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INDEPENDENTS - Beyond Niche

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March 2015



Three years ago, Georges-Henri Meylan, CEO of Audemars Piguet from 1997 to 2009, created MELB Holding with “a group of friends, including some former Audemars Piguet people”. The basket of this ‘little big guy’ contains two very different brands: the classic H. Moser & Cie and the rebel Hautlence, both bought when their companies were in difficulties.

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n the small world of independents, MELB Holding stands out as a beacon of hope for the future of brands that may be too fragile to stand alone against the vagaries of the market, or to break down the barriers to entering the shop windows. Indeed, its course is being followed with attention and anticipation by many small, fragile vessels.

At the side of Georges-Henri is his son Edouard who, after the Celsius adventure came to such a painful end (see Case Study, ES 1/15), is now masterfully overseeing the renaissance of H. Moser & Cie. An informal chat in the lounge of the Geneva Kempinski Hotel.

Georges-Henri Meylan
Georges-Henri Meylan
Edouard Meylan
Edouard Meylan

Is MELB Holding a model for other independents?

Georges-Henri Meylan: Our own model is simply the Swiss Confederation.
Although they live under the same roof, each canton retains autonomy over a number of key domains: education, police, health, social policy, taxation, etc. MELB Holding runs along the same lines: the brands cluster around a common ‘trunk’. General services such as management and distribution are shared. This strategy led to the creation of MELB Asia Ltd., managed by my other son, Bertrand, which distributes our two brands plus another independent, De Bethune, in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
But around this trunk, this common platform, each brand keeps its own individual DNA. The important thing is to reach critical mass so that we can tackle the markets together, given that distributors are gradually disappearing.
We benefit from many economies of scale.

Edouard Meylan: We get a lot of enquiries. Many brands see this model as a good solution, and think that MELB Holding will be keen to invest. But let there be no mistake. We are only interested in creating partnerships on the condition that constructive work can take place, that structural exchanges are possible, that everyone can bring something to the table; it must be a win-win situation.

GHM: Our aim is to create a structure that will stand the test of time, with clear ideas and a well-defined direction. We want to go beyond niche. H. Moser & Cie, for instance, is not cut out to be a niche brand.
It’s a magnificent small brand, which is not the same thing at all. And today, in a world where marketing costs more than the product, and in an unfavourable economic environment, the pressure on the little guys continues to grow.
But for the time being, our first task is to get our two brands on their feet, and to make them profitable.

EM: The construction phase is behind us, we have established our position, our marketing tools are in place, we have the products. Now we need to grow.
As far as H. Moser & Cie is concerned, we have rationalised production and costs and we have given our collections a makeover, made them sexier than before.
Everything is in place. We also have the feeling that our ‘Very Rare’ marketing strategy is starting to take, starting to stick in people’s minds. Quite clearly, things are starting to happen.

STRONG FRANC

GHM: But, as independents, we are more sensitive than bigger outfits to events such as the strengthening of the Swiss franc.
In a stroke, two years’ efforts and meticulous price adjustments are down the drain. It’s like a blow to the head. But it’s not the first time this has happened, and we’ll find a solution. When I started out in watchmaking, the dollar was at 4.50, sterling was at 12.50 and the French franc was at 4!

Having said that, the Swiss National Bank probably had no choice. Our currency was just a plaything for speculators. The problem is that it happened too suddenly. But it will be the Swiss retailers that suffer the most. And for us, they are very important.

EM: Price is crucial. It’s at the heart of our activity and it’s the first thing you have to think about when you design a new product, or when you decide to improve production. We don’t yet have a big enough name to brush the others aside. Our prices have to remain ultra-competitive.

GHM: We haven’t brought in external investors who have made their fortune elsewhere and come to watchmaking with the idea that they can make a killing. Building a brand requires a long attention span, it’s a long-term undertaking.

EM: We want to make MELB Holding a genuine network of cross-disciplinary expertise, bringing together partners, whether financial or industrial, that a small, isolated brand could not gain access to.

GHM: It’s more difficult to be independent today than it was pre-2008, before the financial crisis, and the subsequent economic and social crises. The pressure exerted by the big groups has become enormous.
And although the majority of retailers have no choice but to submit to it, some of them, and not necessarily the smallest, are starting to reach out to the independents. The relationship we have with Bucherer is an example of true partnership.
But you have to work very hard for it, find solutions, take initiatives. In terms of distribution, we are looking to replicate elsewhere the model that has worked so well for us in Asia, beginning with the Americas.
There, the important thing will be to bring complementary independent brands together, to help each other out.

EM: If you are to succeed, developing a strong concept is just as important as the product itself. It’s vital to helping people understand our brands’ DNA and getting their message across. You must work the values.
For example, the idea of entrepreneurship which is behind H. Moser’s long history; that’s a real entrepreneurial saga.
We realised that, not only are many of our clients entrepreneurs, but we also promote this ideal, both externally and internally; for example, we encourage our employees to act entrepreneurially in terms of the activities we undertake, like our participation in the Swiss Entrepreneur of the Year award. Being independent fundamentally means being an entrepreneur.

Source: Europa Star March 2015 Magazine Issue