If you’ve ever been in an art shop (or an artist’s studio) you’ll probably know Colart, although perhaps not by name. This is the company behind long established paint brands – like Windsor & Newton and Lefranc & Bourgeois – the go to materials for professional artists. Now the recently joined CEO, Dennis van Schie – who worked his way up through the ranks at Eriksson to become Chief Commercial Officer for Sony mobile – is on a mission take lessons from this tech brand and modernise the company.
The challenge is perhaps best summarised in a recent entry on Glassdoor, which describes Colart as a “rotten place” and urges the company to purge “the dinosaurs” and get more decent leadership in like van Schie himself. van Schie carefully describes it as a “very different place from the tech world” when I speak to him over the phone and adds he is “doing a massive amount of work to change the culture of the company”.
In the wider world, however, connecting artists is a flourishing business and this is precisely the area Colart wants to get into. Over the last few years there has been a surge in online communities aimed to unite both art buyers and artists, with platforms like Saachi.com and Artfinder.com attracting a lot of diverse professionals. Artfinder especially is doing some really leading edge work to surface art works and build a truly engaged community of artists at all levels.
“We’re seeing a tremendous upsurge in artists and creative professionals everywhere,” suggests van Schie who sees creativity as the space to be in during the “fourth industrial revolution”.
Ultimately his aim is to diversify and extend the reach of Colart products and draw together the current customers who use them. He tells me three or four times, during our short phone call, that his aim is to transform Colart from traditional paint maker into “creative lifestyle brand” which in turn means the company needs to move from an industrial company to a service company.
“Art as a four step process,” says van Schie. This comprises of inspiration, education, creation and distribution but “at the moment we only have a part in the creation element – we want to be involved in all four stages.” The strategy for growth, he explains, is to clean up the portfolio of products, create new channels (“our products are [currently] not for sale in places where people hang out”) and place a greater emphasis on partnerships and acquisition (“most ideas are not within our company”).
This ambition has seen the company run a number of initiatives outside the traditional remit of paint maker. It has seen Colart launch the Griffin Gallery and Griffin Art Prize – which sees the brand turn old fashioned art patron – along with a number of high profile key publicity events (such as a collaboration with artist Bea Haines who turned her great-uncle’s ashes into paint [video]).
The company currently has a 200,000 strong community, says van Schie, which was initiated before he joined and has been built via digital platforms and training through art schools. The aim of course is to develop this further with a new emphasis on digital products. “Apple pencil is our biggest competitor,” says van Schie, who is on a big recruitment drive to bring the necessary skills into the company.
In the end, there is nothing new about an old established brand turning to digitisation to improve its image and their reach. There is also nothing new about aligning physical products with creative initiatives to improve their ‘emotional value’ – Lego is the absolute master here. Yet there is no denying that Colart has some of the most respected, well used, professional products on the market. The real challenge may be to bring it all together when there are so many other digitally savvy art communities out there.
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