Walter von Känel, the man who makes time Featured

Walter von Känel is President of Longines, a brand approaching its 185th anniversary, with a position of remarkable success in the industry. What’s the secret of its success?

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06 October 2016

Longines can be summarised in a few numbers. The first, number four. Longines is the fourth largest watch brand in the world, one of the only six with sales exceeding a billion Swiss francs per year. The second, 185, which next year will be the number of years since the brand’s foundation in 1832. Third, 600, the number of people who work at Longines, most of them at Saint-Imier in Switzerland.

WvKWalter von Känel, President of Longines

Walter von Känel, President of Longines, knows these numbers and many, many others. He also knows all 600 people in the Saint-Imier factory by name. We spoke to him in his office there, a room with two vertical pendulum clocks, lots of boxes of watches, and lots of paper. No computer. The first question was about how Longines had reached its position of success, and how it maintains it. Walter von Känel, as is his habit, answered with a pencil in his hand, drawing diagrams and graphs as he spoke.

“Consistence, continuity, focus, stay in your league. We want to remain in the area from 1,000 to 3,000 Swiss francs. We try to maintain our dominance in this bracket. Otherwise, the brand's progress wouldn’t be constant, but would become a slalom. Another aspect of our approach is to focus on elegant, classic watches. You can't do everything, and that is the reason for our success. What is very interesting, thanks to this policy of focusing, is that our export figures in this sector are not losing, even though many brands are coming into our segment. Cartier’s Tank Solo, two thousand euro, hey, that's my territory! Omega are also coming into this segment with De Ville Prestige. These are good signs, it confirms that we took the right decision.”

What do you think about the definition "accessible luxury"?
First we should define what is luxury. Luxury is a big world, and within this world we have watches. They have a dual function: they tell the time, and they are a status symbol. Luxury is not only Patek, Breguet, Rolex, Omega, luxury is also for some people a watch between 1,000 and 3,000 francs, with a good name, good design, good quality, good price. That’s my understanding of luxury. A watch is the typical emotional, branded consumer product.”

How do you transmit emotion to your potential customers?
“This emotion has to be conveyed by our communications. With us it starts with our slogan, elegance is an attitude. Instead of using dead people, our history, we have elegant, active people, our brand ambassadors. We respect national, regional, local habits, because Chinese and American consumers react differently to communications. For India, there is Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, the testimonial who has been with us for longest. The Chinese relate to Chi Ling Lin, Eddie Peng and Aaron Kwok. We have very few international, world testimonials, but there are a few exceptions: Kate Winslet has a good image thanks to Titanic, and Simon Baker is popular here in Europe through his films. In addition, we support sports matching our global concept of elegance: equestrian sports, which are very big now, gymnastics which is very elegant, Alpine skiing, tennis with the Roland Garros, these are the most important.”

Eddie Peng, Longines ambassadorEddie Peng, Longines ambassador

We have seen the Longines museum and your historic calibres. Will you be relaunching some manual-wind calibres in the future?
Manual-wind? No. There's no market. All you journalists say, why don't you do the very good, old, mechanical movements for women's watches? But how many could I sell? 84% of our watches sold are three-hand calendar watches. Over 80% three-hand calendar, that's focus. OK, there's 16% for the other types, chronographs comme çi comme ça, 6% of sales. Of course, we make watches for collectors, the pieces in the Heritage collection. The first under my leadership was in 1987, when we issued the Lindbergh Hour Angle watch. 1987 was 60 years after Lindbergh's Atlantic crossing, and it was just after the crossing, in 1927, that he gave us his design. In 1987 I did it four-fifths, not the original size. But on the Heritage pieces, size isn’t the problem, the only fight I have with you bloggers and journalists is the calendar, the date window. Usually these pieces are like an edition in a library, every year you have to decide, do we reprint, or do we stop? But it’s nice to just watch them go, gradually, to the connoisseurs.”

Longines Heritage Military L2 811 4 53 0Longines Heritage Military L2.811.4.53.0

Are you thinking of introducing some branded accessories, like different strap options?
The only global accessories that we produce is sunglasses, but exclusively to protect the trademark. I have always refused to go into jewellery. As regards bracelets, we make over one million metal bracelets per year, at very high quality. Our straps are alligator except for the entry price, and we sell metal bracelet and strap options at the same price. Usually at cost, the alligator strap is more expensive than the metal bracelet. I think there could be a future for interchangeable straps.”

I suppose that your soldiers in the field are the staff in the boutiques. How do you support them?
“Training is very important for us. In our business, the key man, the key lady, is the lady in the shop. Like in the army, the key man is the soldier on the ground, not the genius in the office. We try to bring sales people here, so they have one day training, then they visit the museum, the factory, the workshop, and we give them the chance to see Switzerland. That way, they can explain the brand more effectively.”

There are many unauthorised websites that sell Longines watches. How do you deal with the parallel market?
“I have to say that fakes and unauthorised websites are proof that the brand is famous. With an unknown brand, you have no fakes, and no parallel activities. To answer the question, the battle on fakes is easy. A fake is a fake, and we have the support of the international authorities. When it comes to unauthorised websites, the watches they sell are original, sourced from all over the world. Each of our watches has a number, so that we can trace very quickly where it has come from.”

President von Känel got up and took the top box from one of the stacks, opened it and showed us a watch. “See, we buy from the unauthorised websites. It's in this office that the fight goes on. The battlefield is big. So on one side I have to cut source of supply, and on the other, we have to market watches online ourselves. At the moment, we have just one e-commerce website, for America. We’re working on expanding our e-business.”

What is your own personal luxury?
“To be alive! To enjoy life, to have friends, to enjoy drinking Mai Tai or good grappa...”

Perhaps time is luxury?
“Ha! I make time! Time is waking up every morning at 5 o'clock. From five to seven I work at home. There is no-one to disturb me. From seven to eight, shaving, all that stuff. It's the only time that I look at myself, I am alone with my mirror... Then to the office, and I am very lucky because my most advanced computer is this (he shows us his very basic mobile phone). With this, nobody knows where I am. I have a team that uses computers. Here we have a nice group, and peace with headquarters... voilà.”

Assembly of Longines watches at Saint-ImierAssembly of Longines watches at Saint-Imier

Could you give us some hints about next year, your 185th anniversary?
We will improve our museum, we will have a big party here, there will be couple of anniversary models, we will have a new book. All to tell people that we are not a newcomer to the watch business, because we have been here for 185 years, and we are still number 4 in the industry.”

low L2.715.4.71.3 PRLongines Master Collection Retrograde L2.715.4.71.3