Apple Supplier Dula is Fit to Succeed

Tim Cook im Münsterland
Apple's Tim Cook (center) talks tables with Heinz-Herbert Dustmann (right) in Dula's Vreden workshop in February. Source: dpa

Heinz-Herbert Dustmann’s department store is a little different to similar shops around the world.

Located on a busy high street in Dortmund, it has been transformed into a showroom for Mr. Dustmann’s shop-fitting and office furniture company Dula.

Business customers include Zara, H&M, Dior, BMW and Apple. In fact, Apple CEO Tim Cook flew all the way from his HQ in California to one of Mr. Dustmann’s workshops near Dortmund in February. He commissioned the firm to build the tech giant’s new conference table.

“Thanks to the department store, we are the only store designer in the world that can tell its customers that we not only know your problems, we even have them ourselves,” jokes Mr. Dustmann.

“One thing we cannot do is cheap. Instead we give value for money.”

Heinz-Herbert Dustmann, CEO, Dula Group

At 63, Mr. Dustmann is only one year older than the company his father founded as a design business in 1953. Dula’s first products were built in his father-in-law’s carpentry workshop, but the firm soon got its own. In 1966, Dula built a factory in Franco’s Spain so it could supply a department store chain there – the basis for the business with its key customer Zara.

Today, Dula also has manufacturing facilities in Russia and New York, and sales offices from London to Dubai. The group has 1,067 employees worldwide, and earnings of around €16.3 million ($18.1 million).

It’s still very much a family firm. Mr. Dustmann’s daughter, Carolina Birkenfeld-Dustmann, and his Spanish wife Marisa both help out in Dortmund. Mr. Dustmann got to know Marisa when he was sent to his father’s plant in Spain after finishing his apprenticeships in carpentry and business.

Despite his international connections, Mr. Dustmann is rooted in his homeland, the industrial Ruhr Region. He is proud of his home city, and has recently become president of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce.  His mission is to make the honorable businessman a model to be emulated. “I know of no one who could better personify this image,” says furniture dealer Christian Zurbrüggen, a vice president of the chamber. “Dustmann has made a lot of strategically correct decisions for his company. On a personal level, he is very direct, open and always honest.”

Mr. Dustmann says he sometimes suffers as a result. “Often when I am negotiating with a supplier in special cases, I find it hard to drive down the price,” he says. On the other hand, he has dropped customers for whom only the price mattered. “One thing we cannot do is cheap. Instead we give value for money.”

He is also keen that Dula innovates. Powered shelving that allows fashion shops to move garments around is one idea, and his showroom makes use of smart labels on garments and shelves to direct customers to the right merchandise even if it has been moved.

Apple, a customer for a decade, is a big fan of such state-of-the-art technology. Tables in its Apple Stores used to present iPhones and iPads have similar technical solutions beneath their wooden surfaces to improve customer service.

Presentation counts, whether it’s in wedding shops in Spain or elegant men’s boutiques in Qatar, and Mr. Dustmann enjoys the challenge of factoring in all design elements from lights to furniture. “This holistic approach is something I developed,” he says. His view is that everything in a space goes hand-in-hand to create an atmosphere. It’s a passion he shares with his wife. “She wanted a sewing machine as a wedding present, I wanted a power drill,” he says. They made almost everything in their home themselves, from furniture to drapes.

In five to seven years, Mr. Dustmann wants to hand over the management of the company to Ms. Birkenfeld-Dustmann, a former EY consultant. His son Christian is already in charge of the showroom. What could be better than handing over to offspring who want to run the business and are capable of doing so, he asks. “You can’t take it with you when you go – but I know for whom I’m carrying on,” he says.


Christoph Kapalschinski covers consumer goods, textiles and food for Handelsblatt. To contact the author:

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