To describe Robert Stapf, the VP of Fine Fragrance at Drom North America, as a “people-person” might be a bit cliche, but that doesn’t make it any less true. He’s warm, he’s gregarious, and he’s thrilled about where he lives and what he does, all of which came together serendipitously, as do many of the great things in life. We met at a cafe across the street from the Drom offices in Tribeca, and as we sipped cups of strong coffee while cheesy 80s ballads played in the background, it was easy for me to see why artists would enjoy working for Robert—he just inspires the best in people. “You can’t treat perfumers like accountants,” he says. “Their work is part of their emotions.”
Can you talk a little bit about what you do, how you see it and how you define your role?
We’re a fragrance company, and I basically run the New York office here. I manage the creative team and try to provide for them the best environment possible for us to achieve what we want to do, which is creating the right fragrances for our customers.
How long have you been doing that, and what prompted you to get into fragrance?
I was born and raised in Germany, and I studied there. I worked for German companies, and by sheer accident I came into the fragrance world. I didn’t intend to work for this company. I didn’t know what fragrance was, really.
What had you been in before?
I worked for Adidas before. I worked in the sporting goods industry—the marketing, consumer goods industry. I was looking for something new. I came across this company. I kind of only wanted to go there for interview practice. That was in 2001, and I went there and I just fell in love with the company, the spirit and the owner, who is a very open-minded young guy, very entrepreneurial. He’s a visionary. I said to myself, “Wow, that’s actually the kind of place where I want to work.” The people in this industry are all nuts in a positive way. They’re truly creative people that you don’t meet in any other field. I fell in love with fragrance in 2001, and a year and a half later I was asked if I wanted to join the New York team. That was kind of a no-brainer for me. I always thought I wanted to work abroad in some English-speaking country. Ten years later, I’m in charge of the office here, so for me it’s kind of an emotional thing, being with the company, because I like the company, I like the owners, the mentality. I like that we see ourselves as more of a start-up company, rather than a big conglomerate where you’re just a number.
How do you think being in New York has changed the way you do the work you do?
The American way of doing business is very different from the German way of doing business. In Germany you don’t present every number and figure because your audience will go right at it, but in the U.S., I always say that the entertainment factor is more important than the content you’re trying to present. In Germany you have very stern presentations, whereas here it’s a more casual style of working. This is also a very international office, which wasn’t the case earlier in my career. It’s New York City. It’s a whole different approach to the world.
What does your job look like on a day-to-day basis? Do you have a finger in every pot?
It’s mostly people management.
Are you good with people?
You have to ask the people. I think I’m pretty good with people—I think it’s kind of a skill that I’ve developed. Working with creatives is not very easy. You have to have a certain understanding of the way they think, the way they feel. It’s not just business as usual every day. Happy people make happy fragrances. That’s why you’re looking for an environment where you can create happy fragrances. That’s what we’re trying to achieve.
What is a happy fragrance? I like that phrase.
It’s a fragrance that you smell, and it makes you happy. Or a fragrance that fits the product right, and you smell it, and you’re like, “Okay, this is right.” Often you smell fragrances, and you can’t describe it, but you know it fits the concept, it’s fashion-forward, it’s just right. Perfumers see their fragrances as part of them. They see them as their children, and that’s how they want to treat them. With every fragrance, they give a part of themselves.
How do you get that out of a person? That’s very intimate.
You treat the creatives as people. Respect their roles are creators. Without them, we are nothing. We have great purchasing people, but without something to sell, we have nothing to do. When you come into the office, all the perfumers are on the left, and they’re some of the first people you see.
So you’re developing all of your fragrances yourself?
No, we’re suppliers for the beauty industry, and our job is only making fragrances. That means that the brands come to us and say, we are whoever, and we want to make a fragrance that smells like a walk through a lavender field on a starry winter night. They come to us, and all we do is fragrance…we don’t design the bottle or anything like that. That’s why you won’t see our names in the press very often. We do everything behind the scenes. We’re very specialized in creating juice—that’s the industry term for what’s in the bottle. We make the juice.
Do you have favorite ingredients?
Everybody does. It has to do with personal experience and how you grew up. There are cultural differences. What you had for breakfast during your childhood influences what you like later in life, or it can. It has to. Or you remember a certain fragrance that your grandmother wore, and that means that you either love it or you hate it sometimes. I can’t stand tuberose, for instance.
Why is that?
I don’t have an association with it. I can’t put my finger on why, it’s just not my kind of thing.
Say somebody is making a tuberose scent. Are you still able to recognize when it’s right?
Yes. That’s where you take your personal feelings out of the equation. That’s something you learn very quickly. You smell a lot of market products that are right, and you figure it out from there.
How do you do that?
I can smell whether something is a perfect tuberose or gardenia. I know when something is a great fragrance, even if I wouldn’t personally use it or wear it. There are about 10,000 materials out there that you can make fragrances with. As a fragrance house, we have about 5,000 of those available. The perfumers have memorized all of these materials—you can give it to them, and they can tell if it’s pure and undiluted or if there’s something mixed with it. I know perfumers from an older generation that locked themselves into rooms for a weekend and smelled ingredients for hours at a time to get it in their heads. It’s a very old-fashioned way of learning. A lot of the old master perfumers went to really tough schools at the time. Then again, each perfumer has a relevant set of 80-800 scents that they always go back to. A perfumer develops signatures. It’s like a painter—perfumers also have different phases in their lives. It’s a cool industry. You work with technology, science, and art. We’re like a start-up company with a hundred years of history.