hile the Severin Group’s corporate headquarters were based in Irvine, California, it was in Lengnau, Switzerland, near the city of Bienne, that the more than 1 million Gucci watches sold annually were produced and distributed, generating a turnover in the region of 300 million francs. This considerable success was due to the visionary genius of the incredible Severin Wunderman.
Born in Belgium in 1938 to a Jewish glovemaker father, he was hidden from the Nazis in a school for blind children, where he was the only sighted pupil. After the death of his mother, he was sent to live in Los Angeles at the age of 10. By the beginning of the 1970s, he was a sales representative in the US for French watch brand Alexis Barthelay.
On a trip to New York, he was struck by an idea; he managed to meet with Aldo Gucci and to persuade him to order $250,000 worth of watches bearing the Gucci name. But when Barthelay struggled to supply the watches, Wunderman offered Aldo Gucci another deal: he would leave Barthelay, set up his own company and oversee the production of the watches himself. There was just one small snag; he didn’t have a penny to his name. But Aldo Gucci wrote him a cheque and paid for the order in advance!
In 1972, Wunderman created Severin Watches and acquired the licence agreement for Gucci watches (and later on for Fila watches). Over the course of the next 25 years, he built a multimillion-dollar business by producing and distributing Gucci watches. His main hunch was to not rely on traditional watch retail networks, but to distribute through department stores by promoting the Gucci name. He followed the changing fashions, stuck to the trends and applied US marketing formulas to high-quality, Swissmade watches. Ten years later, he had increased his sales 100 fold and inspired many a brand to diversify into watches.
During a visit to Lengnau in 1993, Europa Star was clearly impressed by the modernity of the centre: “You can physically feel the power of this organisation, which spans 4,000 m2 and processes over one million watches every year. The building is centred around an enormous strongroom in which 300,000 to 400,000 watches are kept in continual stock.
All the different departments are arranged around this room to give a completely integrated centre,” we wrote at the time. However, at the same time, a cloud was on the horizon at the Severin Group: the fight for control of the Gucci group, which had been raging for several years. Investcorp, the owner of Ebel and Breguet, was in the process of taking over the entire group; and the Gucci watch licence agreement, which was awaiting renewal, only ran until May 1994.
On 14 October, Severin Wunderman decided to go for broke by publishing an open letter in all the Swiss newspapers, in which he extolled his many successes with Gucci Watches. He pointed out the jobs at risk and publicly pleaded his case with Investcorp. The next day, in a dramatic turn of events, an agreement was signed to extend the licence for another year – “long enough to negotiate another long-term contract that will benefit both companies.”
The enterprise continued for another few years until 1997, when Investcorp sold Gucci to François Pinault’s PPR group (now Kering) and bought the watch licence agreement from Severin Wunderman. He would later go on to take over Corum with this small fortune, but that’s a whole other story…