fingers on its smooth surface: "See how it feels!" The skin for Mont Blanc's leather products comes from a special sheep farm on the French-Spanish border and every process is carefully monitored. "We don't buy nibs from someone else. We buy sheets of gold and make them all and test each individually. These are products with a soul." But why a flagship store in Bangalore? Are we a city of people well heeled enough to buy "products with a soul"?

Mr. Handke, who had to fly back home immediately after the launch of the store to play a soccer match the next day, didn't get to see Bangalore beyond the swanky corridors of the seven-star hotel where he was staying.

But he knows the city well enough by its newfound reputation — of style and software money. "Bangalore is one of the 10 cities to be in," he says, with the confidence of a well-honed businessman.

B.S.

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