ought by private equity firm CVC in July 2017 (later joined by Partners Group, another investment firm and majority shareholder since 2022), Breitling has seen phenomenal growth under the stewardship of CEO and shareholder Georges Kern.
Established in Saint-Imier in 1884 and now based in Granges, the brand is set to join the small circle of watchmakers whose revenue exceeds one billion Swiss francs. The latest report by Morgan Stanley ranks it as one of the Top 10 watch brands, after sales growth in the region of 25% in 2022.
Changes are apace at every level, from products to distribution to marketing. In this straight-talking interview, the brand’s dynamic CEO discusses the reasons behind this success.
- Georges Kern, Breitling CEO and shareholder
Europa Star: Breitling is one of the fastest-growing watchmakers. What is your current production volume?
Georges Kern: We are on a roll, yes. We’re reaping the benefits of the work we’ve put in over the past five years. Production has expanded to between 250,000 and 280,000 units in 2023 and we’ll exceed one billion in sales. Breitling had 380 employees when we took over. We now have 1,700!
How did you turn the brand around? There’s never one single magic formula. There are multiple factors. Breitling draws its strength from four or five key elements. First of all, we’re a generalist brand offering a broad range of styles, from the Premier to the Endurance Pro, that appeal to a lot of people. This was already the case but we’ve modernised our collections in a way that fully expresses the brand’s core values.
These values are the second factor. Sustainability is now hardwired into Breitling and, in my opinion, this is a sine qua non condition of its success. The concept of casual, inclusive, accessible (in the human sense) watchmaking is another reason. We’re into surfing, triathlon and cycling. These are non-elitist sports that more people can relate to. Covid accelerated the importance of all these values.
We have a young, dynamic team who are doing a great job. They’ve given the brand a modern retro style that customers love. Lastly, our average price point of around CHF 6,300 hits a sweet spot and this has helped us expand our clientele.
It was by going through Breitling’s back catalogue that you came up with the modern retro style that is bringing young people to the brand.
Breitling has an incredible heritage. All we’ve done is to understand how to use it and adapt it for today’s customer. The Premier collection, which we’re putting front and centre this year with new chronographs, all powered by our in-house B01 movement, is a perfect example. The line hadn’t changed in 30 or 40 years. And there are plenty more gems like that, waiting to be rediscovered. Enough to keep going in this direction for decades.
Let’s come back to your average price. Even at CHF 6,300, it has increased substantially. As have sales. How do you approach the industry’s longstanding contradiction between volume and value?
One important point is that quartz has practically disappeared from our collections. The focus is on our in-house movements. We create value and our products appeal to a growing number of customers and collectors. We’ve also rationalised distribution.
- Breitling has introduced six new models to the Premier line, all driven by the Breitling Manufacture Calibre 01 automatic movement.
On that topic, there have been some major changes to distribution. What’s your objective?
When we took over, the brand was working with agents in every market. Now we have our own subsidiaries. It meant heavy investment but it had to be done if we were to control distribution. There are now 250 Breitling boutiques worldwide and almost 1,500 points of sale in total. We have better control over our image and can make sure customers enjoy a relaxed vibe wherever Breitling is sold. While we have developed e-commerce – around 10% of our sales – we care a lot about the physical experience we give our customers… which is what they want! The vast majority of changes to distribution have been to develop a local presence that brings us closer to our customers.
One example would be the restaurant you opened next to the Breitling store in Geneva. How does it convey brand values?
When the opportunity arose to extend the boutique, we preferred to create a social space rather than simply extending the sales floor. It’s a natural evolution that retains the Breitling style and spirit; an experience that corresponds to the brand’s mindset. Whether it’s a concept we’ll develop, the future will tell.
- The brand has opened its second restaurant, Breitling Kitchen Geneva, with a modern street-food concept.
Your reworked marketing is younger and more relaxed, with an emphasis on sustainability. Which directions will you be focusing on in the future?
It’s not something we necessarily planned. It’s been a lot more intuitive. My Instagram account is a market research platform. Through it, I’ve been able to confirm the importance of consistency. It’s what makes the “spirit” of a brand. There’s nothing complicated about our approach: we’re likeable, approachable, relaxed. Our watches, like our communication, reflect this way of thinking, this way of life.
Obviously you’ve implemented a lot of changes. Has your clientele fundamentally changed, too? Previously we had two communities who were very much separate groups. On the one hand, we had collectors of Breitling watches from the 1940s to the 1980s and on the other, fans of the pilot watches of the past twenty years. Now two thirds of our customers are new, including a lot of Millennials and Gen Z, who engage more with the brand’s global ethos. They’re into communication, identify with our values and appreciate our modern retro style. In an increasingly uncertain, over-digitalised world, people feel reassured by human values and are attaching more importance to them. They like to get together in real life and discover products that correspond to who they are. Which is why the metaverse isn’t for us. We exist in real life, we’re proud of who we are, we’re cool and approachable, like our customers.
It seems ESG is increasingly important for Breitling. Do you plan to extend your carbon score to all your products?
We were the first to include raw materials sourcing in our blockchain certification. We are fundamentally committed to sustainability. The products we sell are built to last. They’re not single-use, throwaway items. Obviously we’d like to extend this carbon score to all our products but it’s a lengthy process, particularly as we have to include all our suppliers, which is far from simple. We’re working on it.
- The four watches in the Top Time Classic Cars series feature the colours and emblems of 1950s and ‘60s sportscars.
Breitling is putting a lot of emphasis on sustainability, with straps made from recycled fishing nets, recycled packaging, lab-grown diamonds and artisanal gold. Is this future-proofing or are expectations already there?
Our customers belong to a young generation who demand sustainability from the brands they buy, and are right to do so, but the spark is present across all Breitling’s teams. I’m a staunch environmentalist and have been for a long time. Our aim is to do as much as we can within our sphere of influence. We can’t change the world singlehandedly but every little helps. We’re aware that we have a duty. Young generations, who are our future customers, are making this eminently clear. But the fact is, this movement must originate with companies, with executive committees, with CEOs.
Could sustainability become a criterion for Swiss Made?
Good question. It’s hard to impose new standards out of nowhere; there would be a lot of reticence. The more effective way is to convince people of the value of any change. One possibility would be to propose two labels or certifications: Swiss Made and Eco Swiss Made, for example. It would be an interesting debate from which we and the planet would benefit.
What do you see as the main challenges ahead for Breitling – and for the watch industry in general?
The biggest challenges tend to come from areas over which you have no direct influence. Right now we’re facing a complex global situation with the war in Ukraine, climate risk, inflation, et cetera, and yet the watch market continues to expand and mature markets such as the United States continue to grow. Some, like China, India and Thailand, are only just getting started. I believe the watch industry still has enormous potential for growth. The same is true for Breitling, especially in China which accounts for just 5% to 7% of our sales. The greatest challenge is the state of the world in general.