I recently finished photographing and writing a book about Bang & Olufsen, the distinctive high-end audio-visual manufacturer and the oldest consumer electronics company in the world. The book will be published by Thames & Hudson and released for Bang & Olufsen’s 90th anniversary in November, but you can pre-order a copy here.
There were a few things that didn’t quite find a place in the book, but which I think are interesting in their own right – such as this interview I made with CEO Tue Mantoni at his office just outside Copenhagen on a sunny May afternoon. 40 year old Mantoni has been CEO of Bang & Olufsen since 2011, which he joined after after four years as Managing Director of Triumph motorcycles in the UK, and he is widely credited with turning around the declining fortunes of the classic motorcycle company before moving back to his home country of Denmark to become the man in charge of a national icon. We talked about running.
Tue Mantoni (TM): So where are you placing me in the whole story here?
Alastair Philip Wiper (APW): I have to work that out. I know you talk to a lot of journalists, so I want to get something that you don’t normally talk about, which might be difficult. Marie (Kristine Schmidt, head of Brand, Design and Marketing at Bang & Olufsen) and I actually hatched a plan that I should take you for a beer and get you a bit tipsy, and then I would get the really good stories - but that didn’t quite work out, it got too late in the day, so we are here now. But for instance, Marie told me that you are doing all sorts of endurance running, ultra-marathons and that kind of thing, and that sounds interesting. Can you tell me bit about that?
TM: If you work too hard without stopping, you don’t get a chance to think and reflect. My job over the last four years has been very busy, high pressure, lots of meetings, lots of travel, and I use running as a way of forcing myself to create a space where I can reflect and think. So I don’t really have time to run, but I don’t have time not to. We all have this ambition of having two hours a day where we can just stare out of the window and think up great thoughts. In reality, at least for me, it has never happened, but there is no question that some of your best ideas are generated when you’re not particularly looking for an answer. So I think the brain needs time to relax, like jumping on a train and watching the world go by, and suddenly you think about something.
Running can be tough, but it is technically very easy, it is very repetitive, you move your legs and you don’t have to think a lot about it. I went out running this morning for example, quite early – I have small kids so if I want to see them I have to run early – I ran from 5-6am along the coast near where I live which is very nice, and that was my time today to reflect and think. As soon as I came home my four-year-old son woke up, and after that there is no more free time to think.
APW: I have small kids as well, I know how that is.
TM: Mine are four, six and nine, and this is the time you have to be there for them – if you come home and the first thing you say is “you need to be quiet because daddy needs to sit down and think”, that’s not going to work.
APW: Have you always been good at getting up early?
TM: Oh yeah, I always get up early. I’m an “A” person – do you know what that means?
APW: Yes, I know I am a “B” person.
TM: I get really tired in the evening, I rarely go to bed after 11, and then I get up at 5.
APW: I run too, it is probably my main form of exercise, but it is very casual for me. I don’t think my job is as stressful as yours, but I understand exactly what you mean about letting yourself go. But why do you need to do an ultra-marathon?
TM: You know what, I’m not quite sure. I started running and I liked it, and then I did some marathons – I’ve done quite a lot of marathons – and they ended up being quite stressful because they are such defined distance, and I wanted to beat my own time every time I ran, and I had to train more and more. I ended up getting quite a good time, but now I don’t have time to train so I don’t think I’ll ever get the same times again – well, not in the next few years anyway.
Then I started running in the mountains – I love the mountains, I’ve done a lot of skiing and I’ve just been on a canoeing trip for 3 days in the wilderness with my kids – I have small place in France where I go as often as I can and I think the mountains are the best place to reflect. When you are out there alone you don’t have your mobile phone a lot of the time. So I started running in the mountains and I liked it a lot.
APW: How do you define an ultra-marathon?
TM: I think it is just any race that is longer than a marathon, and then there are varying degrees of extremeness. The longest one I’ve done is about 100 miles.
APW: In one go?
TM: In one go. I’m actually doing a marathon at the end of June, the Mont-Blanc marathon, which I’ve done three or four times before. That's only 26 miles, but it’s got an elevation of about 2500 m and a descent of about 1500m, so there is quite a lot of up and down. I like the challenge, and I like the mountains, and I like the journey, the personal journey. When you run a long distance you can split it into three phases: a phase where you think a lot about work and family life and that kind of thing, and then a phase where you think about your running – what’s my time, how is my breathing, how is my speed. After that all of the issues at the forefront of your mind have been sorted out, and the third phase is when you think about nothing, which is a good place to be.
APW: So you have to go through the first two phases before you can reach nothingness?
TM: I think you have to. I have tried meditating, and I am just useless at that. I actually did it because I was doing martial arts so we always had to meditate, and the instructor would say “you have to sit and think about nothing.” I was just sitting there thinking about a thousand things, and there were so many things running around in my head that I was no good at it. I was just restless. Some people are really good at it, but I can only get there with running, and I think it is a very important place to get to.
APW: Can you reach those three phases in an hour long run?
TM: Oh no, I have to run at least 20 km. I ran 14 km this morning, I was thinking about work all the way. You also have to be in a quiet place, and that is where the mountains are good – if you run through Copenhagen you will never get into that state, even if you ran 40 km, because you never know if you are about to be run over. But in the mountains it is a continuous rhythm of serenity. I never thought so much about it actually, but I think that's what is happening.
APW: And how do you find the time to train for all these races? The most I ever ran was a half-marathon, and the amount of hours of training I had to put it just for that really felt like a lot at the time.
TM: I’m not in such good shape as I used to be, and I’m not doing competitive running any more – I’m in decent shape though, and my base fitness is pretty good. I did a 10k recently in about 42 minutes, so that's quite good for someone that doesn’t run a lot. I probably could do a marathon tomorrow but not in a good time.
APW: Do you listen to music when you run?
TM: Never. We are actually doing a new headset for sports - a lot of people listen to music when they do sports and the team behind it thought I would be a good one to test it - but I’ve never listened to music when I run. I tried, but I didn’t like it because it took me away from what running was all about, which is to think about nothing.
APW: It seems like you like a challenge. You’ve also taken on a big job here at Bang & Olufsen, some might say a daunting job – and you are a young guy! It must be in your character to take on these challenges, but how did your decision making process go when you decided to take the job here?
TM: There is a saying in Danish – “talent forpligter” – it means that when you have a talent, you are obliged to use it. When I was asked to do the job, I felt like I couldn’t say no – firstly because of the excitement, and secondly because I really want to see Bang & Olufsen do well, it is such a great brand. I think when people embark on a challenge and say they always knew they could do it, I don’t really believe it – I think you always doubt if you are doing the right thing, could you do it differently, of course you could, because you live your life forwards and understand it backwards.
But I really feel a responsibility to succeed, because of our employees who are putting in everything – for many of these people it is not just a job, it is their life – the passion, pride and persistence that we talk about is real. I think those are really great words for this company, they should be in the book somewhere: they describe the values and the attitude of the people.
APW: What was your relationship to Bang & Olufsen products before you started working for the company? I know that many Danish people have strong emotional connections to the products from their childhood, for example – the company is like a part of Danish society.
TM: It is always hard to remember how you looked at something before you knew it, when you know it. Do you know what I mean? It is hard to describe, but if I really try to think about it I think for me it was something unobtainable because I don’t come from a rich family, and you have to have certain amount of money to afford Bang & Olufsen. So I always looked at it as being aspirational, as being the leader in design, the leader in the way materials are used, creative, innovative, different. When you come inside, you definitely find out that Bang & Olufsen is very different to other companies, very unique.
APW: In what way?
TM: I think the people side is an important factor, and then there is the interesting DNA of the brand and the products, the organism that has been created over the last 90 years, which is very sticky, in a positive sense. Despite ups and downs, changes in the market, different ownership structures and so on, the core has been kept – the core of how people use products, the integration of design and engineering, and the commitment to design. What is a positive word for arrogance?
APW: Erm … strong-willed?
TM: Yes, strong-willed – the persistence to do what one believes is right rather than just doing what the market might want in the short term. At the same time there is a need for thinking broader and more globally than we have in the past, simply because the world has become more global.
APW: How do you reconcile the old-fashioned craftsmanship and pride, things that people are once again starting to see as a positive thing in this day and age, with the fact that at the same time those same people also want something new all the time? Those seem like two things fighting against each other, how do you make them work together?
TM: I don’t think its easy. But I don’t think it’s so much about being old-school, I think its about believing in products providing a value for a long period of time. We need to be very smart about how we do it. If you continue doing things the way you always have, the world changes and over time you become irrelevant. What is important is applying the principles we have always stood by where they really add value today. I still think a lot of people fundamentally want to buy things that they keep – some of the best things that we have are things that are worn, things that we have had for a long time – but I also accept that the world changes and we need to change with it.
We will never be a brand where people buy our products and change them every three months. Firstly we don’t want to be a brand like that, and secondly, with the size we have and the attention we put into the products and the investment we make in the materials, we’d never make it work. We need to believe that people can value products and keep them for longer, and that people are still interested in that, well knowing that the technology lying behind it and underneath it has to be 100% up to date. That’s really my view on that.