Why not simply rent your light?

Im Gespräch: Ulrich Schumacher

Mar 15, 2016
Since October 2013 Ulrich Schumacher is CEO of the Zumtobel Group. Photo © Zumtobel Group

Anyone who talks to Ulrich Schumacher can’t avoid the topic of “cars” because he is a passionate connoisseur and fan of vintage cars. What that has to do with light becomes apparent within the first few minutes of talking to him: Using Lifecam, Ulrich Schumacher switches to his garage, which is more like a showroom, steering the light there with his iPad. As he shifts the app’s regulator upwards, he enthuses: “You see entirely different cars depending on whether you choose cold-white or warm-white light. If you now, let’s say, switch all the others to darkness and aim the spotlight at just the one car, then that creates an entirely different character, an entirely different space to when you have a bright glow on all the cars from the illuminated ceiling.” It almost seems as if in private too, the electrical engineer is experimenting with everything the Zumtobel Group has to offer in the way of lighting solutions. Schumacher has been Chairman of the Board at the company since October 2013. He aims to be anything but the typical manager. Time and again he shows his upfront, typically Rhineland manner, never mincing his words. This may, in part, be deliberate – after all some media describe him as “unconventional”. Either way, a chat with him cannot fail to be exciting and entertaining.

Adeline Seidel: Mr. Schumacher, this is the first time you have been in charge of a design and architecture-oriented company, since this description didn’t apply to Infineon or Grace Semiconductor, for example. As a straight-to-the-point technician, is good design really your thing?

Ulrich Schumacher: I personally like aesthetically pleasing things, otherwise I wouldn’t collect vintage cars. There, though, it’s not primarily about progress; rather a car like that is a work of art. Professionally, on the other hand, I come from the semiconductor business – which is probably the most mundane technology product in the world. Design and aesthetics are of course very important parameters for a lighting corporation, and collaboration with leading international architects and artists a very exciting way of differentiating our premium brand Zumtobel. For me, it is an important task to bring an awareness of design to bear across the entire breadth of the company.

Zumtobel Masterpieces: on the left "Starbrick" by Olafur Eliasson - on the right "eL" by Daniel Libeskind. Photos © Zumtobel Group

What sort of image did you have of the Zumtobel Group when you started here?

Ulrich Schumacher: When I arrived at the company I was confronted with – at the “frontend”, if you like – an aesthetic product. On an individual basis you might like this or not, but it’s not simply about a technical product. At the “backend”, however, it is of course pure technology, created from an entirely industrial “backbone”. These two worlds need to be more closely linked. However, if you look at design as a solution to specific building situations and architectural needs, then the company acquires an entirely different position. Then it is a matter of bringing together two very different worlds, but you need to master both of them.

How do you intend to do that?

Ulrich Schumacher: You need modular systems that can respond to all the different construction situations. And you need solutions, such as technological upgrades or the reinterpretation of your installed lighting base, that can be retrospectively adapted. Of course you can pick at the cement roofing to install new channels, because it’s inevitable – we all know that feeling – that the outlet will be in the wrong place. But that costs huge amounts of money – and as soon as the requirements and demands change, the whole thing has to begin again. I had the same problem in my own house and so on a whim I decided to set up our LED “Supersystem”. With just a few design-related measures, you can use the system to develop a product that works as well on the ceiling of a home as in a shop or a gallery, and enables you to position light exactly where you want it. And the most important thing? It remains flexible. In addition, all lights should be responsive by means of their IP addresses, so that you are able to control them individually … and that’s it. This way we meet a need that arises time and again – without having to make compromises.

At the Light + Building 2016, Zumtobel Group presented for the first time all five brands in one booth architecture. Photo © Zumtobel Group

Were such systems previously thought to be less flexible, even omnipotent?

Ulrich Schumacher: Only a very few. Through the Zumtobel Group’s broad brand portfolio you can opt for different product families for one and the same application – for different qualities and price scales. For me though, with all the products it’s basically about perfection right down to the last detail. Sometimes this can get lost if industrialization advances too much. In my own home I’m currently getting annoyed simply by the absurdly expensive, all-singing, all-dancing spotlights that cannot actually be dimmed to nothing. They only go down to one percent – which in our eyes is still quite bright for a romantic occasion – and then simply switch off to nothing. I would like these spots to continue to dim down to the last percent. That would really be high end!

Does that mean that Zumtobel products should be the lighting solution for everyone – including for private households?

Ulrich Schumacher: The strategic further development of the products comes from a different stimulus: If I’m just doing “design”, then perhaps I get one customer or another, but I’m not scaling. And then I’m not really making the most of new technologies. I’m also not making use of the Internet of Things … ultimately I’ll be starving in a corner until the day when I eventually find my niche. On the other hand, if I aim solely at volume, then sooner or later the Asians will simply overtake me, because they are able to do this kind of business three times better than I am. But with a combination of both – technology and innovation in the backend and explicitly customer-specific solutions in the frontend – that takes us forward, brings us stability. After all, to exist in the market we need turnover. Only then can I invest corresponding sums into research and development without the company falling into ruin.

What exactly does that mean? How will the Zumtobel Group change within the next three or four years?

Ulrich Schumacher: We are a big company with a background strongly characterized by industry. Smaller companies are more mobile here, as well as more innovative and customer-focused. But we want to combine the advantages of both corporate structures in future. At the frontend we want to operate like 100 small companies – with each one having exactly what it needs. In the backend, though, we are one big company.

The Light Forum in Dornbirn looks like a work by James Turrell. Zumbobel and Turrell have often worked together. Photo © Adam Drobiec, Stylepark

How do you want to implement the concept?

Ulrich Schumacher: We are working on three levels. Firstly on the cultural level, which is the most difficult. Here we want to convert the product-oriented sales operation to a customer-oriented service business. In other words, it’s not just about taking light to an individual, but rather offering complete lighting solutions. In projects with architects like Zaha Hadid, Norman Foster and David Chipperfield this is already happening, because we are in contact with them early on – and generally the approach is to work together on the best-possible solution. But of course it can’t all be about star architects with their huge projects. The local architect should also be catered to with the same degree of empathy. This involves a huge process of cultural change in the sales division. So how do we get there? Acquisitions will certainly play an important role here, because it’s not easy to clone that all-important “feel” for a specific clientele and market situation. We already took such a step with the acquisition of acdc last fall. acdc is a very vibrant brand that in the course of collaboration with leading light planners has developed a fantastic portfolio of LED luminaires for facades, hotels, shops and private homes that perfectly complements our existing offerings. Our task now is to use our global distribution network to scale up the potential of acdc. The key mission will be to maintain the company’s DNA and not damage it along the way. If you always bang your own brand name on things, then the innovative potential and dynamic spirit of a brand such as acdc is swiftly a thing of the past... and that is exactly what we don’t want. The brand portfolio that has been achieved needs to be exploited as best as possible.

If the products are no longer offered in the classic style in the form of a catalog, how do I as a customer get an overview of my options?

Ulrich Schumacher: We have to be honest: Investors and property developers generally have no or just a very, very rough idea of what they want. I’ll give you an example: The boss of a large automobile supplier visits and we first take him to our light forum and show him what possibilities there are and what LED technology has to offer. He personally recognizes only the rows of fluorescent tubes that hang from the ceiling in his factories. You enable him to understand how he can use our technology to regulate and manage all the systems and eventually you say to him that by doing so he can make energy savings of 80 percent – then very soon you have a contract to provide lighting for 52 factories. That means that even with a topic as mundane as lighting for a factory hall, you first open up the theme as a whole via the emotional route with an aesthetic impulse. The requirements will be different for artist XY, who is planning an exhibition. For him too, we initially show what light and lighting scenarios are possible in the light forum. These are just two examples. But the fundamental principle applies: The point of entry is always the emotional angle and the perception of light, not the lights themselves.

Eventually everything is installed and works beautifully. Then the circumstances change, though, and I as your customer can no longer afford to reinstall everything again. A visit to the light forum won’t really help in these circumstances will it?

Ulrich Schumacher: To that end you can now rely on the “Zumtobel All-In Support Package”. Out clients no longer need to buy luminaires, they can simply rent light.

When visiting the Zumtobel Group Light Forum is about the perception of light, not the luminaire. Photo © Zumtobel Group

And how does that work?

Ulrich Schumacher: Yes, that’s right. It’s based on the second level we’re planning: developing new turnover models. In order to participate in technological developments, I don’t necessarily have to own the technology. Just think about your computer – that can also be leased. This way you can always have the latest thing and participate in the innovation. Exactly the same thing applies to light. Let’s assume you simply rent the light. Then you need no longer make any investments. We take care of the financing and the implementation; we install, operate and maintain the new lighting system. And we also continually make suggestions for improving control of the system, because we have 150 systems of this type in operation around the world and are constantly learning from them. Each month we are able to provide an update that saves even more energy – and you need not do anything towards this. And if, in three or four or five years’ time, we believe you need a new generation of LEDs or lights, then we make modifications, which are financed by the savings.

What exactly do I then purchase from Zumtobel in the future?

Ulrich Schumacher: You get a very straightforward contract with us: We supply a lighting service along with energy savings and enhanced light quality. The client pays monthly rental rather that an upfront investment. We finance the investment from the energy savings made. Everything that additionally get saved we then split with the client. In other words, as a company we no longer only finance ourselves by manufacturing products, which almost become secondary, and instead finance operations through this service model.

You managed to poach Rogier van der Heide from Philips. What is your intention for the Zumtobel Group in appointing such a key figure in the lighting industry?

Ulrich Schumacher: Rogier is an extremely creative person and that’s part of the reason why he was brought on board. However, he does clarify the direction in which the company is going – and that is also closely connected to the Internet of Things. And this is where we come to the third level, which will change the direction of Zumtobel Group over the coming years. At the moment, for example, we are working on a user interface for smart devices for controlling light in hotels. Currently each hotel has a different system, and by the time you’ve got to grips with it you’re generally leaving … I therefore need a user interface that is as simple as possible, a light control system that is as self-explanatory as possible, which I can network with the hotel system problem-free via the existing Wi-Fi and with which I can retrieve my personal scenarios easily. The entertainment system can likewise be integrated, perhaps the heating too, and then you have already dealt with 100 percent of what you need to control in a hotel room. If every device has an IP address, then any efforts at standardization also become superfluous, as then it’s the software alone that makes a difference. That’s a very good illustration of the balancing act the company is currently trying to achieve: To the front we are experimenting on things that will 100% emerge, but first still need to be tapped into; to the back we are changing product lines and processes. It’s a little bit like a transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age. (laughs)

It remains to be seen whether you can rent light in the future at the Zumtobel Group. Photo © Zumtobel Group-