Cottet Óptica, serving customers since 1902

Javier Cottet is the president of Cottet Óptica, a family-owned Spanish firm that traces its roots to the late 1800s in industrial France. In 2019, the company revitalized its business model with a more brand-centric and innovation-driven approach.

I got my official start in the family business as an intern in the early 1990s, and held various roles in sales, logistics, finance, marketing, purchasing and management over the following 10 years. In 2003, I was named Cottet’s general manager and president in 2018 after my father passed away.

Cottet has retail establishments in Spain and Andorra. We have 240 employees, 37 branded stores and three franchises, with plans for further expansion. In 2023, we started our wholesale business after attending the SILMO optical fair in France. This offers another interesting channel for growth.

In its fourth generation, Cottet is owned by the four members of my family branch. My youngest brother Álex serves as the vice-president, while my sister Marta and brother Sergio are in the family council.

1902, the year it all began

Cottet Óptica was founded 121 years ago by my great-grandfather, Constantino Cottet, born in 1865 in Morez, France, near the Swiss border. He started out working at his family firm, Frères Cottet, a manufacturer of eyeglass frames.

In 1888 at age 23, he was sent to the Universal Exhibition in Barcelona to promote the company and open new markets. He fell in love with the city, eventually deciding to put down roots and establish his own company there in the early 1900s.

Barcelona’s emblematic Portal de l’Àngel boulevard was the site chosen for Cottet’s first store, which opened its doors in 1902. Located in a vibrant shopping district, the 2,000-square-meter store was the largest optical store in Europe for years.

From Barcelona to Sevilla

Following my great-grandfather’s death in 1915, his three sons took over the business: my grandfather, Rolando, and two great-uncles, Fernando and Renato, who left the family fold in 1930 to establish his own store in Madrid.

Constantino’s sons built successful businesses over the next two decades until 1936, when civil war broke out in Spain. They closed their wholesale and retail operations in Barcelona and Madrid, and relocated to Sevilla.

There, they set up a small lens-manufacturing factory called Industria Nacional de Óptica with the support of the Rodenstock family in Germany. This company grew into Indo Óptica, also known as INDO, for years an industry leader in Spain and my father’s and grandfather’s future place of employment.

When the war ended, the brothers resumed their operations in Barcelona and Madrid, where they ran prosperous operations for decades to come. The 1950s and 1960s were especially prosperous, coinciding with the burgeoning optical industry, the rising quality of life in Spain, and the emerging trend of eyewear as a fashion statement.

During this time, the brothers decided to divide the business into three branches: Fernando would oversee the Barcelona store; Rolando, Indo Óptica; and Renato, the Cottet store in Madrid.

Growing up around the family firm

I grew up hearing about the family business and visiting Cottet stores and the INDO factory. As a high school and college student, my summers were spent attending Cottet customers alongside my siblings and cousins.

Despite our close connection with the family business, we never assumed we would work there. My father worked in INDO, which was an extremely specialized, industrial setting.

Meanwhile, the Barcelona store was the domain of my uncle Fernando, who was a clergy member. As his interests lay elsewhere, he entrusted the firm’s management and oversight to a non-family member, while also creating the non-profit Cottet-Mor Foundation to help the economically disadvantaged.

Ownership and the family protocol

It’s important to distinguish between ownership and leadership since it’s one thing to inherit shares and another to work as an employee in the company’s day-to-day.

This delineation goes back to my grandfather’s days at INDO, when one of his partners approached him one day, asking him to “find a job” for his son. He refused, defining a policy with the other shareholders that prevented relatives of INDO board members from joining the firm – Cottet family members included.

We defined a slightly different family protocol at Cottet in 1998 regarding family members working in the firm. Our first rule: we will never tailor-make a position for anyone, so the vacancy must already exist.

Other stipulations include having a relevant university degree, competitive profile and experience outside the family firm. Also, external advisors decide on the employment of family members – the Cottet family takes a step back.

My family branch acquired my uncle Renato’s shares of Cottet in 1995 and, 10 years later, those of my aunt Janine. In 2014, the family faced a difficult crossroads when INDO entered bankruptcy proceedings.

While painful, the experience offered vital lessons for the future on the importance of effectively planning generational handovers and establishing clear lines of communication across the family and firm.

Competitive landscape

Nearly 80% of eyeglass frames are produced in China, and five major manufacturers control 80% of the global eyewear industry. These companies vertically integrated in the early 2000s, and are now leaders in both manufacturing and distribution.

Against this competitive backdrop, my siblings and I decided to innovate Cottet’s business model in 2019, moving from the sale of third-party eyewear and hearing aids to dedicating at least half of our efforts to the design, manufacturing and marketing of Cottet-branded eyewear.

We also renovated Cottet’s board of directors and top leadership under the guidance of external advisors, and appointed a non-family general manager.

Putting our customers first

We aspire to develop long-term relationships with customers by offering high-quality products at optimal price points in beautiful and modern light-filled stores. These efforts were recognized in May 2022, when we were honored with a prestigious MIDO BeStore award for our store design and innovation.

In terms of our brand portfolio, we offer three collections of eyewear frames – Cottet Barcelona, Urban and Lunnetier1840 – that account for approximately 50% of our sales. Our stores also carry innovative third-party eyewear and hearing aids, which we began selling back in the 1970s. This specialization represents around 25% of our sales revenues and sets Cottet apart from the competition.

Future horizons

Cottet aspires to build further momentum by opening more branded stores in Spain, where we still have room to grow, and expanding into other markets like Portugal, as we did in Andorra. We also have wholesale agreements with multi-brand distributors in France, Greece and the Czech Republic, which is another avenue we are exploring.

Working in a family-owned business has many positives, including the possibility of forging long-term relationships with suppliers, employees and other key stakeholders, and looking beyond the bottom line and short-term objectives.

At the same time, it comes with distinct obligations and responsibilities, many of which are learned through the “school of hard knocks.” While there are plenty of master’s degrees in management, I have yet to encounter a “Master’s in Ownership.”

Life is getting more complicated by the day, which is why business leaders should never lose sight of what’s most important – their customers – even more than shareholders.

With this in mind, Cottet will continue to place a laser-focus on our clients to ensure a stellar customer experience, which, in my view, is the key to a company’s long-term sustainability.