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WOLF: a family business story - in five chapters

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July 2020


WOLF: a family business story - in five chapters

A family company that moves its headquarters to a different country with each new heir, for five generations? That’s WOLF! Founded in 1834 in Germany, the manufacturer of watch cases and winders for the watchmaking industry has won over new markets with every move: Sweden, the United Kingdom, the United States, and now Asia too. Their story perfectly illustrates how the path of independent entrepreneurship has changed through very distinct times and places.

T

he globalisation of watchmaking can best be illustrated through the entrepreneurial journey and expansion of some of its oldest companies. The case of WOLF is a little different, because it doesn’t manufacture timepieces. Instead, it makes everything that helps to keep watches safe and in good working order over time: boxes, winders, rolls and safes.

The company has been in the hands of the same family of German descent since the first half of the 19th century but, unusually, it has changed its headquarters with every new generation of the family. Thus, after Germany, the company successively moved its offices to Sweden, the United Kingdom, the United States and is now well established in Asia. We share here the five different stages of this entrepreneurial adventure, together with the current Managing Director, Simon Wolf, who represents the fifth generation at the helm of the eponymous company.

The only surviving image of the workshop and home of founder Philip Wolf I is in this painting. Hanau was in large part destroyed by British air strikes in 1945.
The only surviving image of the workshop and home of founder Philip Wolf I is in this painting. Hanau was in large part destroyed by British air strikes in 1945.

Chapter 1: Germany

“In the 19th century, long before the European Union was established, there was already an unofficial single market on the continent with a lot of cross-border trade,” says Simon Wolf. His ancestor Philip Wolf I was a goldsmith in the German city of Hanau, near Frankfurt, where he opened his workshop in 1834.

“He initially specialised in designing and making silver jewellery, seeing very quickly that placing his jewellery in beautiful leather cases increased sales. He was a craftsman, who produced one or two cases a day. My father kept a few very old examples, but he stored them in a barn which unfortunately burned down,” Simon Wolf explains.

“In the 19th century, long before the European Union was established, there was already an unofficial single market on the continent with a lot of cross-border trade.”

The concept of the company was born: “It is logical to protect one’s possessions by storing and safeguarding them in a fine quality case,” wrote Philip Wolf I, who in 1836 also designed his own family crest based on the coat of arms of the city of Hanau (a motif that would be taken up in a later Wolf collection).

Philip Wolf I based the design of the family crest on the coat of arms of Hanau, the town where he and generations before him had grown up.
Philip Wolf I based the design of the family crest on the coat of arms of Hanau, the town where he and generations before him had grown up.

Chapter 2: Sweden

The history of the company continued not in Germany but in Sweden, where the founder’s heir, Philip Wolf II, settled at the end of the 19th century. He married a woman called Ida Wilhemina, who played a key role in the history of the company by ensuring the transition after the death of her husband. Two of their children, Philip III and Ernst, were also involved in the development of the WOLF company. The latter eventually left to found his own company specialising in the manufacture of cases and boxes, Stockholms Etui & Koffertfabrik, which is still in business today in Sweden.

Wolf promotional catalogues in Swedish, dating from 1950.
Wolf promotional catalogues in Swedish, dating from 1950.

Through his innovations, Philip Wolf III left a lasting impression on the company. “My grandfather thought differently, I learned a lot from him,” recalls Simon Wolf. “He was also a great fisherman – he even founded the Swedish Salmon and Trout Fishermen’s Association!” It was while fishing, after getting his thumb caught by a hook, that he came up with the idea for a new type of hinge that staples through the wood, to make his jewellery boxes. The innovation was patented by Wolf. Philip Wolf III was also the inventor of the music box with a rotating ballerina. At the time, the company’s clientele was essentially Scandinavian.

Philip Wolf III (pictured here in 1937) designed and developed numerous new production techniques, hinges that could be stapled through wood, and he was the inventor of the music box with a rotating ballerina.
Philip Wolf III (pictured here in 1937) designed and developed numerous new production techniques, hinges that could be stapled through wood, and he was the inventor of the music box with a rotating ballerina.

Chapter 3: United Kingdom

Born in Malmö in 1936, Philip Wolf IV also joined the family company, where he worked with his father. To this day, he is passionate about mechanics and technology, especially aviation. “My father can still remember the American planes that flew over Sweden during the Second World War,” says Simon Wolf. It was in England, where he studied, that he met his future wife Judie: “Seven days after they met, they were married. My grandfather told my father: ‘Since you’re in the United Kingdom now, you can start making cases there!’ That’s how the company moved to the British Isles in 1962, and continued its westward migration.

In 1962, the Wolf workshops were provisionally moved to Ireland, before being transferred to Wales the same year. Philip Wolf IV, the father of the current director Simon Wolf, is pictured here with some of his employees.
In 1962, the Wolf workshops were provisionally moved to Ireland, before being transferred to Wales the same year. Philip Wolf IV, the father of the current director Simon Wolf, is pictured here with some of his employees.

A first attempt to open a factory in southern Ireland was soon abandoned in favour of a larger, custom-built facility in Wales. It was around that time that, for the first time, orders started to come in from across the Atlantic. “My father took up the torch of innovation by thinking differently from the competition. He came up with a new concept every week, which enabled him to gain market share,” says Simon Wolf. As early as 1968, a boutique was opened in Selfridges, the prestigious London department store. Watch brands including Rolex and Longines made their boxes in the Swedish factory and even the famed Concorde flew with WOLF-made coasters onboard

“Watch brands including Rolex and Longines made their boxes in the Swedish factory and even the famed Concorde flew with WOLF-made coasters onboard.”

At that time, the company maintained factories in both the United Kingdom and Sweden. It was awarded the Royal Warrant by the Swedish Royal Court in 1972. WOLF also received orders from the British government – the case for the cufflinks presented to Ronald Reagan by Margaret Thatcher was made by WOLF. In 1984 the company celebrated its 150th anniversary. Two years later, the current managing director Simon Wolf joined the family business.

Chapter 4: United States

Simon Wolf’s first challenge was to lead the expansion of WOLF, a company already well established in Europe, into the US and Canadian markets. During the 1990s, the company signed agreements with several American retail chains and opened a subsidiary in California.

“When I started in 1986, I found that we were selling at the right price, but not at the intrinsic value people thought we were worth,” says Simon Wolf. “Our company had 200 employees, but more and more potential customers were looking for cheap products from Asia. We couldn’t hope to compete in this area. Instead, we had to capitalise on our image, our tradition and our know-how in order to move upmarket and offer luxury products.”

“More and more potential customers were looking for cheap products from Asia. We couldn’t hope to compete in this area. Instead, we had to capitalise on our image, tradition and know-how.”

In 1988, Simon Wolf, who had just joined the family company, was assigned the delicate mission of conquering the North American market. Three decades on, the company's headquarters are located in Los Angeles.
In 1988, Simon Wolf, who had just joined the family company, was assigned the delicate mission of conquering the North American market. Three decades on, the company’s headquarters are located in Los Angeles.

This new luxury strategy transformed the family company from top to bottom. The young Simon, who had settled in the United States, quickly learned American-style branding techniques, which he applied to make WOLF a leader in its niche, in the face of the now globalised competition. “We had to tell our story better and create value around our name, because we weren’t an obscure supplier without an identity, but a prestigious name synonymous with quality.”

It was also in the 1990s that WOLF embarked on a new activity: manufacturing watch winders. The idea was to add value to the segment through innovation. “At the time, this market was fairly standard, with few technological developments,” continues Simon Wolf. “Entering this segment opened up strong growth potential for us.” Among other things, the brand obtained a patent for its system of counting revolutions per day on its winders. Its entry into this market coincided with the rebirth of the luxury mechanical watch, which considerably increased the need for watch winders.

Chapter 5: Hong Kong

In parallel with diversifying its product range and expanding into the United States, at the beginning of the new millennium WOLF, like many other players in the luxury industry, ventured into Asia. In 2001, the company opened an office, showroom and warehouse in Hong Kong. Manufacturing, which had previously been done in Europe, was outsourced to a trusted subcontractor in the region. The products of this now globalised company, with offices in Los Angeles, London and Hong Kong, are exported to 65 countries today.

“Moving to Asia was an important strategic decision,” says Simon Wolf. “I am convinced that customers are well aware that globalisation has changed manufacturing channels, and that maintaining production quality is key. We choose the best supply chain.” The Director adds: “A perfect jewellery case or watch winder starts with the selection of the best raw materials. For us all subsequent steps are taken in-house, by hand. From the skiving of leather hides so the fit and finish of a corner is perfect to building, by hand, each gearbox for our watch winders. Quality control starts many steps before a product even starts to take shape.”

A Wolf safe from the Churchill collection.
A Wolf safe from the Churchill collection.

Faced with the coronavirus, which has frozen supply chains, particularly from Asia, WOLF was able to make the most of the stocks kept in its various warehouses around the world. The fact that the products are not themselves perishable, as well as being relatively unsusceptible to changes in fashion, was also an advantage. The company also set up an original distribution system for retailers during the crisis (read more here).

“As long as the mechanical watch retains socio-cultural relevance, and therefore a potential market, the company will be able to maintain its activity in this highly specialised ecosystem.”

The new British Racing Green collection of watch winders, boxes and rolls.
The new British Racing Green collection of watch winders, boxes and rolls.

Last year, WOLF launched an ambitious plan to win over Asian clientele, who are particularly fond of mechanical watches, by introducing new technologies such as the ability to control a watch winder remotely via a dedicated app. As long as the mechanical watch retains socio-cultural relevance, and therefore a potential market, the company will be able to maintain its activity in this highly specialised ecosystem. Just as for the watch brands themselves, this will also involve promoting its own heritage. A new dedicated page on its website now tells the multi-generational story of WOLF.

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