hristoph Grainger-Herr took a unique route to IWC: through the brand museum! The young designer’s studies were “purely artistic”, he stresses, in the UK, then Basel, Switzerland. He was first commissioned by the Schaffhouse factory to create a museum looking back at the brand’s 150-year history.
He never left and was named CEO in March 2017. It’s a daunting task to succeed the effusive Georges Kern who brought about a tenfold increase in IWC turnover in 15 years. He went on to become Richemont’s Head of Watchmaking before suddenly taking off for pastures new at a competitor.
- Christoph Grainger-Herr, CEO of IWC
- © Photo©Fabien Scotti/Europa Star
It’s not easy to succeed the highly publicised Georges Kern who left the brand after a hugely successful tenure.
It’s one thing to take charge of a company that isn’t doing well and look to steady the ship but it’s quite another to take over a successful brand. It’s no mean feat – quite the opposite.
“We operate everywhere in the world with 50 stores in our own name and around 600 to 800 wholesale retailers. We have no intention of reducing the number of stores, quite the opposite.”
My challenge is to continue in the same vein and look to surpass it. I need to be careful and factor in past exploits while working towards long-term goals, adapting to changing conditions and imagining the future.
Aside from yourself, in the Richemont CEO galaxy, only Nicolas Bos comes from the artistic world. You could understand it for an ’artistic’ brand like Van Cleef & Arpels but IWC is seen as an ’engineer’s’ brand. Do you see your background as an advantage? Is it a shift in culture?
As a designer, you’re a central part of the creative process. You have to factor in all the different components and the artistic, technical and commercial reality. You must have a holistic viewpoint, be completely open-minded and create a physical manifestation of a complex reality, whether that’s an object, a watch or a museum. That said, after overseeing the brand’s museum design – which required a retrospective approach with a future focus – I gained experience in marketing, distribution and sales.
What can you tell us about the developments you intend to bring to the brand offering? Are you wary of the mounting competition, especially, and ironically, from Breitling?
IWC is in a great position. We have stood firm over the years and established a strong position in the 5,000–6,000 francs and 10,000–12,000 francs price points. The brand is strong with good foundations. It has been around for 150 years, was a pioneer in the industrialisation of Swiss watchmaking and has iconic lines and products at various positions and in various segments.
- The IWC Jubilee 150th Anniversary Collection
- 1. Big Pilot’s Watch Annual Calendar Edition “150 Years”; 2. Portofino Hand-Wound Moon Phase Edition “150 Years”; 3. Da Vinci Automatic Edition “150 Years”; 4. Tribute To Pallweber “Edition 150 Years”; 5. Portugieser Constant-Force Tourbillon Edition “150 Years”
IWC is a strong international brand in every sense of the word and we operate everywhere. But the brand has great potential for development. We don’t fear the competition edging towards us. There has always been competition so that’s nothing new.
The Jubilée collection was much talked about during the latest SIHH. Many observers saw a ’vintage’ or even ’neo-vintage’ slant in your collections.
Work on this collection began before my appointment. Inspired by one of our pocket watches, the digital display movement took five years of development to transition to wristwatch format. We had to change everything. The 10th of a second instantaneous disc jump required formidable precision and a very light disk. The watch has two barrels: one for the movement itself and one for the instant jump mechanism. This movement fascinated us and seems to have fascinated many people. It comes at the right time.
Some people are unhappy about a widespread return to historic watchmaking codes.
As global digitisation gathers pace, we have realised that people seek out and cherish the simplicity of the ’analogue’ world. Times have changed. When modernity and productivity were flourishing, we believed that the new objects on offer were moving in the direction of a general improvement in living standards. The future beckoned and it meant striving for the best.
But since the 1980s, a disconnect has emerged between productivity and a better life for all. Look at what has happened with apps. The best app kills all the other apps and takes all the winnings but no one feels any real benefit. The future no longer means the ’best’.
“Mechanical watches are reassuring in a Big Brother environment. They create a feel-good factor. And what is the luxury industry if not a feel-good factor?”
We have to accept it but we don’t necessarily want it. Look at the driverless car. It’s coming but who really wants it? Mechanical watches are reassuring in a Big Brother environment. They create a feel-good factor. And what is the luxury industry if not a feel-good factor?
- THE OBJECT: “If I’m the current CEO of IWC, I owe it in large part to one of my very first projects where I designed the London Longmire Cufflinks gentleman’s accessory store on Sloane Street in London. It was there that I acquired these cufflinks. If I hadn’t designed that store, I would almost certainly have never worked for the IWC Museum! So I probably wouldn’t be here, looking at you now.”
- Photo©Fabien Scotti/Europa Star
But let’s go back to the IWC offer. How would you describe it and what are your flagship collections?
Our three flagship collections are the ’three Ps’: the Portugaise, the Portofino and the Pilot. They embody the IWC spirit: a system conscientiously devised by engineers and decorated with subtlety and care. And they offer undeniable value for money. It’s our overriding aim to offer complex but practical features and simplify them to improve accessibility. From this point of view, innovation is central to our approach. Let’s take calendars where we aim to be the clear leaders.
What does the future hold for your distribution channel? What proportion is e-commerce? You recently announced further progress in this area.
Our main target is to offer our customers a wide range of options to choose from. The customer must have easy access to a physical location, if they so desire, and be able to combine the physical and virtual worlds or opt for the e-commerce channel alone. It’s essential that we offer a choice and a holistic service. But we mustn’t bury our heads in the sand: selling a luxury product through e-commerce alone is and remains difficult. Watches have become essentially emotional pieces. Who has a purely utilitarian need?
Practically speaking, how many physical sales outlets do you have and what is your online strategy?
We operate everywhere in the world with 50 stores in our own name and around 600 to 800 wholesale retailers. We have no intention of reducing the number of stores, quite the opposite. Each channel must be in its prime.We began our e-commerce activity in the USA on a mature market. In Europe, we still focus on telephone-based sales, entailing a direct link with the customer. This channel works really well and allows us to better meet our customers’ expectations on these markets. But it’s under construction as a whole. As it stands, prices are on display only in places where our e-commerce activity is fully established. But they will be extended to all markets, without compromising on the brick and mortar side of the business.
- Tribute to Pallweber Collection
You have a low profile on the growing auction market.
That’s true and we’re aware of it. We have recently set up a Heritage Centre and we specifically train watchmakers to maintain and restore our historic pieces. This centre is located inside our museum. Improvements to this heritage service are the first step. We intend to make substantial efforts in this area.
Here’s an unoriginal but must-ask question: do you have plans for an ’augmented’ or ’smart’ watch?
To be completely honest, we have nothing in the pipeline ready for release but we are interested and exploring certain features. I’m thinking of ID, access and payment technology. We have a project underway with Mercedes to incorporate an electronic key. But the module won’t launch until it’s tried and tested and fully functional. That’s the way we are!