In luxury, you create a need. You don’t respond to a need: Breitling CEO

In an interview with 'Lounge', Georges Kern says widening the 140-year watch brand’s appeal multiplied its buyers and revenues

Pooja Singh
First Published4 May 2024, 04:00 PM IST
Breitling CEO Georges Kern
Breitling CEO Georges Kern

When it comes to reinventing a legacy brand, the biggest challenge perhaps is keeping the soul intact. In 2017, soon after taking the position of Breitling’s chief executive officer and a shareholder, Georges Kern began repositioning the Swiss watchmaker, traditionally aimed at an older male audience, as a casual luxury brand. Many weren’t happy. Over 90% of the brand’s workforce quit.

But Kern, who had spent close to 20 years at the Richemont group, working with brands like A Lange & Sohne and IWC, was adamant. He wanted to make the brand more “approachable and fun”.

The Chronomat, for instance, was launched in 2020, with the now-famous bullet steel bracelet, a design that came about after people told him what they wanted, on his Instagram account.

Over the past seven years, Breitling has doubled its business, claims Kern, wearing a navy blue bespoke suit and brown handmade Santoni shoes during a meeting at Delhi’s Oberoi hotel, just before the 59-year-old goes on stage to address a select audience of retailers, journalists and other stakeholders.

He’s in India to talk about the company’s 140-year journey—from being the inventor of the modern chronograph and pioneering the navigational tool watch for men to creating casual timepieces for all genders, and plans to expand across India.

Also read: India has always had an understanding of luxury, says Montblanc CEO

As part of its 140th anniversary, the watchmaker, currently among the top five (Rolex continues to be the leader in terms of gross sales since 2017), showcased its latest timepieces. These included the Aerospace B70 Orbiter 25th anniversary edition, which sports a vibrant orange dial and is a tribute to the first non-stop balloon flight around the world.

In an interview with Mint Lounge, Kern talks about the India market, reinventing a legacy brand and what luxury means. Edited excerpts:

You talk about the promise of India as a potential leader in the luxury market. What makes you believe this?

India is a country of over 1.4 billion people. It’s young and strongly developing. By 2028, it will be the world’s third biggest economy. Imagine the number of people who would have the potential to buy in the luxury segment. There’s also the fair trade agreement (signed in March this year between India and the European Free Trade Association; under the agreement, India will, among other things, lift or partially remove customs tariffs on 95.3% of industrial imports from Switzerland). It will impact our investments in the coming years.

Having said that, India is still behind, especially when it comes to infrastructure. I just came from China and they have the malls, hotels, resorts, roads, things that make it a leading luxury hub. Consumers want to go to a fancy mall and have a good time—it’s part of the luxury experience.

We have multiplied our turnover when it comes to the Indian market (Breitling recorded a 40% jump in India revenue last year), but it’s still low. We will grow the business here and, hopefully, triple or quadruple it over the next two to three years. But it’s still nothing versus the real potential of India, and it’s the young population that gives me hope.

At the time you took the job, Breitling was heritage bound, targeting an ageing population. What made you give it a ‘young’ twist?

I didn’t want to get into the classic stuff; I hated that. When we started making changes, there were conversations about golf, and I said no. I was more about ‘Let’s do surfing. Let’s make the brand younger, more dynamic versus the dustier brands out there’. We are in a sweet spot of 5,000 to 20,000 euros. In luxury, you create a need. You don’t respond to a need. This is how we transformed the brand. I think we are more faithful to the brand today than we were before.

What were the challenges you faced along the way?

Lots of drama (laughs). Probably 95% of people left. I took new people because people are afraid of change. Even I took a risk. I left an incredible job, making a lot of money but I’m not afraid of life, because if you’re afraid, you can stay in bed and sleep and not do anything.

Fear is the worst advice in business. You have to take calculated risks. People said we’re taking risks, but I never felt so since we were faithful to the company.

What you need is courage and intuition. Brain, intelligence, IQ are not enough to run a luxury company. You need that stomach feeling. Like the amazing fashion designers that we see today... you need courage, intuition, the right shareholders.

The biggest satisfaction for me, as an entrepreneur, is just beating the others. And in beating the others, you make money; it’s a consequence. When you are constantly beating the opponent, suddenly you become a superstar. So motivation comes from beating the b**t of others.

You collaborate with experts from diverse sectors, designer Victoria Beckham being the latest. How do you zero in on them?

First of all, in luxury, you shouldn’t sink in silos, because everything is transversal. Somebody’s interested in cars, watches, fashion... So why shouldn’t we work with different kinds of people? And it’s the “in” thing to do. Louis Vuitton did it with Supreme, Gucci with Adidas. You want to add another edgy element to your brand.

Talking about the Victoria collaboration, specifically, we want to build our female segment, which was nowhere a couple of years ago. Today, it’s a substantial part of our business.

We want the women’s segment to be the cool and relaxed alternative to the super conservative brands out there. We started with a white piece of paper, which was easy because we don’t have a history as in the case of men’s watches with aviation . Victoria Beckham represents the type of woman I want to target.

We don’t want to target the romantic flower-power girl jumping through the fields. We also have surfers, girls driving motorbikes. We work with people like Charlize Theron; she’s a tough cookie. It’s a different type of woman.

Is this part of the strategy to attract a younger audience?

Any luxury brand, any car, everything is a lifestyle. And this lifestyle could be when you’re 20 or 60. Luxury is about your personal expression and what tonality you like. When it comes to luxury, you buy a brand for what they stand for.

I read in one of your interviews that you are a picky dresser...

(Laughs) When you are working for 17 years in the luxury space, you do get influenced, and it’s part of the image, right?

And yes, I am a picky dresser. I think it’s horrible when people who are rich are badly dressed. All that logomania! I know so many rich people who don’t have a proper watch; they wear a smartwatch.

What’s your favourite watch?

You know, I’m so lucky that I can wear so many watches. And I must tell you, that I’m not a watch collector but these days, I’m buying vintage watches. Now, don’t ask me why, because I myself don’t know.

Also read: Indians worship gold unlike anywhere else, says Bvlgari boss

 

 

 

 

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First Published:4 May 2024, 04:00 PM IST
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