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Longevity lessons from a 200-year-old business

Connie Chan

UK-headquartered diary maker Collins Debden recently held celebrations in Australia to mark its 200th anniversary. My Business caught up with its CEO to pick her brains on longevity and adapting to technological change.

Two centuries is an incredible tale of survival for any business. And when your core product — diaries and notebooks — has shifted significantly to the digital space, through our phone calendars and voice-activated alerts from the likes of Google Home and Amazon Alexa, continuing to grow and evolve seems almost miraculous.

“[Adaptability] is something that we pay a lot of attention to, especially in the last few years,” Collins Debden CEO Connie Chan told My Business.

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“So, the first and foremost [thing] is really about understanding your customer. And by that, I mean the users, the consumer, and how they are actually using [products], whether it’s a diary or a notebook, differently.

“A lot of times, I think some of the underlying question is that there has been a lot of digitisation. So, sometimes you would think that, ‘Oh, maybe people don’t use a notebook anymore’. But we realised that it’s not true, but people do use it differently.”

Ms Chan said that this focus on understanding the shifting usage of diaries and notebooks has allowed the business to ensure its products remain relevant in the digital age.

“We actually do need to really adapt both the inside and the outside of our product design to make sure that it’s more relevant,” she said.

“If you notice the product offering that we have been [giving] in the last few years, a lot of it actually has been really introducing more of a lifestyle-type design. Because it used to be a diary or notebook was just quite functional, where people just used it to tick down their appointments and whatnot.

“Whereas these days they may still do it, but then that would definitely be supplemented by your mobile phone. But at the same time, they will still use the notebook more to write down their thoughts, a lot more personal in a way. So, they don’t just use it to tick down the appointment, but they use it to write down what they’re thinking about. To help them to brainstorm when they jot down notes.”

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This has also been reflected in the type of feedback that Collins Debden receives from customers, Ms Chan explained.

“One of the most common requests that we have gotten is people want more notes page. So, some of the newer diaries, even though it is still a diary, we give people a lot more notes page so that they can use that accordingly.”

Signs of tech overload

According to Ms Chan, this shift in terms of lifestyle change is not limited to older generations.

“Interestingly, even with the younger generation, you would have thought that they would be a lot more keen on just pure digitisation,” she explained.

“But what we’re seeing now is there has been a trend in the last few years to get back to something that’s more tactile feel.

“In a way, people seem to feel that there’s been too much digitisation, so they want to go back to something that is more retro and more real in a way. So, there is actually a trend of going back to the touch and feel of the paper and writing things down.”

According to the global CEO, this trend is not just driven by technology fatigue, but also people become more focused on mindfulness in jotting down their thoughts and feelings, as well as a wave of nostalgia that has swept consumer markets, most evidently presented in the slew of high-profile television series being revived after a number of years off the air.

“Yeah, I’ve seen that trend as well. I think that is some of it that’s going back,” said Ms Chan.

Advice on longevity for others in business

According to Ms Chan, there are several points that every business leader should focus on to ensure that their business remains viable for the long term, not just the present day.

“First, we are very, very passionate about what we do in the business. And to survive this long... you have to be passionate about what you do. Otherwise, you won’t be able to have 200 years,” she said.

“The other thing is we have always been very high on maintaining the quality. And that is something that has helped us through the years and it really stands out with the customer.

“And then the third element is that you cannot... just be doing what you have always been doing and don’t change. You have to continuously evolve to meet the customers needs, what they’re looking for. You just don’t do it randomly. You do it while you are still maintaining true to your roots and who you really are.

“So that you still keep the same theme, but then you can stay fresh as you were saying. Always with the customers who truly matter in the end. And sometimes that takes courage.”

Ms Chan admitted that not every experiment will be a raging success, but that shouldn’t stop a business from trying new things to adapt and change in step with its customer base.

“A couple of years back, we actually developed a digital version of a notebook, that if you actually take a picture it can connect to your digital device. That didnt quite work, at least not in the first round, in part because at the time I think the connectivity,” she said as an example.

“So, that one, it hasn’t gone very far. So, not all the new products that we design actually come up perfectly.

“But if it doesn’t work, then it doesn’t mean that you stop [altogether necessarily], because I think there is still a demand for it. I mean, in the next phase, we will actually go back and look at what is the right solution for something that kind of bridges the physical and the digital.

“Yes, we have done some of these things and then not all of them actually worked out. But you have to go back and look at it [and try] again.”

Adam Zuchetti

Adam Zuchetti

Adam Zuchetti is the editor of My Business, and has steered the publication’s editorial direction since early 2016. 

The two-time Publish Awards finalist has an extensive journalistic career across business, property and finance, including a four-year stint in the UK. Email Adam at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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