t is one of the watch market’s most talked-about new brands – partly thanks to an offering aimed at a mainstream audience rather than the more exclusive segments favoured by many fresh faces. In fact Norqain came about specifically in response to the dearth of independent names proposing Swiss mechanical watches for less than CHF 5,000.
Based in Nidau, this family-run brand may be new; the people behind it have years of experience in the industry. The Küffers, who are the majority shareholder, are a watchmaking dynasty. Ben Küffer, who worked at Breitling for 12 years, is founder and CEO. His father, who spent decades at the head of Roventa-Henex, is chairman of the board. His brother is Norqain’s sales director, his sister is marketing director and his wife is head of merchandising.
Ted Schneider (one of the Breitling Schneiders) has been closely associated with Norqain since its creation, alongside top-flight athletes Mark Streit, Roman Josi and Tina Weirather. They are a perfect match for the laidback, outdoorsy identity of the brand, which has global reach. Not forgetting a certain Jean-Claude Biver as advisor to the board. We sat down with Ben Küffer.
- Ben Küffer, Norqain founder and CEO
Europa Star: You’re not the first in your family to work in the watch segment…
Ben Küffer: That’s right. My grandfather worked in sapphire crystals and watch hands. My father started out as an intern at Roventa-Henex [a major white-label manufacturer] in Tavannes. He was appointed CEO at the age of 35 and became co-owner at 40 following a management buyout. He’s been a fantastic role model and passed on a passion for mechanical watches that is now the driving force for our brand.
The Schneider family, Breitling’s former owners, were among the first to believe in Norqain.
We go way back. Aged 18 I did a work placement at Breitling and stayed there for 12 years, until the Schneiders sold the business in 2017. I was practically part of the family, so it felt natural to start looking elsewhere after the takeover. While studying the market, it occurred to me that there were next to no independent brands in the segment for mechanical watches at under CHF 5,000.
- Weighing just 78 grams, this Wild One Skeleton Turquoise is in Norteq, an ultra-robust, ultra-lightweight material that was developed by Norqain.
How did this realisation lead to Norqain?
From the very beginning, we set out to offer customers a quality product in a context of price inflation. Was this something an independent brand could hope to achieve? Under one condition, and that was to invest for the long term: no shareholders wanting to turn a fast profit, given that margins would be less than in higher price segments. In October 2017 I tore a ligament in my knee while playing football and Ted Schneider came to Nidau to see how I was doing. I told him about my idea for an independent brand with a pricing strategy between CHF 2,000 and CHF 5,000.
Was he convinced?
Straight away – unlike a lot of other people I’d pitched the idea to! He immediately said he would help make it happen. Another key figure has been ice hockey player Mark Streit, who is a friend and watch collector. He told me he’d play one more NHL season and we’d talk about it more the following summer, but was back sooner than expected due to injury. We picked up our discussion and he liked what he heard. He onboarded another top ice hockey player, Roman Josi, who is also interested in watches. So there we were, four guys each with our network and our experience, ready to start our journey together!
What were the different stages?
We knew that strategy was crucial, ahead of financing. So many investors have financed projects and lost money. We hadn’t yet raised the capital to pay for production and we were already working hard to convince retailers of our strategy. And of course we defined brand identity. Norqain is about who we are, what brings us together and what we enjoy: the outdoors, mountains, sport, nature, adventure, challenges… People can feel this, they believe in it and for this reason they buy into our brand.
- The crackled texture on the dial of the Neverest Glacier references the crevasses of the Khumbu Icefall, one of the most dangerous stages in the ascension of Mt. Everest.
You also had to convince suppliers…
We wrote to absolutely everyone – starting with suppliers we already knew well, such as BIWI. As a startup, we faced the challenge of needing only small quantities to begin with. One of the first letters we sent was to Kenissi, another new structure. Alongside Sellita movements, we were looking to differentiate the brand with a manufacture calibre – which is not the same as in-house. Kenissi asked us in for a meeting to talk about our project to write new stories for new generations. Obviously we already had our personal contacts but back then we were a brand that hadn’t sold a single watch, had three employees and five people on the board. Despite this, we came away with a verbal agreement to collaborate. This was a key moment for Norqain.
- This 37-mm Adventure Sport Automatic features the distinctive Norqain logo pattern on its dial, complete with a date aperture at 3 o’clock.
When did the brand officially launch?
Initial discussions were in 2017, the brand was set up in 2018 and we entered the market with our first eight retailers in Switzerland in January 2019. Convincing retailers wasn’t easy. A lot of them wanted to take the products on consignment. We could have opened a hundred doors at that rate, but without a marketing plan it would have been a mistake – one that a lot of new brands have made, unfortunately. We chose to go slowly but surely. Also, we wanted to select the best. Even then, we’ve expanded quite quickly. We now have 200 points of sale in 40 countries, including Bucherer and Wempe, plus Norqain boutiques in Zermatt and Singapore. And we’ll shortly be opening a new boutique in Zurich.
What do you think convinced them?
From the get-go we implemented an ambitious plan to develop our online reputation. We help retailers reach a younger clientele, which is an important point for them. They also saw that there was effectively a gap in the market for independent brands under CHF 5,000. Having Kenissi onboard was a point in our favour, too.
The brand was fresh out of the starting blocks in 2019 when Covid happened.
Fortunately we were targeting a local clientele, rather than Asian visitors who were thin on the ground! Having said that, we had just hired a full team so we weren’t completely reassured. A glimmer of hope came when Jean-Claude Biver, whom I didn’t personally know, got in touch out of the blue. He was interested in products aimed at younger generations and, around Easter time 2020, came to see me in Nidau. He thought we had put our finger on what every brand in our category should be doing but he also had an important question: “Where is your real sports watch? Not a smartwatch, not a luxury sports watch, a watch you can strap on and go for a run without thinking twice.” Then he said, “Come on, let’s go talk to some suppliers. We’re going to build the ultimate sports watch!” Two weeks later we were on the road. He completely clarified the direction we were taking. Now he is our very special advisor.
- Jean-Claude Biver, advisor to the board: “It’s vital to have strong independent Swiss brands in different price segments and Norqain challenges the status quo.”
What was the situation once the market started to recover from the worst of Covid?
In 2021 we grew by around 50% followed in 2022 by rapid growth of 115%, largely thanks to the Wild One. We launched the brand with a clearly structured offering across three collections, Adventure, Freedom and Independence, and we have stuck to this. Average price is CHF 3,700. We’re a young team – average age is 35 – with the motivation to go the extra mile that will make the difference. At the same time, we have the experience of our board members, with Jean-Claude Biver as advisor, Ted Schneider and his contacts in distribution, my father, Marc Küffer, and his understanding of production, skier Tina Weirather representing the world of sport and Lorenz Frey-Hilti, from Emil Frey, who is a digital specialist. It’s a winning formula.
Norqain has been in business for five years. Where are its main markets?
The US, Japan and Switzerland in that order. The NHL partnership has helped raise the brand’s profile in North America, as has our role as official timekeeper of the TCS New York City Marathon. Our communication is laidback, not at all arrogant and focused on outdoor activity, which fits the American mentality well. We also have a great team over there. Effective marketing, developed hand-in-hand with local retailers, counts for a lot, which is why we are glad we didn’t go the consignment route. Our online sales are also tied to our retailers. As more brands open their own stores, retailers appreciate our clear, cooperative approach. They also need alternative names in their lineup.
How is the business structured?
There are 34 of us in Nidau and we’ll shortly be relocating part of production there from the current site at Roventa-Henex in Tavannes. The Wild One will be made in Nidau.
According to Bloomberg, you produced around 10,000 watches last year. Correct?
I can’t confirm that but Bloomberg is usually a reliable source (smiles).
Who are your customers?
We have two main customer groups: watch enthusiasts who are open to new brands and recognise the quality of our products and sports fans who aren’t necessarily watch collectors but like our approach. In our segment, we’re also able to convert people who weren’t previously watch buyers. In this respect, sponsoring a popular event such as the New York Marathon, thanks to our connections in the sports world, has been a major asset. So was the fact that Stan Wawrinka, a popular player who knows Roman Josi and Mark Streit, spontaneously wore a Wild One, which weighs just 78 grams, at the recent ATP tournament in Cincinnati.
Given the Schneider family’s role and your twelve years at Breitling, would it be fair to say Norqain is a Breitling spinoff?
No. The two have very different identities. The whole point was to do something else.
- The Wild One Hakuna Mipaka is a 300-piece limited edition in collaboration with Dean Schneider, founder of the Hakuna Mipaka wildlife sanctuary in South Africa.
What gave you the idea for Norteq, an ultra-light composite?
When Jean-Claude Biver told us we needed to build the ultimate sports watch, we concluded that it would have to incorporate an original material. We teamed up with BIWI to develop Norteq, through a process that required new tools. Norteq is a carbon fibre composite that’s both very flexible and highly resistant, which makes it ideal for outdoor use. We use it for the case of the Wild One, priced from CHF 4,950, which is the top of our product and price pyramid.
What is your biggest challenge now?
Managing growth. Last year we let ourselves get somewhat carried away by events and grew a lot. The good news is that sell-out is now greater than sell-in, meaning we’re in synch with market reality. This will enable us to better manage our development.