This year, Wilhelm Schmid CEO of A. Lange & Söhne marks ten years at the helm of the brand. Known for its authenticity and its ability to stay true to its roots A. Lange & Söhne has remained true to its DNA since the beginning over 175 years ago.
By continuing to keep its headquarters in its founding city of Glashütte in Germany, A. Lange & Söhne has remained true to its identity for two centuries. Something that Schmid credits to be one of the biggest strengths of the brand. A brand that is positioned with the finest of watchmakers A. Lange & Söhne prides itself on its connection and relationship with its niche customer base. So when COVID-19 hit last year and the whole world saw one-to-one interactions stop overnight, a huge challenge came for the brand that prides itself on personal interactions with clients. After quickly finding ways to adapt and realign its strategy A. Lange & Söhne has continued to launch new watches over the past year, most recently through the 2021 Watches & Wonders digital event. Three key new novelties were launched via the digital platform. To find out more and to reflect on a decade in his role, we talk to CEO Wilhelm Schmid.
Tell us about the A. Lange & Söhne novelties for 2021?
As part of Watches & Wonders 2021 we presented three new watches. The first was the Lange 1 Perpetual Calendar. The Lange 1 epitomises what we stand for and I think if you want to take it to the next level, this watch does that because the Perpetual Calendar is the only of its kind. There is no other with a display on the peripheral ring. I have to say, I’ve been wearing it now for three days and I don’t think I will take it off for a while!
Then we have the triple-split in its second chapter. The first one in white gold with a grey dial of course sold out a long time ago, but it takes us at the company about three years to produce 100 watches if they are as complicated as the triple-split is. Watchmakers do not change very often so once they are trained on that specific movement, we want them to continue working for as long as possible without any interruption. So that’s why now, after three years, we are launching the next hundred pieces of the triple-split with completely different aesthetics to keep the watchmakers up and running. They will continue working for another three years to produce the next hundred pieces of this beautiful and still very unique watch.
This is the second year that you participate in Watches & Wonders in a digital format – what can you tell us about the experience and how is it serving you?
Mankind has hugely adapted and I think at A. Lange & Söhne we have shown throughout history that we adapt to whatever is necessary. The only way to launch watches nowadays is to do so digitally. For the last Watches & Wonders, we had about four weeks to prepare but we had a lot more time this year and I think you can clearly see the results. The last time I was actually in quarantine because my son had COVID-19, so I had to work from home with no technicians and do whatever I could myself. Now I’m sitting here in a fully-fledged studio with perfect lighting and all the tools on hand to make it a much nicer experience. But we have continued launching watches throughout the past year and it was all done digitally, so by now we know how to do it and we also see that our clients have changed. I don’t think they would have enjoyed it two years ago, but now everyone is hungry for novelties and if digitally is the best way you can get them, then that’s what you accept.
What is your take on this and what is happening at A. Lange & Söhne in terms of digitalisation?
We did not change the way we design and produce watches and that will never change because it’s our DNA. But if you want to stay true to your values and the factory, then you also have to comply with the changes that are happening around us. Had you asked me 15 months ago if our clients were prepared to do Zoom meetings with me instead of meeting in person I would have said no because that’s not what they expect from us. But not only have we changed, but our clients have also changed, and they accept that for the time being, this is the best we can do. And if it’s done in a very personal way as we are doing it, you can build a relationship even though the digital world as long as it is authentic, clean and in line with what is expected. We have to stay hugely flexible. We are doing remote over the telephone and soon through e-commerce on our website. This is where you have to accommodate and comply with the changes in the world that are restricting people from what we like the most; mingling with others.
What is the strategy of A. Lange & Söhne to remain agile in such times?
We have the slogan “never stand still” which helps us to remain quite agile. But we are not agile to the extent of being hectic, more in the way that we maintain certain sets of values that we believe are important, but we also allow changes when we think it’s necessary. And again it’s in our history. We came back and revived the small town of Glashütte to make it the watchmaking hub of Germany. So, we know what our responsibility is, and we have great people on board that will transfer that from generation to generation. I think we have always had that ‘never stand still’ gene in us which helps us specifically in situations that you could not anticipate and where you have to navigate your way through times that you have never experienced before. I’m not worried about the future; I think the future of our company is even better than the past. Whatever comes up, we are prepared to deal with it.
What are you doing at A. Lange & Söhne to stay close to your clients?
I can’t even count the number of Zoom meetings I’ve had in the last twelve months. I know that I’m not alone, gladly the company’s weight is on many shoulders and we are very close to the customers.
As we speak, I know that we are working on digital events and boutique events. We’ve invited people to the Lange experience app for clients where they can not only see us and our novelties but more of the Watches & Wonders novelties on a broader scale. So, whatever is doable in a typical A. Lange & Söhne way, without meeting in person which at the moment is in most countries impossible, we do. But again, I believe that it is important that you stay authentic along the way. We will not involve celebrities and red carpets for example, because that’s not something we have ever done. So, whatever you get from us is authentic, be it digital or physical. That’s what’s important for us to maintain.
This is your tenth year as CEO at A. Lange & Söhne – how does it feel and what is a major milestone that you can share with us that you are proud of?
First of all, I come to work with a smile on my face every day. I’m not tired and I’m not bored after ten years. Every day is a new day and a great journey, and I love the brand and the people that work here. I will do it until I can’t do it anymore and it’s what makes me want to wake up in the morning and go to bed a little happier at night. A. Lange & Söhne is about the team it’s not about one person. So there is no secret that I did, it’s a lot of people that are involved and it’s about what we do together. But there were three things that I’m pretty sure are real milestones that I would highlight. The first would be the Grand Complication launch in 2013 because it answered the question of what we can do. And we can do everything we want. We have all the capacity and knowledge. For sure, the inauguration of the factory in 2015 was a key moment. With all the sustainable energy sourcing, the clean energy methods that we built in, the controlled environment, the beautiful view of the mountains. All that is there to stay. And the third highlight was launching the ODYSSEUS watch family in 2019. I believe the team did such a great job in coming up with something so unusual but also staying true to our DNA. So I’m pretty sure if I had to bring it down to three things, it would be these.
What is a major challenge you’ve faced during your ten years and how did you overcome it?
There is a company challenge that not only was there and is there, but I also believe will always be with us. 90 per cent of our people work in Glashütte and 100 per cent of our customers are not there. So how to connect the people that are working for us in Glashütte and connect the world with Glashütte remains the biggest challenge. We are by far the most successful, the most prominent and the biggest company in Glashütte and so my people don’t feel the breath in their neck from competition because it’s not there, it’s somewhere else. And we all know what happens to companies that become complacent. So that’s a challenge that will continue to be there and we need to ensure that we don’t become so self-centred that we don’t understand that the world is changing. And there is so much beauty in bringing the world to Glashütte, but also so much beauty in bringing Glashütte to the world, so that’s an ongoing challenge.
In times of uncertainty like now, what advice would you give to entrepreneurs and leaders who are in uncertain times?
Don’t be worried about mistakes, but be sure that you identify those mistakes. If you don’t change you will not make mistakes, but you will fail. If you do change you will make mistakes, but just make sure you identify them to avoid repetition of the same things. Other than that, just go for it. The world is waiting, and a decision can look great one day, stupid the next and then great again the next day, so don’t be afraid. Mistakes happen, it’s the way we deal with them that makes the difference.
What is it that you still aim to achieve that you haven’t done yet at A. Lange & Söhne?
There are many things! My ultimate aim is to make the company so sustainable that all the young watchmakers that we take on board every August as apprentices have plenty of work for the rest of their careers. A watchmaker can only make watches, so it’s my duty to ensure that the brand is so strong and resilient and in demand that there is always enough work for these people.
How would you assess the watchmaking industry today?
It’s always a difficult question for me because I’m just a small player. We produce 5-6 thousand watches a year and that’s it. I’m only at the top of the iceberg, so I’m probably the wrong person to ask about the watch industry. But what I realised last year, is that in days when everything is about bad news, people love good news and for a watch collector, the launch of a new watch is good news, and it brings joy to their lives. I think that’s right today, it will be right tomorrow and it was right yesterday. We are about making watches. That’s our duty and gladly there are enough people in the world that enjoy the hobby of fine watchmaking and it’s our duty to continue to come up with them. So, I see the business that we are responsible for at least, in good health. I’m not worried about the future, I’m rather optimistic.
What can you tell us about A. Lange & Söhne in the Middle East?
I was so happy that I was there to open the renovated boutique at Dubai Mall just before COVID-19 and I can’t wait to get back there. We have opened a boutique at Mall of the Emirates which I haven’t seen yet, and I can’t wait to get there! From what I see, the brand is well-positioned in the region. We also opened a boutique in Riyadh which I haven’t been to see yet. It looks like the awareness of what we do and the standing of what we do is rising in the Middle East, quite significantly. We can see this from the number of requests and customers that we get from that part of the world. I think the Middle East has always been a sophisticated market and maybe we were a little unknown, but we see slight changes in this. We never want to be known by everybody, that’s not our aim, but we want to be known to people that like fine watchmaking and understand it and I see we are on a good way to that.
What is a message you would send to fans of the brand and your clients in the Middle East?
It’s the message that I give to everybody at the moment to be appreciative of subtle difference. I always take the Perpetual Calendar as an example. I know not many of us are awake at midnight to see all of the indications instantaneously jumping, but to know it works like this is understanding A. Lange & Söhne. It’s all about the details and the love and the passion for small little things.