Marchon’s new president Thomas Burkhardt didn’t have to move far for his job — in fact, he only moved down the hall.
Burkhardt settled into the job six months ago after serving as the eyewear company’s chief marketing officer and senior vice president of global brands for almost seven years. He is now delicately angling to breathe new verve into a company that this year celebrates its 40th anniversary.
“Being a marketer by education, I can bring a different impulse to the business,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean Burkhardt is only concerned about image. He and former president Nicola Zotta — who last year moved back to Italy to become chief executive officer of Artsana — worked closely and set a long-term strategy for Marchon together. The plan looks to bring the company into the future by automating certain functions, streamlining departments and focusing on service and design — and those are the plans Burkhardt intends to still carry out.
“We have executed that plan and there was a large transition aspect that wasn’t necessarily visible to the consumer that is about modernizing system processes and becoming more efficient. A lot of the heavy lifting is done and what I’m focusing on with everyone is now where we want to be in the mid and long terms as an eyewear company in an evolving industry and the role we want to play,” Burkhardt said.
“The industry structure is evolving rapidly and there has been a lot of consolidation. Being one of the big guys in the field, we can be an actor and not a reactor,” he added.
Marchon is a subsidiary of VSP Vision Care, giving the company the weight and influence of an even larger eyewear player.
In looking at Marchon’s portfolio of licenses, three main categories stick out: Performance, with blue-chip deals like Nike, which Marchon has held since 1999; Fashion, like tie-ups with Lanvin and Ferragamo, and then wedged in-between are lifestyle brands like Shinola and Nautica.
But they all have something in common — a tailor-made approach that Marchon is known for. The company is rare in that nearly all its components are custom-made for clients; the weight of the plastics used for luxury clients feels as heavy and authentic as vintage pieces from a bygone decade.
Service, according to Burkhardt, is integral to Marchon’s original business plan.
“Service was originally a focus [set by our founders], it’s a relationship with licensors that can be tricky to navigate. We have to figure out how we can help and gain their trust,” Burkhardt said. “Many licensors are not at home in eyewear so when you start working together there is so much education. We develop that trust because we know the business in and out — it’s something we have succeeded in, particularly with some of the larger companies we work with.”
Marchon is also responsible for the production and distribution of its clients’ eyewear. Part of this process has moved online and been made more efficient — a change that, while already planned for implementation, was expedited out of necessity during the pandemic.
“In 2019, we began experimenting to move more digitally [internally] and so when COVID-19 hit, no one could fly but we already had the tools in people’s phones,” Burkhardt said.
Marchon has streamlined its approach to merchandising collections — which previously required extensive travel and in-person hours clocked in Italy.
“We put a lot of time and effort into digitizing our assessment of collections. The merchandising is done digitally. Before COVID-19 we would fly executives from around the world to Italy to look at frames in a room for four days and pick what we wanted to sell,” Burkhardt said.
Now, “instead of flying 30 executives, we have 350 people digitally on their phones and the accuracy of our forecasting has doubled due to the wisdom of the crowd. We have more eyes on the product — and more money is saved when it comes to merchandising the collections, but also more people feel involved in the process,” the executive said.
This has given the company more financial wiggle room when it comes to unpredictable global trade conditions.
Burkhardt said 2022 finished strong despite continued retail closures across key cities in China. “We are off to a very good start for 2023; obviously this time around the exchange rate is helping us. Sales are growing very nicely, in line or slightly ahead of what was planned,” he said.
He specified that the U.S. market is going strong, while Europe and Asia continue to rebound.
Burkhardt chalks up healthy sales in the U.S. — where inflation has now inevitably cut into the average consumer’s discretionary spending budgets — to Americans’ compulsory shopping habits.
“So many people haven’t been through a proper economic crisis in some time, it’s incomprehensible to them after COVID-19 and even with inflation it’s not what their parents experienced. Therefore people worked off their debt during COVID-19 and may be happy to take on more — it’s just general consumption habits,” he said.
Marchon’s main manufacturing facility is located in Puos D’Alpago, Italy, but the company does produce components in China as well. Burkhardt is carefully watching trade conditions as the U.S. and China’s relationship continues to turn icy.
“We are watching it — it’s not something that is new to us. Even before COVID-19, we — and many others — began looking at other markets for sourcing in Vietnam and Cambodia,” he said.
At the same time, “the general level of service and quality [in China] is still a barrier for other markets and they are not there yet. We have to give the Chinese many credits for what they have built — it’s world class,” Burkhardt added.
Inflation has been a sticking point for a company that is manufactured and distributed on a global scale. The executive says he is up for the task.
“I had been a marketer for 25 years, but the nice thing is my upbringing of 14 years at Proctor & Gamble where I went through management training. I have surprised some people in our finance department,” Burkhardt said of his prior executive knowledge.
“Every morning I look at the exchange rate [first thing] and spend a lot more time with my chief financial officer than I used to, because we don’t want to push [all our rising costs] through to the consumer. We have to be efficient as a company,” he said.
The executive described Marchon’s approach to inflation as “splitting the bill.” The company did apply some price increases, “but kept them at less than half of inflation. Our forecasting and all that work we did through COVID-19 helped create savings.”
Burkhardt said the largest increases the company has seen are labor costs, transportation and logistics and — as an American company — previously unfavorable exchange rates.
On a stylistic note, Burkhardt has observed what optical shops recently told WWD is an emerging trend: Consumers buying multiple pairs of eyeglass frames to match to their outfits.
“It’s a talking point for sure — people are more daring in a sense because consumers are more comfortable with expressive eyewear,” he said.
This is also partly due to increased competition in the lens space — which has ultimately pushed the price of lenses down, therefore lowering the barrier for eyewear purchases. “That’s an area with more competition to the consumer’s benefit,” Burkhardt said.
As high fashion continues to influence the category, Marchon holds the eyewear cards for one of the more closely watched brand reinventions in recent seasons.
The company has held the license for Ferragamo since 2012 and the Italian brand now under the aesthetic tutelage of young designer Maximilian Davis.
“It’s just very exciting with Maximilian coming in at the age of 27 to bring a different view into a brand that’s been around more than 70 years. He is doing it without any arrogance and an understanding of the heritage of the house but is also considering what references he grew up with and what fashion means today. We really enjoy working with him,” Burkhardt said.
This is all being done amid Marchon’s significant sustainability goals. “We have urgently set a goal for more than 50 percent of our styles to be made from sustainable materials by 2025. That could mean replacing fossil fuel plastics with plant-based ones or recycled aluminum. More and more materials are being made in a sustainable way,” he said.
Luckily, the company is ahead of its goal – piquing Burkhardt’s executive ambition.
“To my surprise, we are at 25 percent already. So it’s now my job to think about how we can exceed that target,” he laughed.