Every industry has its share of high-performing rock stars. In the realm of luxury watches, there is no doubt that one such CEO is IWC’s Georges Kern. The notably outspoken German took the reins at IWC in 2002, following the acquisition of the brand by the Richemont Group. At 36, he was then the youngest CEO in the luxury conglomerate.
Over the past 13 years, he has transformed the small watch company on the Swiss- German border into one of the luxury timepiece industry’s major players. It’s an impressive resume that bolsters Kern’s clear-eyed confidence about the uncertain economic backdrop.
We met Kern, who was dressed in a sharp pinstripe suit, at the Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong, a month before watch fair Watches & Wonders. The Peak was the only Singapore-based print publication invited by IWC to Hong Kong for a preview of the timepieces that the brand would be launching at the fair.
Asked if the market slowdown had affected the pace of technical developments at IWC, he said: “First of all, the market is not going down for everybody.” As the room broke out in chuckles, he added: “Certainly not for IWC.” Indeed, as it celebrates its 147th anniversary this year, IWC is powering ahead with new products and plans. It has been opening stores worldwide, the most recent being its first UK outpost in London. Already active on social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook, the brand is expanding its reach in the virtual world, and plans to create a social media hub in Berlin.
Earlier this year at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) in Geneva, IWC made clear its intentions to produce more of its own movements – it debuted the 52000 calibre in four new Portugieser models, the first of three planned new calibre families. At Watches & Wonders, which took place last month, the brand showcased its technical virtuosity with its first single-button chronograph, the Portofino Hand-wound Monopusher. “We want to be able to produce movements at any price point, including our starting price point of around US$5,000,” said Kern. That is equivalent to around S$7,000. He added: “It’s much easier to produce an expensive movement; this anybody can do. But to produce a top-quality movement at a competitive price – this is much more difficult and complicated.”
While having a fully independent manufacture is generally seen as a badge of honour in the world of high horology, he does not see that as a long-term goal. “Being independent for the sake of (it) doesn’t make sense. We are an established brand, we have great relationships with everybody, we have no problems getting movements. But at this stage, we are mature and big enough, and we should have these movements in our assortment.”
Having hitherto established itself as a brand “engineered for men”, as its tagline goes, IWC is also expanding its portfolio in other ways. At Watches & Wonders, it focused on its new Portofino Automatic 37 models, a series launched last year as the Portofino Midsize.
At a smallish 37mm in diameter, the 37 is, for all intents and purposes, IWC’s way of taking on the women’s market – even though Kern is loath to pigeonhole his brand’s latest timepieces as such. Asked about plans for the series and other women’s offerings in future, he said emphatically: “Midsize – not women’s.”
Granted, he has little reason to divide his brand’s products along gender lines. Even before the introduction of the scaled-down Portofino models, 25 per cent of IWC’s existing customers were women. With the growing demand for less gargantuan sizes, the 37 makes sense for the ladies’ market, as well as for male watch buyers with a taste for smaller timepieces. Said Kern: “Thirteen years ago, we relaunched the brand. Then, we had to have a clear repositioning, and we went into the men’s segment, which has worked extremely well. But you mature, you grow.
“Also, many women wear our watches. So we thought, what can we do in this segment? We were doing research and people said, ‘You should do it, because you’re mature enough. But be faithful to the brand. You have to produce (a design) that is clearly identifiable as an IWC.’ That’s why we decided not to go too small, because (that would be) weird for IWC.”
Having helmed the brand for more than a decade, what keeps Kern up at night now is “the search for excellence”. He said: “How do you make successful products even more successful?”
He mused: “For me, the Portugieser and the Portofino are perfect. I wouldn’t change anything. But there is potential for simplifying or merging a couple of series. Now, we have our families, our strategies, we’re developing our retail network. The question is, what can we improve within this positive framework?”