Wilhelm Schmid CEO of A. Lange & Söhne Talks Digitalisation and a Time of Transition

Lara Mansour   |   06 - 06 - 2020

In an innovation-driven world, German watch brand A. Lange & Söhne has always remained true to its values and tradition.

Understated in terms of watchmaking, the 175-year-old brand made waves with its first steps into the realm of an elegant sports watch last year in the form of the “Odysseus”. This year as part of the Watches & Wonders presentation it returns with the second watch in the Odysseus family. Now available in white gold with an integrated rubber or leather strap, the sporty-elegant timepiece has allowed A. Lange & Söhne to build on its values with something that responds to the contemporary market.

 

Meanwhile a second timepiece, the Zeitwerk Minute Repeater is the world’s only watch that combines a mechanical jumping numerals display with a decimal minute repeater. The complicated timepiece has so far only been available in platinum, but it returns this year in a white gold version, with a deep-blue dial that’s limited to 30 pieces. These two pillars of the brand continue to move the watchmaker forward while remaining true to its values.

 

Wilhelm Schmid joined A. Lange & Söhne as CEO in 2011 and has since been guiding the brand into a niche that combines tradition and heritage with innovation and technology. Here a&e talks to Schmid on the new timepieces, as well as the outlook for the brand post-COVID-19 and how the digital world is taking over in the current climate.

 

In your opinion, what do you think the impact of COVID-19 will be on the watch industry and how are you shaping up the strategy of A. Lange & Söhne moving forward?

Firstly, when this is over I think we will find that we are all a little bit more digitally savvy than before. People are getting used to talking to each other through a screen and they are realising that even a digital launch presentation of a watch is better than having no launch at all. But I also believe that the appetite for personal interaction will see a peak after we’re allowed to stop social distancing. Overall at the moment, it’s a very weird situation, a lot of things that we are used to are not happening. When it comes to the industry, I think that people will still want to enjoy the good things life has to offer, and I think that after the crisis they will still want watches, and we’ll be there to offer people beautiful timepieces. So in that way, our strategy hasn’t changed at all.

 

What can you tell us about the timepieces that are launching for this part of the year?

We purposely wanted to launch only two watches this time. That was a very clear decision and we promise that there will be more watches as we go through the year, as we hopefully go back to a more normal situation. But for now, we decided to launch a watch that is at the very high end of the market in the form of the Zeitwerk Minute Repeater in white gold with a deep-blue dial. And at the other end of the spectrum, we have the latest Odysseus model which was introduced as part of the Odysseus family of watches which initially launched last October. This version comes in white gold with a rubber or leather strap. It took us some time to come up with the concept of this watch and there was a huge controversial discussion in the beginning, which is quite normal because we were planning to do something so different from the current offer. There will always be people who will love it and there will be others that don’t like the concept. But now everything has calmed down a lot. Quite a few people have changed their opinion, so we have seen a huge demand for the watches in that specific family. And this will be our biggest challenge – how do we fulfil the demand? But again, that’s what we’re here for.

 

ZEITWERK MINUTE REPEATER

 

The Lange 1 is the icon that turned 25 last year – what makes this watch so unique and timeless so that it stands out among other watches in the industry?

I would never say that any of our watches are above the others, but what I know for sure is that this is a watch that stays in the mind. When Lange 1 was first launched in 1994 I was a watch collector myself and I remember it. Nobody was expecting that a watch like that to come from Germany. At the time, it was a very large watch from a dimension point of view and that was unusual. The centralised dials coordinated in a way that the symmetry catches your eye and it was unheard of this kind of thing in a wristwatch and had never existed before. So that made the Lange 1 unique and I’m pretty sure that if we had had social media in 1994 we would have also seen a controversial discussion around this watch because this is what happens with strong designs, at least in the beginning. Today the Lange 1 is a whole family of watches. The challenge with very strong designs is that if you want to create a family, you have to think about the implications on that design on later alternations and versions at a very early stage. That goes for all of our timepieces. If you want to maintain the time, look and feel of the product there are a lot of things that you have to work around and it’s not always easy. If you put all of the watches in the Lange 1 family next to each other you will still see that they are all part of the same family, even though individually they are all quite different in their functionality.

 

Post COVD-19, of course, a lot of things will change – what can you tell us about online and the digitalisation at A. Lange & Söhne?

For sure, the current situation will fuel the digital world. There’s no question on that. It is very early though to determine whether our clients will start to buy online or whether they will continue to get all the information from digital platforms but then still prefer to go to the store to buy their products. I think it’s a little too early for me to see the impact of the current situation on this sort of behaviour but for sure there will be a change. How quickly that change will happen I don’t think I can answer that yet.

 

ODYSSEUS

 

With a Maison with such a rich heritage – how do you keep such a fine balance between the history and the innovation and technology aspect?

We are a traditional company because our values are very traditional. We are an understated brand and quality is always our first priority. Secondly, if we have the chance to build a watch that’s delicate vs a watch that’s robust, we would always opt for the robust option – these values have formed our tradition. But we don’t want to replicate what we did in the last 20 years and continue to do that for the next 20 years and that’s where innovation comes in. I think if you define tradition as a set of values, then whatever you do, you measure against those values. Tradition is an important foundation or anchor but it will not stop you moving forward because it’s something that you can carry with you.

 

What can you tell us about sustainability at A. Lange & Söhne?

For us, sustainability has always been at the forefront and is utmost important. It starts with having apprenticeship programmes for future watchmakers because we have to build the foundations to have great watchmakers in years to come. So just based on the aspect of what we do, we have to have a sustainable business model. When we launched our new manufacturer we really considered sustainability. We have our own thermal energy source and we only use green energy to operate the water pumps. Even with our packaging etc. if there is a sustainable solution we will always choose it, even if it might be a little more expensive. I believe that you should not produce luxury products today if you don’t have a sustainable model for all stakeholders.

 

Even before the COVID-19 spread, we have been seeing fewer exhibitions and platforms for watchmaking – how are you staying close to your clients and retailers now and what is the cycle going forward?

At the moment the only way to stay in touch is through the digital world. There is no alternative. We have had to cancel many events and the only way we can talk to our clients is through virtual platforms. We are doing it in a typical “Lange way” in which we are trying to stay authentic. It is a challenge but we have to adapt to the environment. The appetite for personal interaction is rising day by day so I don’t think that the digital world will totally substitute meeting in person. To give you an example; twice a year I put myself on a diet for two weeks and you have no idea how tasty my first treats are after two weeks! I think that is exactly what we are going to experience with watch buying when all of this is over. The first real interactions will be enjoyed a lot more because people won’t be taking it for granted anymore.

 

 

You joined the brand in 2011, what do you think you have achieved over the last decade and what would you still love to do?

Our logo means, “never stand still”. I think if there are no dreams left for me, there’s no vision in what we want to do with the company. And if I don’t have a vision I’d be a very bad CEO! There are still many things that we are working on, the challenge for me is that if I share too much it will take away the element of surprise that people like from us as a brand.

 

Many people are in a time of uncertainty – as a leader what advice would you give to business owners?

The first piece of advice that I give to everyone is to stay healthy. All of your efforts will not end positively if you aren’t healthy. I think we have to be optimistic but we have to be careful. We have to determine what is important and urgent and quite often we see something that is one and not the other. These are things that have always been necessary but at the moment these things are mandatory or businesses will go under. So stay healthy, make sure you define the things that are really important and urgent, be careful with your resources and always find balance. Now is the time to stay true to yourself and the values you stick to.

 

What is the first thing you’re going to do after the lockdown ends?

I will invite all of my friends for a proper dinner and celebrate that we can interact again.

 

What else is in the pipeline for Lange this year?

I can give you a little hint that will probably start some rumours! Fine watchmaking was founded in Glashütte in 1845, which is exactly 175 years ago. I think it’s important to celebrate that moment, and rest assured that there are some exciting things in the pipeline for us on how we will celebrate this 175th anniversary.

 

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