The Moodie Davitt Report brings you the latest instalment in our popular series Ten Easy Pieces*, in which we get up close and personal with leading travel retail personalities via ten snapshot questions.
Meet Thomas Bodenmann, Victorinox Head of Global Travel Retail & Fragrances, the man charged with putting the brand’s name at the forefront of travel retail.
1. Where were you born and raised?
I was born and raised in Frauenfeld, a small city in Eastern Switzerland in the Kanton Thurgau near Lake Constance, about 45 minutes east of Zürich. It was a very peaceful place to grow up. In Switzerland we call this area ‘Cider India’ as the region is famous for apples and cider.
In Switzerland, the majority of young people do apprenticeships after high school. At the age of 16 I was chosen for a state apprenticeship in business even though my grades were not that good as I had other interests at that time. But they always took two new apprentices every year; one with good grades and one with not so good ones. I was lucky.
During those years I learnt my lesson that I needed to work hard if I wanted to be successful; I graduated with a diploma.
2. Did you serve in the Swiss army?
Switzerland has mandatory military service and, at the age of 20, I was conscripted for the obligatory 20-week training. Those 20 weeks turned into 40 as I had to ‘volunteer’ to attend the non-commissioned officer school (NCO) because I was deemed to be a bit too outspoken. However, looking back, that was good training; not only physically, but also mentally and I met some good friends.
After my time in the army I decided I wanted to go travelling so went on a round-the-world trip. I started in California and from there I visited West Canada, Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia and Singapore.
After six months, I started to run out of money so I worked in a Turkish restaurant in New Zealand and in hostels in Australia. A few months later, when my money really had run out, I returned home to Switzerland where I started university.
3. What prompted your decision to study Marketing and International Management at St. Gallen University?
I realised that with the education I had my work prospects were limited, so I had to do something else to secure a more interesting job in the future. During the years at St. Gallen I lived the typical student life, somewhere between studying hard and partying. The flat I shared with two friends was famous for glorious after school parties…
Apart from the studies, it was a good decision to move to St. Gallen because it was there that I met my wife, Gabriella.
4. So, armed with a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics, you started work with Kraft Foods in sales. Was that part of the ‘masterplan’ for your future?
After university, I had assessments with the three major FMCG companies – Kraft Foods, Unilever and Mars – who all advised that they saw me more suited to sales than marketing. I have to admit that I was disappointed at first but then found out that they all were right. I chose to work for Kraft Foods which become Mondelez in 2013 and never looked back.
I worked for almost 16 years at Kraft Foods/Mondelez in various positions in sales, key account management and category management. The most interesting part started for me in 2005, when Andreas Fehr [former Managing Director at Mondelez World Travel Retail] was looking for someone to work on the European business. I was offered the opportunity to work on continental Europe for what was then Kraft Foods World Travel Retail.
For me, travel retail was a new world. I ended up working at Kraft Foods Mondelez with Andreas for another 11 years. We had a lot of successes and in my last role I became Head of Regions. At that time I was in my early 40s, had an interesting career and everything was fine.
5. So what prompted your involvement with Victorinox?
I was not looking for a change but, about two and a half years ago, I was approached by Victorinox. They asked me if I would be interested in developing the travel retail business for them. I knew the brand and still had my Swiss Army knife from my days in the army.
My first reaction was, ‘Knives and airports; that’s a difficult one for travel retail.’ And I wasn’t sure that I needed a change in my career. Victorinox were, however, quite insistent and my wife told me I had to talk to them. So I went to meet with them at the flagship shop in Zürich.
I admit I was rather unprepared. I went into the store and the first thing I saw was a showcase of their products; not just knives of course, and it looked great. I thought, wow nobody really knows about the luggage, watches and fragrances. And at that moment something clicked.
The guys I met with were convincing and I even met Mr (Carl) Elsener, who is CEO and great-grandson of Victorinox Founder, Karl Elsener. After talking it over with my wife, I decided I could only win by taking on the role. I was starting from scratch and learning. It was a great opportunity to build something new.
6. How important is Victorinox’s Swiss heritage in today’s market?
Victorinox is an independent, family-run business and Carl Elsener is steering the business in the fourth generation. Victorinox, as a legal entity, is a foundation with the aim of securing labour and providing job opportunities for the people in the beautiful area of Ibach Schwyz.
Victorinox’s key differentiator is its brand heritage, something which very much appeals to lots of consumers today. We are famous all over the world for the iconic Swiss Army Knife and have a long tradition and reputation for quality, functionality, innovation and iconic design.
7. After two years with the company what do you consider your greatest challenge and/or opportunity?
After working for more than ten years at a FMCG giant like Mondelez it was a big change to work for a Swiss family-owned company. The main task I faced was to promote Victorinox as a multi-category brand in travel retail and create awareness, visibility and brand image.
First of all, I had to develop a strategy and figure out how we wanted to present ourselves in the travel retail channel. Then I started to craft a plan about how we can build up the brand and make it more popular in travel retail.
We have a two-way strategy. First, we are really focusing on opening of our own monobrand stores. We currently have one store we are running ourselves in Zürich Airport, our home base. We have 70 Victorinox stores globally in the domestic market, so we have an experienced retail team and we have quite decent retail knowledge. The strategy is to have more of our own retail stores at key hubs like London Heathrow, Amsterdam Schiphol and Frankfurt.
The second part will be seeking opportunities to build the business with retailers through dedicated spaces such as shop-in-shops, corners and pop-up stores, as well as listings in multi-brand environments.
The best-selling category is travel gear because travel retail and travel gear are a great fit. We have functionality aspects that some other brands don’t have, and also the quality is very strong, so we have a differentiated proposition. We already have a nice business with Dufry in Latin America with our travel gear because we are historically strong in the Americas. We are well-known in North America as the Swiss Army brand, but if you go south we are very well-known as the Victorinox brand, particularly in Brazil.
The highlight so far has been this year at Cannes, where we had a super busy fair with a lot of very interesting new opportunities coming up.
8. And a personal challenge?
About five years ago I started running, after my wife told me I was getting fat from all the travelling with work and business dinners.
Unfortunately, like so many who start running, I began to have problems with my knees so the doctor suggested swimming. I started swimming and then read about a planned triathlon; I did my first one around age 40 and have been doing them ever since – no Iron Man stuff and never long distances but I really enjoy them. They are a challenge and I can switch off from work.
My interest in cycling has developed into an annual event with some of my former colleagues from Mondelez. This year we cycled over the Alps from my house in Gutenswil to Ascona, crossing the Lukmanier (an Alpine pass with a climb to 1915m above sea level).
Looking back, I think I was a little ambitious; it was a hell of a ride and there were certainly moments when the other guys didn’t like me very much! One day was particularly tough. After eight or nine hours of cycling we arrived at a village where I had booked a hotel only to find it was located at least 200m above the village. I wasn’t very popular for a while…
9. Do you have a favourite holiday destination?
My wife is Italian and back in the ‘70s her parents came to Switzerland to earn money with a view to returning home, like lots of Italians did. They ended up staying in Switzerland but meanwhile had built a beautiful house in Puglia, Southern Italy, which is where my family and I now enjoy holidays.
We have an old Fiat Punto over there and my children speak perfect Italian. I understand Italian quite well and am pretty sure I could get by but when I speak it my wife and kids start laughing at me as soon as I open my mouth. They say I speak Italian “como una mucca svizzera” (like a Swiss cow).
In general, we love to travel as a family and recently enjoyed a beautiful two-week trip to California.
10. And Thomas Bodenmann in ‘switch off’ mode?
I enjoy spending time with my children; Giulia is 13 and Gian ten. Both are very active and do a lot of sport. They play football at a pretty good level so most Saturdays I support them when they have matches.
I love music, any music really, but in particular rock and hard rock; I listen to Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, Red Hot Chilli Peppers. We recently went to a music festival for Swiss bands, most of which you probably don’t know – or maybe you have heard of Züri West?
Of course, when the kids are in the car I usually find myself listening to the latest hip hop music but that’s OK now and again.
A perfect day at home is doing my training in the morning, supporting Giulia and Gian when they play their weekly football matches, relaxing late afternoon with a good glass of wine with my wife in the garden, and having a barbeque with friends in the evening.
Lastly, I would say my philosophy in life is: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together’ – African proverb.
*PREVIOUSLY FEATURED TEN EASY PIECES PERSONALITIES INCLUDE: