How can one follow the charismatic Rolf Schnyder, emblematic head of Ulysse Nardin, who passed away suddenly in April 2011? How can one follow this visionary who had purchased the family enterprise in 1983, when no one had faith in the future of the mechanical watch, and who succeeded in taking the company to the pinnacle of Swiss watch brands?
These are some of the main questions that we at Europa Star had in mind when we went to meet Patrik Hoffmann, designated as CEO only two weeks after the death of Rolf Schnyder.
Europa Star: One year has gone by since the passing of Rolf Schnyder and we have the impression that Ulysse Nardin, whose image was so intimately linked to the personality of its owner, continues quite naturally to follow along its path. How has this forced transition been handled?
Patrik Hoffmann: There has obviously been a very strong personal image of the Ulysse Nardin brand, crystallised around the man who had made it so successful. But Rolf had prepared everything in advance. Upon his death, everything was in place to make this transition the smoothest possible for an enterprise that employs more than 400 people. Rolf was not alone in running the company—far from it. The strength of Ulysse Nardin comes from a very close-knit management team, which already was in place around Rolf, and composed of Pierre Gygax, the so-called “Mr. Silicon”, who is now COO, Susanne Hurni, director of all communication, Lucas Humair, the head of operations in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Patrice Carrel, director of finance and logistics, and myself, named as CEO. There has been, therefore, no interruption in any domain, and we function a little like the Swiss Federal Council, in an intelligent manner and in an excellent climate.
ES: In this collegial configuration, what then is your role as CEO?
PH: My role is to have the most complete view possible of the company, the entire view. On a financial level, the brand is perfectly healthy: we belong to a family trust set up by Rolf Schnyder and thus owe nothing at all to the banks. All investments are done in-house. On the essential level of products and movements, the direction that was determined many years ago was, and remains, very clear. One of the last things that Rolf did, before his passing, was to present the entirely new in-house Calibre 118 at BaselWorld 2011. This was a major step for Ulysse Nardin. We had been working on it for ten years but the decision to actually construct it was taken four years ago because we needed our own basic “tractor” and it arrived at the right time.
ES: Will this Calibre 118 equip all of your watches?
PH: We produce around 25,000 watches per year. This year, 3,000 of the Calibre 118 models will be available, and next year, 8,000 to 10,000 will come on line. Our goal is to have about 80 per cent of our watches equipped with our own calibre within the next five years. Yet, over the last twelve months, we have also taken other important steps.
ES: Such as?
PH: Still in the realm of movements, we purchased the Chronograph Movement 137 from Ebel, which will be introduced under the name of Calibre 150. In 1996, we launched a perpetual calendar whose base had been developed jointly with La Nouvelle Lémania and with Ebel, which then made a chronograph out of it. By buying the rights, plans, and existing component parts of this calibre from Ebel, and hiring five people from its team, we thus created a synergy between these two movements issued from the same base, and therefore we now have a perpetual calendar chronograph.
The second important step was our acquisition of a share of “ochs und junior”, a company belonging to Ludwig Oechslin, which operates somewhat like a think tank. It will develop products based on our calibres, and we will have access to their innovations. But, as you know, Ludwig Oechslin is still at the head of the Musée International d’Horlogerie in La Chaux-de-Fonds and is thus bound by certain limitations. At the end of his term, however, in 2014, he will work exclusively for Ulysse Nardin.
And finally, something, very important for us, is the acquisition of Donzé Cadrans, a specialist in high-end dials and enamel, which is one of our fundamental specialties.
ES: In this regard, contrary to other comparable brands, Ulysse Nardin does not have an iconic model, one that is immediately identifiable. Of course, there is the Freak, but that is a very particular watch, and there is also the enamel work…
PH: Yes, you are right. We have quite a large collection, which is both a blessing and a problem. It is a blessing because many of our clients own several Ulysse Nardin watches. In the United States, for example, we have noticed that more than 50 per cent of buyers already own one of our timepieces. But, it is also a problem because this makes production and marketing obviously more difficult. Currently, we are significantly reducing the number of our references. Sometimes to cut old models is as important as to create new ones. In terms of design, we are also making changes to our existing models. We are giving them a new, stronger, and more contemporary look, which is being well received. From now on, the client will purchase our watches, not only for their functions and mechanical excellence, but also for their “look.”
ES: From the point of view of distribution, what is your strategy? We know that times are becoming more difficult for the independents...
PH: We are very lucky in that we are perfectly balanced and can walk on all fours, if I might use this expression. Overall, our distribution is over four main areas that have a similar market share, or about 25 per cent each: the Americas, managed by a subsidiary; Russia and the neighbouring countries, managed by another subsidiary that employs 30 people; Asia, with a branch in Hong Kong and an office in Shanghai; and Europe, which is run by an office in Germany, and the Middle East, that we manage directly from Le Locle.
In all, this represents some 500 retailers, with whom we share very strong and trusting relationships with long-term perspectives. And, yes, we also have a network of 16 Ulysse Nardin boutiques, but we give priority to our retailer network. Because of the control policies by the large groups, new opportunities are also opening for the independents…
ES: And the Swiss market?
PH: It is true that we have somewhat ignored this market, but soon a surprise will be coming. In Europe, too, we are going to be doing new things, although, for the moment, I cannot say more about them…
Source: Europa Star August - September 2012 Magazine Issue