Georges Kern, Breitling CEO, on the Future of the Watch industry and the New Endurance Pro

Lindsay Judge   |   11 - 09 - 2020

When the period of confinement began earlier this year, Breitling CEO Georges Kern was determined to continue the momentum of the brand through this tough time.

 

Breitling launched its Chronomat watch during the lockdown in April and has since seen tremendous positive feedback on the timepiece. Keeping in touch with clients throughout this time has been key to the brand and their online summit webcast back in April allowed them to communicate with the world what they have been working on. As stores have started to open in most markets, Georges Kern is optimistic of the future, with sales already starting to resume in many regions.

 

This August, Breitling presented its first physical summit since the lockdown began. Hosted as a part of the Geneva Watch Days event, the brand launched its latest novelty in an intimate gathering in Geneva, which was also broadcasted across the world digitally. The summit was in aid of the new professional line launch; the Endurance Pro. This sports watch will sit alongside the Emergency and Aerospace professional line watches in the Breitling portfolio and is designed to be an ultra-light sports watch that can be worn in all conditions.

 

The Endurance Pro has a 44mm case formed from Breitling’s unique composite material “Breightlight”. This unique material is super light and durable. The watch features a thermo-compensated SuperQuartzTM movement that is ten times more accurate than the conventional quartz, and it offers optimal comfort, matchless precision, and functionality that will appeal both to committed athletes and more casual sports enthusiasts. Designed for both men and women with a sporty lifestyle, the Endurance Pro is available in five bold colours with rubber straps as well as the option to have a sustainable Econyl strap. The launch of this watch also marks the launch of a new Breitling Triathlon Squad starring three hugely successful athletes. These men and women represent the values of the brand and perfectly represent the lifestyle this timepiece was designed for.

 

To find out more about the Endurance Pro as well as the decision to participate in the recent Geneva Watch Days event, we talk to Breitling CEO Georges Kern.

 

What can you tell us about Breitling’s participation in The Geneva Watch Days event and why was it important for Breitling to be involved?

It was a spontaneous decision made with Jean-Christophe Babin, CEO of Bvlgari when we spoke last January. Life needs to continue and I think we have to go out and do the maximum we can in the situation we are in. Let’s not forget that the Swiss watch industry employs 60,000 people, so there is a huge economic factor involved. With this event, we want to support the business and the industry, keep the flow, keep the momentum and keep the employment. As a brand, we have been very active throughout the lockdown. In April we had our first digital summit, which was very successful. Now we have this event and I’m very happy that it’s face-to-face again. As long as we are super cautious, which we are. But finally we are interacting with people – not just digitally – and that allows us to get an immediate reaction – even from behind a mask.

 

We have just seen the new Endurance Pro – why did you decide to launch this watch now how does it fit into the portfolio of watches at Breitling and who do you think is going to wear it?

It was part of our strategic plan and decisions to launch this watch were taken two years ago, so we would have launched it with or without COVID-19. We wanted to reinforce the professional line – we have the Aerospace and Emergency watches and we wanted a very sporty, young, dynamic, and light product for sportspeople. So it’s a sports leisure watch that you can wear every day, everywhere including when you go out for a swim, a run, or a cycle. And I think it was something that we were missing in our collection. When Jan Frodeno asked me which watch he should wear when running, I realised what we should do. We have this material Breitlight, which is 3.8 times lighter than titanium and a highly resistant material, perfect for this type of watch. I love to use the watch myself for cycling, but it works just as well with a casual smart outfit.

 

The Endurance Pro Collection with colourful rubber and ECONYL yarn NATO straps

 

We know that this watch was inspired by the Sprint timepiece from Breitling’s heritage – can you tell us a little about that watch and why you chose this in particular as the inspiration for the Endurance Pro?

The beauty with Breitling is that we have an incredible history and a phenomenal back catalogue. In the seventies, we had a watch called Sprint. It was also very light, very sporty and colourful. So this was the inspiration, but of course, for 2020 things are different from what they were in 1970. We kept the same spirit – young, dynamic, and sporty, but created a modern watch. Interestingly the same client buying an Endurance Pro could also buy a Chronomat, but he will wear it for different occasions.

 

Is there an era of Breitling’s history that you find yourself drawn to?

I loved the seventies style and the capsule collection we did with TWA, Pan-Am and Swiss Air. But I also love the sixties. The Superocean Heritage 57 is very much inspired by the sixties – The Beach Boys – that kind of mood. I think many people love this era because it stands for the ‘good old days’. Today we have many crises, wars, revolutions, political turmoil etc. and thinking of this period, you are under the impression that the world was in good shape and people were very happy. They weren’t overloaded with news and of course, there was no coronavirus. We will see in five or ten years the effect it has had; especially on younger people. We only have one life so let’s try to enjoy it as much as possible.

 

We have seen many exciting Breitling Squads introduced over the past few years and today we have the new triathlete squad – what do you look for when you’re searching for new squad members?

We always wanted to be different and we are a casual brand, so we don’t want to go into traditional sports like tennis, Formula 1, golf etc. Right from the beginning, we looked at lifestyle sports like surfing. Now we have added triathlon to our portfolio and it is a fast-growing sport. Everyone cycles swims or runs, so it makes us approachable. And that’s what we want as Breitling. We want to be cool and relaxed, not formal in any way.

 

I admire these sportspeople because first of all, they are super disciplined. To be at that level in any sport, you need to be disciplined, a great team player and you must not panic. I like to recruit sporty people who have been in a competition because they bring these qualities to the brand. When I cycle with my friends, we would never leave someone behind, we do it together, it’s a great experience. Also, these kinds of sports are good for your immune system, so go for it!

 

What is a squad that you would still like to bring to the Breitling family?

Well, it will be our ladies squad that will announce later this year! It’s a great squad. We are going to launch another ladies watch in October and we have a great new female ambassador. I’m really looking forward to that, as the product line is very exciting.

 

Endurance Pro with an orange inner bezel and rubber strap

 

Last time we spoke a lot about women’s watches – how has the launch of the women’s novelties been and what’s next for women at Breitling?

When you look at the ladies market, which is in fact 60 per cent of the overall market, you have four or five classics and that’s it. The mistake that brands often make is to just reduce the size and try to create a watch that looks feminine. With the Navitimer 35, we took the pearl bezel, a very strong element from the 1960s, which is feminine but also very distinctive and different, and the line is doing extremely well. Interestingly, especially the more expensive watches – gold and steel, diamonds, mother-of-pearl – are doing great. It’s one of our top sellers all around the world.

 

There is a discussion of whether ladies want a watch designed for them and whether they do want a smaller watch – what are your thoughts on this?

Women are just as versatile as men. You have women with small wrists who prefer smaller, more elegant watches and then you have tall women with larger wrists who want big watches. So we need to have everything. We know that many women are wearing a Navitimer for example, but we need to have smaller sizes. The Navitimer 35 wears very big so it looks quite large on the wrist even though it technically isn’t the case, so that works very well in both Europe and Asia.

 

How do you think this year has raised greater awareness on sustainability and are there any actions Breitling will take concerning this that you hadn’t already planned for?

I truly believe that this crisis will have a major impact on consumer behaviour, especially that now the economic consequences of the lockdown will come into play with higher unemployment occurring. What was cool in the past, might not be that cool in the future. Without any market research, Breitling intuitively became inclusive in the way we communicate and interact as well as with the sports and partnerships we relate to. Our squad members are presented in a casual way, our boutiques have an inclusive design. We have had several initiatives; the work we do with fighting against plastic in the oceans with our surfer squad, supporting the Solar Impulse Foundation of Bertrand Piccard and more; I think these are very important initiatives. Even though we can’t change the world, we need to do the maximum we can in our sphere of influence. Our clients have leverage, so through them, we can raise awareness.

 

As an expert in the industry, what are your expectations on the recovery of the watch industry post-COVID-19?

First of all the market is still there. You have a population of 7-8 billion people. Within the Swiss watch industry, we’re talking about a couple of million timepieces made each year. So there will always be clients. The point is, I believe we will see consolidation and concentration on fewer brands. The winning brands will be the ones who are embracing the new values that I mentioned. So obviously Breitling will be part of this. But some others will go through a very tough time. But the market is there, people will continue to buy, we already see it. People are travelling less so there is more disposable income, they still want to catch up with their purchases and that is the difference between us and some other industries. Take a pizzeria for example, after the confinement you’re not going to eat double the pizzas – those sales are lost – but you can postpone buying a watch. So people will still buy but it will just be two or three months later. That’s the difference between us and other industries.

 

Endurance Pro with a red inner bezel and Outerknown ECONYL yarn NATO strap

 

What is a lesson that you’ll take away from this year or something that you think has changed positively?

I’ve learnt that I have a great team! We the management are shareholders ourselves and I was very happy about the sense of responsibility from everyone throughout the lockdown. There were great improvisations and smart-thinking. What I’ve also learned is that the world is and will always be in a constant change for the good or the bad, but you need to have the intellectual flexibility and reactivity. Otherwise, you will be wiped out.

 

The stores are a key part of Breitling’s universe – how has the reopening of stores across the world been so far and what are you doing to entice customers back to the boutiques and how have online sales been over these months?

We still have 10-15 stores closed currently. We have some stores that are not performing so well at the moment due to lack of tourism. We have some stores in cities like New York where no one is visiting because of the situation. But we have some phenomenal performances in countries like France, Germany etc. and I know that we have gained market share during this time. Luxury goods are not spontaneous buys; they are things you really think about. There is a process: you want the watch, you check the comments about it, you go to blogs and learn about the product and only when you’re ready, you finally go into the store. It takes a while. The restart for our boutiques has been very good and we are confident.

 

What about online sales?

What we did throughout COVID-19 was that we engaged a lot with our retailers. With many of them, we do their fulfilment. So if they sell a watch and they don’t have the logistics centres, we have a system that we can now do the shipping for them. This allows more flexibility. So we now have 800 retailers in our online network, which is amazing. It has been growing but still, it’s only 10-12 per cent of the total sales. It’s still not the same as in other industries where you have a much higher percentage. How it will play out – I have no idea. But I still believe it’s very essential to have a 360 experience; to touch the watch, talk to someone about it, try it on your wrist etc. and that has to be physical. People are spending a lot more time now at our stores because of the atmosphere we have created. Which is great. I’m not sure that e-commerce can replace physical stores.

 

Geneva Watch Days is a new format and we also saw the Dubai Watch Week earlier in the year which was a great success – What are your thoughts on the future of watch fairs going forward?

There are a few different elements. First of all, you have the costs. Nobody is ready to pay the costs we used to pay in the past for fairs because it doesn’t make sense. You see this by the way, in the car industry as well. I don’t think car manufacturers are ready to pay for large exhibitions anymore. The second issue is: what do you need a fair for? We don’t need a fair to sell watches. For press? We could communicate with the media via different channels.

 

Still, I believe that fairs should be a platform for communication and for cultural exchange. So if you asked me: would Breitling participate in a kind of big family gathering where the whole watch industry would be in Geneva to celebrate? Yes of course, because we are part of the family. But it needs to be done within a reasonable financial frame.

 

Breitling is a much-appreciated brand in the Middle East – what can we expect to see in our region for the rest of the year and into 2021 and can we expect to see you any time soon?

I will be on the first plane going to Dubai! I love the UAE and the region. We’re very active also in Saudi Arabia where we have opened three boutiques. We have renovated our boutiques in Bahrain and Kuwait. We have a flagship store in Dubai Mall, which is doing very well. It’s a shame to see what is going on in Lebanon. When I was very young I worked as an Area Sales Manager for in the Middle East, so I have a strong emotional attachment to the region and as you know strong roots in the region. Many Sheikhs wear our watches and are passionate about aviation.

 

Breitling Triathlon Squad

 

What is a message you would like to send to your friends and clients in the Middle East?

I invite them to go see the new products! The Chronomat, the ladies lines, these are all fantastic products and they are new in terms of design and very high quality. I don’t know anyone today who doesn’t like at least one or two models from our range. Since we cover so many areas, I think everybody will find something they love within our brand.

 

What is something that you still want to do with Breitling that you haven’t had the chance to do yet?

Many things! I don’t want to give away too many secrets but there are many things we can do. In the watch segment, we have further ideas, especially with women’s. I wake up with an idea every morning! I get inspiration all the time.

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