The CEO of Bukowskis talks about how she transformed a 150-year-old Scandinavian auction house into a data-driven business.
It’s not often that one becomes CEO of a 150-year-old Scandinavian fine art and antique auction house, especially after just one year at the company and one year in the art world. Yet Louise Arén has accomplished this and more. Under Arén’s leadership, Sweden’s leading auction house, Bukowskis, has experienced a 32 percent increase in online traffic and a 7 percent increase in online art sales in the last three months.
Like many art institutions, Bukowskis was lacking in the digital space. Upon joining the company in 2015, Arén’s mission was to accelerate the company’s digital strategy as Digital and E-commerce Director. The following year, she became CEO and has since reinforced Bukowskis’ presence as Sweden’s art and design hub, turning losses into hearty profits.
Despite COVID-19 cancellations, Arén continues to combat challenges that come along with the pandemic. From June 3-4th, Bukowskis’ kicks off its month of fine art auctions with the Important Spring Sale in both the salesroom and online. We sat down with the CEO (virtually) to ask her about the importance of digital commerce and the future of art sales.
Describe your experience and journey into the art world. Did you ever expect to become CEO of an art auction house?
Bukowskis offered an environment with fantastic art and design which was an extra dimension and aspiring to be a part of. So, in theory, I entered the art and auction world without any previous experience, which I mainly saw and still see as a positive aspect as I approached this company with open eyes.
My commercial background from the media industry, FMCG, telecom business both locally and internationally was a valuable complement to all the knowledge that was already in the house. I entered the company to take on the digital role, but a sudden change of CEO a year later opened up for me to become the new CEO. I accepted the position, the journey was underway, and I already knew how we would go forward to build a strategic and profitable company.
Bukowskis is celebrating 150 years in the art auction industry, but a much shorter time in the digital art world. As one of the pioneers of Bukowskis’ digital transition, do you find that the auction house’s legacy has made an impact on its digital marketing presence?
It is a constant balancing act to meet the digital world and to incorporate different target groups in which you have your clients – and other target groups in which you are faced with recruiting. We have a clear segmentation base and we work data-driven, so for us, it has not been difficult to approach digital marketing or, for that matter, develop the traditional marketing to give us as high ROI as possible. We do not look at Bukowskis as primarily a traditional auction house, but as a modern and vibrant company that, with the help of data, produces the right communication for the right channel at the right time based on high-quality content, which in turn is based on client confidence giving us the best items.
Can you speak about the technology that Bukowskis integrates in the digital commerce experience?
At the heart of the digital experience is our digital platform, website, and mobile app, both developed internally by Bukowskis, and our bidding software where clients place bids around the clock online, from anywhere but also in the auction room during our hammer auctions. In addition to that, we offer virtual tours of our viewings and exhibitions, especially relevant during these special circumstances. Our social media platforms are also a very crucial tool to our digital success and finding new target groups, where we both communicate knowledge but also aim to inspire our clients with the most dazzling content.
“We do not look at Bukowskis as primarily a traditional auction house, but as a modern and vibrant company that, with the help of data, produces the right communication for the right channel at the right time based on high-quality content.” –Louise Arén, CEO, Bukowskis
Has integrating digital technology into sales changed the demographic of Bukowskis’ clientele?
Because the digital landscape is global, it has allowed us to reach a much larger target group and simplified for interested buyers all over the world to take part in Bukowskis’ beautiful offering of high-quality art and design. At the same time, our traditional and more local client groups have followed us in the development in a successful and committed way. The digital landscape has also opened up for us to work more efficiently with new client groups through intelligent CRM work.
What would you say to the traditionalists that think art transactions should be done in person and not digitally?
That the personal meeting need not be ruled out for the digital to become more central in our business. Our uniqueness continues to be the knowledge and passion that our specialists possess, and what the digital primary does is that it facilitates the clients’ buying and selling process through digital tools. Digital aspects do also bring value to the personal meeting since we have more knowledge about the client (all in accordance with GDPR) and in this we can provide a customized service. We still have viewings and exhibitions at our premises, exclusive printed catalogues for our hammer auctions, but everything is also available digitally as a first-hand choice or a complementary experience.
What is the most important aspect during a digital transformation?
The most important thing during a digital transformation is to be clear about what we mean by digitizing the company to the more traditional target group. That is, we provide you [the traditional client] with tools that simplify and improve your client experience. In addition to this, digital tools also mean that the communication directed to you is relevant and based on that we build a closer client relationship.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, many closed galleries and auction houses are making the move to digital platforms. What advice do you have for those new to the online art market?
Set a clear objective for your digital ambition long term to facilitate short term moves. You can team up with external digital companies to establish the platform and the service if you have limited resources internally. Today, digital specialists are just as important to an auction house as specialists within category divisions. Ensure the buying and selling process, make it simple and lean, then work on adding value to the experience. The traditional clients are most likely to need simplicity initially and the digital target groups do not have patience with the process and the experience if it’s not seamless. Build decisions and priorities on data and not subjective perceptions.
In just a few years as CEO, you’ve turned Bukowskis’ losses into profits. To what do you attribute this dramatic increase in revenue?
This is because we see Bukowskis as a modern company where the balance between art and business is crucial and most important for our long-term success. Ultimately, we are a data-driven company and that determines how we prioritize and act in all parts of our business: namely being a company filled with salespeople with exceptional specialist knowledge and passion. Furthermore, a balance between art and business means that we are commercially driven and mainly prioritize the challenge and excitement of making a great deal for our clients, both sellers and buyers.
What has been the highlight of your career?
Seeing how Bukowskis has developed both in terms of profitability and positioning over the past three and a half years. Through daring decisions and digital development we have become the leading auction house in the Nordics and probably the most modern auction house in Europe. The challenge of creating change and driving the business forward has been and is very rewarding for me personally. In a broader perspective, as a market leader in the Nordic countries, we will continue to lead the development in the industry to reach an even larger market and client base. This is something that I look forward to and feel very excited about, looking back at these last three and a half years as Bukowskis CEO and our incredible journey.