I’ve asked a hand full of inspiring and talented people to each write a guest post for the blog to keep you entertained while I’m off on holiday in Southeast Asia. Seventh up is Jette Egelund, the woman behind the Danish design company Vipp.
Jette Egelund is the Chairman of the board and co-owner of Vipp. She is also the daughter of the founder Holger Nielsen. I first met Jette last summer at a styling event at Vipp. During the following dinner we had a very interesting and long talk about Vipp and the design industry. Jette’s story moved me and I have great respect for all the hard work she’s put into building a company around the legacy of her father. I am so pleased that Jette agreed to tell her story in her own words and to let us have a peep into her family album.
How Vipp came to be
The personal story of my company, Vipp, goes far back in time to even before I was born. My father Holger Nielsen, founder of Vipp, was born in 1915. Growing up with a father who was a coppersmith with a small business inspired him to become a smith himself. In the 1930s he began developing steel and metal products for several businesses in area. However, the most important thing that happened around that time was the fact that he met my mother, Marie. They married and had two girls, my sister and me. We moved a little outside the city where I grew up – with my father’s workshop in the backyard.
A fun fact before I go on. Besides being a skilled craftsman, my father had a huge passion for dancing and he established a dance school, which he ran for 21 years with approximately 1,000 students a year.
Anyway, my mother played an essential role in my father’s and my life. She was an entrepreneur and at the age of 23 she opened her own hair salon in Randers. She asked my father to equip the salon, including a pedal bin. She had a specific idea of how it should be designed. The bin should open without the use of hands and be tall enough for her not to bend down with the cut hair. A few months later, the Vipp bin was made. The look, design and function of the bin captured the attention of customers and more and more people requested the bin, particularly doctors, dentists and veterinarians.
I was born in 1950 and where I grew up, we had no daycare. My mother had great success with the hair salon so I spent the first seven years of my life near my father’s workshop, “Holger Nielsens Metalvarefabrik“, with my grandmother looking after me. My father, though, had no plans on teaching or involving me in his business, but I was a curious girl and looked over the shoulder’s of his employees to get glimpses of the action. Despite the increasing numbers of bins manufactured, Vipp continued to be a small business to the day my father died in 1993.
Like my father, I had no intention of taking over Vipp. I had moved to Copenhagen, was in my 40s and had a good job. However, just before he passed away, I promised him that I would help take over the company – although I must admit that I wasn’t quite sure how to do it. I discussed it with my husband and though he did not want anything to do with it, he supported my decision. He could provide for us, as the Vipp gave nothing in return.
Having to learn everything from scratch, I accommodated myself in my old room in Randers during the week and went back home on weekends. I had many trips across Kattegat. Sometimes I was in doubt where home was – Hørsholm or by the factory in Randers?
Thanks to the help of my father’s old employees I slowly became familiar with the production. I started visiting customers – which my father never did. Orders were increasing and I needed more employees. Unfortunately, it turned out my decision about taking over Vipp had not only an economic cost, but also big personal one. My husband of 22 years left me. I was suddenly all by myself with basically no income. That was in 1996 – a very turbulent time for me.
Sometimes things are easier when one has nothing to lose. There is only one way to go -forward. Being alone, I put all time, effort and passion into building Vipp. I was wearing all the “hats”; I was in charge of production, product development, sales, administration, warehouse staff, drivers etc. I visited suppliers and customers. The economy was obviously strained and I had no money for personal affairs. I was even singing in the local church choir to make ends meet. However, the hard work paid off. Sales started increasing. It was still mostly B2B partners – hospitals and the dental sector.
The dream was always there – to bring the Vipp pedal bin to the private customers. I wanted people to experience these beautiful products in their homes – why not, everybody needs a waste bin? Because of the many workflows in constructing of the bin, it had to be customers who were willing to pay for long-lasting quality. I therefore began visiting design shops as they could be the channel I needed to reach the quality-conscious consumers.
The idea that better furniture stores could be a starting point for the distribution of the bin and also the toilet brush was special and at a fair in Frankfurt for furniture and design, I confirmed this assumption. Especially abroad sales began to go well. There were no reservations compared to shops in Denmark, who considered the “dentist bins” old and uncool. The increasing sales required administrative skills for export and the first employee was hired to the office in Randers. Hereafter, I invested in new machinery for the production, recruited a few extra hands beyond the foreman who had joined earlier. Packed lunches were enjoyed in the small 3×4 m2 “canteen”. Mostly I used the breaks to talk to the staff about how we could optimize and make things better.
Hiring employees meant that the Danish Working Environment Authority would stop by to check if everything was in order. Neither the canteen nor machines met the legal standards. I had to improve on all area of the business, which I barely could afford. At the same time more and more orders came in and added pressure on both stock and production. I could not expand the factory in Randers, since it was located in a residential area. The idea of selling the factory in Randers and outsource the production began to emerge. I read in the newspaper “Erhvervsbladet” that outsourcing could be the future for companies like Vipp. At the time I had six different bins in various sizes and shapes, a toilet brush, a laundry basket and an ashtray. In the summer of 1999 I was determined to execute the outsourcing strategy and though it was difficult to leave Randers, I made a deal with a factory on the island of Lolland, who now stood for the entire production.
Back in the summer of ‘99 I initiated the separation of my mother’s house, where I grew up, and the small factory, so my mother, who was then 80 years-old, could stay. It was emotionally tough – I had no certainty that leaving Randers was the right thing to do. Was it okay to make such radical changes while my mother was still alive? And what if I did not succeed?
September 30th 1999 I went back to Zealand. The old van was filled with office items from the factory in Randers. At home my children, Sofie and Kasper, were waiting for me. We met at the place in Lyngby, where the Vipp office was going to be – with production several hundred miles away. Now things really started to take off.
Kasper was studying at the Copenhagen Business School and Sofie did a master in graphic design. I was an educated social worker, had graduate studies on CBS with a master degree in HR – besides my years of apprenticeship as a smith. Together we were able to take the next step!
Since wages were modest, we agreed that my new employees (Kasper and Sofie) would get a part of the ownership in Vipp. Today, the company and all shares are equally divided between us. The responsibility for the daily operation is on Kasper’s shoulders, while Sofie is working hard on the American market – living in Manhattan. Vipp has approximately 40 qualified employees working from the HQ at Islands Brygge, Copenhagen. The portfolio has expanded with many products – from the bin to a suction hook, a kitchen and latest a shelter. Though it has been a tough journey with many (personal) ups-and-downs, it has truly been an amazing experience and it is far from over.
Thank you Jette. I hope you enjoyed reading Jette’s story? It’s amazing what hard work and the will to explore new territory will lead you. A lesson for all of us. If you want to see more of Vipp, please check Vipp.com and find Vipp on Instagram under @vippdotcom. You can also check this and this post from fun styling events at Vipp.
I am loving the guest posts while I’m away – more exciting ones to come, stay tuned!
Photos: Jette Egelund© that nordic feeling
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