Marlene Kittel

Marlene Kittel

Managing Director,
HappyFoto GmbH
Alumna since 2017

"Only what you like to do, you do well"

Six weeks before the first lockdown started in Austria, Strategy& alumna Marlene Kittel took over the family business from her father who still owns the company and continues to support his daughter, but has stepped down from the operational business. She now runs HappyFoto, the market leader of personalized photo products via postal mailing in Austria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. In a recent interview with Strategy&, the 33-year-old businesswoman talks about growing up in a family business, her consulting experience, and the importance of having an entrepreneurial mindset.

Before joining HappyFoto, you spent more than four years at Strategy&. What made you decide to go into consulting?
During my [academic] studies, I was already interested in strategy consulting, so I attended a “Crack the Case” workshop at the Strategy& office in Vienna. The company made a positive, lasting impression on me. After earning my master’s degree, I applied and was hired. I still believe it was the best education and preparation for my current job. In consulting you learn analytical thinking and solving complex issues — I would not have been able to develop that much professionally and personally anywhere else in that short amount of time.

You mentioned some of the skills that consulting taught you. What influences do you take from growing up in a family business?
Our company has always played an important role. I have been influenced by the business from an early age, and I think I adopted a certain entrepreneurial mindset from that environment. That’s why I accepted almost immediately when my father asked me to join the company. But above all, my father passed on one important principle to me: If you want to achieve something, you must work hard. During the summer vacations, I always helped out in the company. We were all very hands-on. No exceptions, even if you are the boss’s daughter. That’s still the case now: In high season, when it’s busy, I’m sometimes on the production floor for 12 hours a day.

HappyFoto was named Austria’s best family business in 2020. What is the secret behind the success?
In many ways, the award was honoring my father’s work. He built the company and led it for over 40 years. He was always a pioneer in the industry, and he was never afraid to try out new things. I believe that’s also a secret of success — not being afraid of new endeavors. Instead, we evaluate the risks and try things out. My dad also had a good nose for trends, which I hope he passed on to me. In general, however, I believe that a long-term perspective is an important success factor in family businesses. Instead of concentrating on maximizing sales and dividends in the short term, the focus lies on the long-term development of the company.

How has the pandemic affected your business so far?
The limitations resulting from the pandemic situation naturally affect sales of personalized photo products. At the beginning of the first lockdown, we saw a slight increase in sales — people were at home and had time to process old photos. After that, however, sales plummeted. There was simply a lack of trips, weddings, and christenings to capture on photos. We had to put some employees on reduced hours and find a balance between protecting staff and keeping the production up and running. However, I am optimistic. Usually six weeks before Christmas we make 40 percent of annual sales as customers like to send personalized gifts from afar even now. Last year the high season was even more intense, so let’s see how it will be this year.

According to a recent PwC study, most family businesses have some catching up to do when it comes to digitization and sustainability. How does your industry compare?
Digitization reached the photo industry early on. We had to evolve and we continue to do so today. Our company recently launched an AI-powered app that automatically chooses the best shots, as we know customers tend to have many pictures on their phones without looking at them. As for sustainability, conducting business in a conscious way has been important to my father since the beginning of the company. In 1996, we were the first photo wholesale laboratory to be environmentally certified according to ISO 14001, the International Organization for Standardization. Today, we already generate the electricity for the digital printing of photo books and calendars ourselves through photovoltaics on our roof and have grown a huge flower meadow next to our premises to stimulate biodiversity. Next, we will conduct a CO2 footprint analysis and create a road map how to achieve carbon neutrality of our production.

Do you have any advice for the next generation of family business owners?
I think it is most important that the handover of the business is properly regulated, as many family businesses have failed [in that area]. And you should only take over the business if you really want to. Only what you like to do, you do well. Regardless of whether you run a family business or are firmly established in professional life, you must take the time to reflect. In everyday life, you tend to forget to press the stop button and ask yourself, “Am I happy with what I’m doing, or do I need to change something?”

As part of a series of interviews with alumni, this one was conducted and edited by Ina Fischer, Strategy& and Jen Swetzoff, founder of CLOSEUP, a creative studio in Brooklyn, New York. Jen was formerly the deputy managing editor at strategy+business magazine.

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