Louis Widmer: "Growth can only be achieved through exports"

Goetz Winter, CEO of Louis Widmer, discusses cooperation with partners, the importance of individual training and why an opportunistic export strategy is out of the question.

Goetz Winter, CEO of Louis Widmer: "We have a clear vision. We are leaders in the area of dermocosmetics and we're going to stay that way."
Goetz Winter, CEO of Louis Widmer: "We have a clear vision. We are leaders in the area of dermocosmetics and we're going to stay that way."

Mr Winter, Louis Widmer started out in 1960 as a three-man operation and has developed into an international company with more than 250 staff members. What makes the business so successful?
We have a clear vision. We are leaders in the area of dermocosmetics and we're going to stay that way. We are the only company that combines cosmetics and pharmaceuticals in its products. The founders Louis-Edouard and Louis-Max Widmer wanted to bring to the market products that would heal troubled skin, maintain a clear complexion and help slow down the aging process. We apply pharmaceutical competence to dermatology and dermocosmetics. We also produce our entire range of cosmetics according to Swissmedic guidelines – so the same regulations that apply to the pharmaceutical industry.

How would you describe the Louis Widmer business model?
Our business model is quite straightforward: We develop products for both healthy and troubled skin and care for it over the course of a lifetime. Our products have their roots in dermatology and pharmaceuticals; they are effective and, in keeping with this approach, they are sold exclusively in pharmacies and some drugstores.

How is digitization changing your business?
It is changing our business in almost all areas. First of all, e-commerce is becoming increasingly important. This doesn't mean, however, that we're now opening our own online shop, but rather that we are supporting our partners so that they are able to present our products professionally. For this purpose, we also need to develop new competences as a company: A Digital Marketing Manager is set to support our partners with online marketing. Personal consultations remain central to the business, and to this end we are offering our partners online training in parallel. There is also an overview of our products – along with advice – on our website. There, the consumer can also find the Store Locator and can find out where to buy the products offline.

Internally as well, new processes are set to change our production. Next year we will be introducing a new ERP system. From goods receipt to the finished product, everything should be digitally trackable. Even now, we still have a lot of manual processes and we see the topic of automation as a step towards the future. This will enable us to be more productive within a smaller space. Digitization is also the regulators: Like all pharmaceutical products, ours will also be assigned a serial number and stored centrally, in line with EU regulations. This way, they can be traced right up to their sale, and the consumer is thus protected from counterfeiting.

Can your products be found on platforms like Alibaba or Amazon?
Yes, but not through our partners. In China, counterfeits are a huge problem. In order to prove that they don't sell counterfeits, there are even sellers who film themselves buying the goods in a shop. We're keen to create our own online shop with Tmall, for example, but only with a local partner. This way, we could get around problems such as animal testing, which is required for certain products in the case of direct imports to China.

You are also represented by subsidiary companies in certain countries. What role do exports play both today and in the future?
Exports now make up around three quarters of our total sales. We want to expand this to 90 percent. Growth can only be achieved through exports! In the saturated Swiss market, growth potential is limited, even with additional products and increased cooperation with partners.

What's your approach to exporting?
We are not opportunistic. We start with a comprehensive analysis of potential in the area of dermocosmetics in order to see which countries have the greatest potential, for example in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. In more distant regions, China and Korea are undoubtedly the markets for cosmetics products. Here, we start with the biggest markets and progress step by step. In the process, however, we also have to take regulatory hurdles into account, and not necessarily start with the most difficult areas. We need to estimate volumes and have to know which companies are present and in what proportions. How will the distribution work – is it the same as here, with pharmacies but also other channels too? What do the shops look like? Are they able to sell our products competently? Professional presentation in the shop and the training required for this by our partners are prerequisites for quality and good sales figures.

What golden rules should SMEs follow when it comes to exporting?
It's better to have fewer customers with higher sales than lots of customers with lower sales. The same applies for exports: It's better to operate in fewer countries with high turnover than in lots of countries with low turnover. Each country must represent a profitable business in itself. This is only possible if you invest in every country in which you are represented and really nurture it. There's a lot of work involved, which is frequently underestimated.


About Goetz Winter
Goetz Winter took over the role of CEO at Louis Widmer SA in February 2017. He had previously spent seven years as managing director of the Estée Lauder Companies in Switzerland. Goetz Winter also worked as General Manager for Switzerland for the La Praire Groupe and Marbert AG.

About Louis Widmer
Louis Widmer AG is based in Schlieren and is an internationally active Swiss cosmetics and pharmaceutical company operating in the fields of skincare and dermatology. The family-run company was founded in September 1960 by Louis-Edouard Widmer and his son Louis-Max Widmer. Annemarie Widmer is now the owner of the company and chair of the Supervisory Board, but the company is managed by Goetz Winter. Louis Widmer has subsidiaries in Austria, Finland, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, and is represented in other countries through collaborations with exclusive representatives and partners.


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