With a rich history to maintain CEO of A. Lange & Söhne, Wilhelm Schmid, has a big job on his hands – here he discusses his current challenges and what we have to look forward to from the brand in the coming months
There are few brands in the watch industry that can say they date back as far as 1845 and yet still have such a strong relevance in today’s environment. But A. Lange & Söhne is one of the few that prevails thanks to its clear focus and strong, timeless designs, using some of the world’s best craftsmanship.
This year the German-born watchmaker is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its iconic Lange 1 watch with a special edition collection that was presented at SIHH in January. To talk us through this as well as the other launches that are happening throughout 2019 we met with CEO Wilhelm Schmid.
Schmid took the lead role at the brand in 2011 and has been using his background in sales and marketing to take the watchmaker to the next level, communicating with new clientele while ensuring the existing customer base is maintained.
Something that is not an easy challenge in today’s market. When we met with Schmid earlier this year, we found out more about the challenges he faces and what is being done to mark this year of celebration of the Lange 1.
What is the story that A Lange & Söhne is telling this year?
There are two main stories. The first is the 25th anniversary of the Lange 1. I’ve said it so many times but it’s still something that is very true; this watch is the backbone of our business. It epitomizes what we stand for, probably better than any other watch. It’s now been 25 years and it’s still our best seller – how many watch brands do you know that can say that? Therefore we are also honouring, for the first time, the two gentlemen that were so instrumental not only in the rebirth of our company but also in the development of that specific watch.
We are doing so in a special way because the Lange 1 was always all about details, so now we have a limited edition watch to honour these 25 years and this is also all about details. It’s the use of a technicolour blue, it’s printed on the one hand but at the same time we refined the dial in a way using two different levels and surface treatments, and then if you open the case you will see the 25 engraved on the watch.
After the engraving we used the same technique that we use to produce the moon disks, so we put the colour blue on and then the engraver polishes the top surface to create a mirror finish, but the blue will stay where the engraving is. So you have a beautiful 25 in blue. We changed the design of the rest of the engraving to accommodate and it looks very nice.
The second thing is, believe it or not, ten years of the Zeitwerk watch. In the beginning, we thought this would be a one-off watch because it had a very unusual dial design and a very unusual way of giving the time. That also meant that it would be very difficult to develop a family out of it because, if you have to respect and maintain the part on the front that carries the hours and the minutes, how do you get complications from that? So there were a lot of things that went into it.
Every year there must be new challenges – what is the challenge that A. Lange & Söhne faces now?
What we greatly emphasise on is to ensure that younger people specifically are interested in fine watchmaking and that they can find us. Of course, their behaviour of communication differs greatly to the older generation. I do think as an industry we have a duty here because regardless of how old you are, quality, craftsmanship, history, and performance will appeal to you.
But if you don’t know what’s on offer you will never be a buyer. So we have to ensure that we are visible in the right way and that people can find us if they are looking for us. I think that is a challenge that is not only linked to this year, but it is a journey we started a few years ago and that’s going to continue.
It’s very challenging when you want to respect a legacy but at the same time be modern and attract a younger clientele – what do you think is the secret formula to doing this?
I don’t believe there’s a golden recipe that works for everybody. I know for sure, that we don’t have to develop different watches to attract different age groups. That’s not the secret – what’s the difficult part is how to talk to them and communicate with them and how we give them access to the brand – this can be different. It’s not the product that we have to change – the trick is to give access to some people but not annoy others.
For us at least, I can say we are confident that we can continue to do what we’re known for, which is pushing boundaries a little bit every year, and here we focus on giving the right sort of environment for whoever wants to come and get to know us better.
In your opinion what are the prerequisites in creating an object of desire today?
It all starts with awareness. If nobody knows, nobody will admire. That’s the first thing. I believe there are different motivations. I do believe that quality will always prevail. And in a world that is full of consumables, where we are so used to throw away things, I think it’s very attractive to offer something that will survive the odds of time.
I think that’s at least what we want to create and what we want to stand for. I’m pretty sure if we do the job properly there will be enough people that are attracted to us.
What is your opinion on the discussion of e-commerce vs retail?
It’s not a contradiction in my opinion. If there is a territory that is occupied by the customer it must be explored. Today, at least in our segment, I still see that people do their research online but then, what I call the last metre, is a very physical interaction in a physical world. Why? Because it adds value. You meet someone who you trust, who helps you, someone you can approach if there’s a problem. These are all things that add value to the customer relationship.
If you don’t do that job, you’ll be replaced by something. Either by e-commerce or by somebody else because they can provide what the customer has requested. At the moment I am not seeing a huge change in requests for e-commerce at our price level. We are prepared, but I don’t see it as a necessity yet.
Where is A. Lange & Söhne on supporting sustainability?
The great thing is we have been doing this since 1845, so I don’t need to create stories – it’s what we do. We opened our new manufacturer in 2015 and a lot of our investment went into the way we generate energy. We created a complete CO2 emission-free building. Even the electricity we buy to run the water pumps comes from a supplier who only uses renewable energy. So we really try to reduce our carbon footprint wherever possible. That’s the first thing.
The other thing is, we have a school that trains young people to become watchmakers. I still believe that education is probably the best way to give back. This is where we have expenses – we have instructors, we have a building – and this costs money. But I think this is a very sustainable way of giving, and that’s what we’ve been doing for the last 18 years.
Actually this is how the whole company started in 1845. So again, we do give back, but it’s really about the sustainability – not just giving money – we make sure that our carbon footprint is as small as possible, and we make sure that what we do will give work to people for the future.
What piece of advice would you give your younger self?
Go through the lessons, make your mistakes and learn from them.
What do you say no to?
I say no to many things. I hate disrespect. I hate discrimination. I have a very geared opinion about where my freedom starts and ends and somebody else’s freedom starts and ends.
What does travel mean to you and how did it shape up who you are today?
I like being in places because I get to know so many different cultures and people and that’s something that’s a source of energy and knowledge. There is hardly a day that I go to bed and don’t feel a little bit richer than I did in the morning – I don’t mean richer in a monetary way, but in the way that I’ve learnt something that I didn’t already know in the morning or I’ve had a new experience. In that regard, I’m very privileged. Travelling in itself – sitting in planes, taxis etc – I’m reaching my limits!
What is your biggest achievement so far?
I am happily married and I have two wonderful children.
What is a dream you would still like to fulfil?
Only one?! My Dad once said ‘be careful with dreams when they are fulfilled.’ So I keep dreaming and I realise that my dreams do change, which is good.
Complete the sentence; I am happy when…
I’m with my family.
How would you like the world to remember you?
I don’t have an idea of what I should be known for. I try my best every day and I’m very happy with what I’m doing.
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?
I would struggle with defining the biggest challenge because there have been many challenges in my life and at that moment it seemed to be the biggest challenge. I always tell myself if I face a challenge, work through it.
What is your professional motto?
Be true to yourself.
Interviewed by Lara Mansour Sawaya