Ross Brownlee has been with Hilco Vision since June 2015 as CEO and board member. His optical wholesale and retail experience include 18 years with Safilo Group, the last six as president and COO for the Americas and president of Solstice LLC in New York, responsible for sales, product planning/development, licensing/marketing, operations and finance. Based in Hong Kong, 1996-2009, Brownlee most recently served as Far East managing director, building Safilo’s commercial structure throughout the area, including seven country subsidiaries and Global Travel Retail.
ED DE GENNARO: With all the high-tech gadgets used by eyecare professionals, how has that affected demand for the hand tools, frames, supplies and consumer accessories that Hilco offers?
ROSS BROWNLEE: Actually, high-tech gadgets haven’t had a significant impact on hand tools and other low-tech devices. The demand remains strong. What really drives Hilco’s professional products business is materials usage. When there was a huge demand for rimless, Hilco created a comprehensive rimless kit that boomed during this period. After that, the market swung toward the heavy use of plastic frames that required less intense fabrication and influenced our business in other ways. Currently, we see a move back to plastic/metal combination frames that are more parts intensive, and we’ll adjust to meet those needs.
DE GENNARO: How will the acquisition of Breitfeld & Schliekert (B&S) and Lexxoo International add to Hilco’s strategic plans?
BROWNLEE: Hilco Vision is well established in the U.S. and has a great tradition and history. What we were seeking was to replicate this strength in Europe. Entering the European market is not just a matter of opening a new business. There are a number of established players there that have the same level of respect that Hilco has in the U.S.
Germany is a very compelling market. B&S is essentially the Hilco of Germany. It is highly regarded and is the market leader for professional tools and accessories. That’s why it made good sense to acquire such a company and swiftly strengthen our presence in the European market. The qualities and values of B&S are very much like those of Hilco, so we saw it as a perfect fit.
We have spent a good deal of time immersing ourselves in B&S’s product world to determine what gaps Hilco might have that they could address. Their team is doing the same thing with Hilco’s products. The two entities combined become so much more powerful, and the strengths of each will be utilized by the other.
DE GENNARO: Will the German company take the Hilco name?
BROWNLEE: No. B&S has done a remarkable job building its brand to stand for trust, quality, service and innovation, so it is wise not to change its name. Structurally, Hilco Vision will be the umbrella under which B&S fits as our German member. Lexoo is another element under that umbrella. It plays in the non-optical channel that sells sunglasses and readymade readers for the consumer market.
DE GENNARO: What other acquisitions are on the horizon for Hilco in the U.S. and around the world?
BROWNLEE: As a company, we’re always looking to build on our U.S. and European platforms when there is a coherence of fit. Not wanting to stop with the B&S acquisition in Germany, we’re looking at the areas around Germany and asking what we can do in order to further build our footprint. Do we focus on areas where we struggle today, do we leverage the German capabilities in other countries or do we acquire national incumbent companies? I imagine we will be quite active in acquisitions, not just for the sake of acquisition but for when it makes sense.
In the biggest European markets, we’re directly present in the U.K. We’re now strong in Germany, but we’re under-represented in Benelux, Italy and France, so those are areas of interest.
DE GENNARO: Art Hilsinger founded Hilco in 1956. What do you think his opinion would be of today’s company?
BROWNLEE: I never had the chance to meet Art, but my predecessor knew him well. Art indicated significant satisfaction with the company’s ability to adapt and evolve. My one takeaway is that Art seemed to place great value on innovation and being customer-centric. That type of mantra pervades the company today and will not change.
DE GENNARO: With over 20,000 SKUs, how do you adjust what you offer?
BROWNLEE: Hilco Vision has built a meaningful business without an outbound selling arm. Customers come to us based on what they’ve found in catalogs. A current initiative is to have a more outbound marketing and sales function enabled by technology. We are trying to better understand our customer, and rather than blasting everything we offer to the entire customer base, we’re focused on segmenting the customer base.