In the fourth and final installment of my entrepreneur series, the focus will be on the visionaries in art, design, and fashion, featuring exclusive interviews with Ugur Ulusoy, Managing Director, ic! berlin, USA, Canada, and Central America and Montreal, Canada’s Samuel Leroux, co-founder, Solios Watches.
Ugur Ulusoy, Managing Director, ic! berlin, USA, Canada, and Central America.
NM: Can you tell me a little about your background?
UU: After studying international business management in Europe, I came to New York City in 1998 to pursue graduate studies. During that time, I started to work for Omnicom, a marketing and advertising agency, in a finance director role. After Omnicom and completing my MBA in business management at Adelphi University, I worked at UK-based marketing and advertising companies, managing their US operations in New York City. Most recently, I was a general manager at John F. Kennedy Airport under OTG Group. After that, I worked at LaGuardia airport as a general manager of American Express Centurion Lounge under Compass Group.
Now, I am happily at ic! berlin. I bring more than 20 years of work and leadership experience from cross-cultural teams in finance, marketing, human resources, technology, and customer relations to increase our team’s success at ic! berlin in the USA, Canada, and Central America.
NM: How did this lead you to your role with ic! berlin?
UU: I had never worked for a German company in the US before, so I said, “why not?” I looked at the ic! berlin frames and fell in love right away. The screwless design of our frames, durability, and the “Style. Made in Germany” caught my attention. In addition, having 20 years of diverse experience in the business world and my education is a perfect match for my role at ic! berlin. I am the managing director of ic! berlin USA, Canada, and Central America.
NM: What is the inspiration and philosophy of your brand?
UU: ic! berlin draws its inspiration from the creativity of our hometown. Berlin’s unyielding, authentic spirit influences the brand’s dedication to the uniqueness and reliability of each handcrafted frame manufactured in our production haus. Our philosophy has always been attention to design detail, quality material, and craftsmanship to produce lightweight frames with timeless design.
NM: What makes ic! berlin so special?
UU: Aside from the handcrafted design, each ic! berlin frame tells a story. Many people do not know that the classic styles are named after current or former ic! berlin employees, or that the Silk models are named after wind patterns from around the world. Equally, frames from our Urban or Rubber collections are named and inspired by Berlin’s architecture. There is an immense amount of time and commitment from our team, from the time the frame is drawn to its entire production – each frame tells the team’s story that’s created it or the city from which it’s inspired.
NM: What is the most important lesson you learned about “doing business” during the pandemic? What challenges have you faced?
UU: Expect the unexpected, have a contingency plan, apply empathy and accountability together in your management style and trust your team.
The team can make you or break you. But unfortunately, you can only do so much by yourself, and it is a recipe to burn yourself out, which has been a growing concern in the business world, especially during the pandemic.
We don’t sell directly to consumers in the USA, Canada, and Central America. Instead, we are dependent on our partnerships with optical shops to secure sales. The challenges are a ‘sign/part of the growth/tests in life’ as we know. We didn’t have a shortage of challenges during the pandemic, for sure. We had to adapt our business’ “wants” to “needs.” We needed to see how we could survive. Imagine you couldn’t collect payments from your customers because they couldn’t open their shops and there is no foot traffic, which generates higher revenue for them. They couldn’t buy more from us, and you have an inventory to burn.
We had product delivery delays because of the shutdowns in Germany and supply chain issues at the Suez Canal. We had a shortage of packaging supplies, for example. We communicated this to our clients and used whatever we had in-house for packaging, and it worked. We had missing deliveries because of certain states’ weather conditions and pandemic rules, so we had to take some losses. The freight and raw materials cost increased suddenly, which we had to observe rather than pass it onto our clients. We also had to adjust our safety procedure in the office and adopt a flexible work program to continue serving our clients.
In addition, we re-structured our operational expenses and negotiated with various suppliers. These adjustments enabled us to develop extended credit terms and payment plans for our customers, who needed them. It worked.
With all the challenges we had to go through, we kept our customers informed. They understood. As Teddy Roosevelt said, “People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.” We continuously believe in the importance of our internal and external partners. Our team is my internal partner, you are my external partners, hopefully, and we will serve you to our best ability.
Last but not least, I exist in my role because of my external and internal partners. So, we will continue to look for ways to improve our partner’s satisfaction. We survived the pandemic and grew in the right direction.
NM: What’s new on the horizon for ic berlin?
UU: In November, we are launching a new custom fit line to serve our clients with smaller nose bridges and lower cheekbones. This collection will feature more masculine models as it is launching after the premiere of our very first exclusive women’s collection. We have also expanded on our partnership with Mercedes-Benz and will launch a new line next year.
Samuel Leroux, co-founder, Solios Watches
NM: Is there a story behind the name Solios?
SL: Yes! Initially, we chose the name ‘Helios.’ We got the idea to make solar watches while in Greece. Helios is the Greek God of the Sun, so the name made total sense to us. However, when we got back to Montreal, we met with a mentor who told us to change the name immediately because there were just too many businesses called Helios. It was a difficult pivot because all of our prototypes were days away from being ready for our launch event, and our lawyers were working on protecting the Helios name. Our partners told us we had four hours to come up with a new name, so we called on all of our friends asking for ideas for a name that would have an “O” close to the end (because all our branding was working off of that) and that would be between five and seven letters. Solios won the day, and we think it’s simply perfect. It’s a nod to Helios blended with reference to the sun (Soleil in French or sol in Spanish).
NM: Can you tell me a little about your background and how it led you to start Solios?
SL: Alex (Alexandre Desabrais) and I met at university in Montreal, where we became good friends and eventually business partners. Before we knew that we were going to make watches, we knew we both wanted to build something that would positively impact the planet. The idea of solar-powered watches came after an enormous amount of research on sustainable options and practices.
In October 2018, after two years of development, we finally got our first prototype and launched Solios through a Kickstarter campaign where we raised $65,000 ($40K more than our initial goal). As watch fanatics, we love automatic watches, but they’re mostly reserved for the elite. We wanted to solve a broader problem: all the overconsumption of watches and the overproduction of batteries caused by the quartz watch. That’s where solar watches come into play perfectly: they keep all the benefits of the quartz watch (there’s a ton!) but remove all the flaws. Over 300 million watch batteries are being produced each year. Although solar technology has existed since 1980, no existing solar watch was both elegant and sustainable. This is Solios’ space. We are creating a watch without any compromise as we are determined to be the first watch to combine solar technology, sustainability, and elegance.
NM: What is the inspiration and philosophy behind Solios?
SL: Our philosophy is “no compromise.” Our inspiration came from the documentary Before the Flood. We realized that despite having good intentions, our life habits often harm the environment. At the same time, we realized that the solutions already existed and all we needed to do was make people aware of how to be better consumers. We wanted to convince people to alter their life habits for the best without asking them to sacrifice anything they value. With that in mind, we design everything with no compromise – which means we go the extra mile with every aspect of our product to create something truly unique in terms of style and sustainability while remaining accessible.
NM: Things are starting to get back to normal. How did you “pivot” during the pandemic to keep your brand and business “alive”?
SL: To be honest, we got very lucky during the pandemic. Since we sell mostly online, our store was never closed. Of course, a watch is not an essential object but the fact that we were positioned on sustainability and local sourcing really resonated with people. One of the very few good things about the pandemic is that it helped raise awareness of the importance of our planet and better consumption. The pandemic did, however, change our business plan. It made us focus more on digital and on our brand, and with that, we managed to double our sales during that period.
NM: What’s new on the horizon for Solios?
SL: We are far from perfect. However, we will always keep learning and improving. To that end, we have some exciting news. One major improvement is that we will transition to a 316L stainless 100% recycled steel that is sourced in a closed circuit to reduce the transport carbon footprint. Usually, stainless steel travels from 25,000 KM to 60,000 KM! Now, it will be close to zero, and the stainless steel is melted using only mirrors, so no energy is needed to produce our new case. It’s phenomenal!
Additionally, we will extend our product lines with new models early next year. A new office and a new boutique will open in Montreal. We also keep a place in the new building to eventually assemble all the watches in Montreal with an automated line of production to have the first mass product watch made in Canada.
Finally, we’re currently working on our new report and initiative to become net neutral in our carbon emissions. We’re really excited about all this news! ■