When asked about the greatest change during his time in charge of A. Lange & Söhne, Wilhelm Schmid was definitive in his response: “It’s now! Now, this past year, is the greatest change in the watch industry.” A decade as CEO of one of the horological world’s best loved firms has shown how fickle the fates of time can be. How far the world has changed in both the market for and the marketing of luxury watches.
Under Schmid’s leadership Lange has navigated better than most – especially given the size of the company, output and price point. It has been a trial by ordeal, but Mr. Schmid has steered a successful course and as a result, A. Lange & Söhne looks ready to take on an ever-changing future.
Turn the clock back just over a decade and Mr. Schmid was sitting secure and content in charge of BMW’s sales and marketing in South Africa. He had no plans for change. A lifelong car enthusiast and from a family in the motor industry, Wilhelm was happy to see out the years until retirement working in an area he had always known and loved. Then a call from an executive search firm turned the course of his career. A few phone calls, a series of meetings with various people in the Richemont Group, a meeting with Jérôme Lambert and the job was his.
– Wilhelm Schmid.
People still love watches, still want to enjoy them and that changed their behaviour…
It was an inspired choice. The outgoing CEO for A. Lange & Söhne had a similar resume before he and Richemont parted company on less than mutually agreeable terms. A successful car industry executive was being pulled into the top job of a small but very highly regarded high-end luxury watch manufacture. But there the similarity ends. Equally the outcome has proved to be completely different. Wilhelm Schmid has navigated A. Lange & Söhne successful- ly through a decade of tumultuous change in the luxury watch industry while keeping the firm as a brand intact and growing.
The winds of fortune for the luxury watch sector in the second decade of the 21st century have been fickle and fateful in their turns. The world has seen the increasing prominence of the far eastern market, recovery from the financial crash, the rise
of the smart watch, a global pandemic that has restricted the movement of individuals and goods, and equally the prevalent use of virtual audio-visual programmes that enable one person to address many anywhere in the world.
Although Wilhelm was a watch enthusiast who, by his own admittance, had collected Lange pieces before taking the helm of the firm, he knew little about the luxury horology business first-hand. He was, however, thrown in at the deep end. Appointed in 2011 his first objective was the launch of the Datograph Up/Down, “That was the first A. Lange & Söhne I was completely involved in. We launched it in 2012 so I had just a year to get it ready.”
A. Lange & Söhne is for true connoisseurs. Annual production is limited because of the number of skilled watchmakers and artisans, the size of the manufacture and the wish to keep the brand exclusive. There was always the belief that their watches had to be sold on a one-to-one basis with collectors so they could see and appreciate them in person. Dedicated brand boutiques and retailers were set up around the world. The recent pandemic has caused challenges for the brand. Production was lost for at least two months because the manufacture was working with strong limitations.
However, the ability to reopen again swiftly was partially thanks to the new factory completed during Schmid’s tenure and because the watchmaking environment lends itself to sterile conditions with appropriately spaced work desks. A. Lange & Söhne produce about 5,500 watches a year and it is not simply a question of moving resources around. Wilhelm was quick to apologise to anyone on the waitlists for the delays. It is an enviable position to be in – a product with strong demand and a queue of customers.
Mr. Schmid has managed to leverage the brand’s history and heritage, as well as a proprietary design style, to create a distinc- tive image in the market. Part of the success Wilhelm attributes to the stability and cali- bre of the watchmakers who work at Lange headed by Anthony de Haas (Director of Product Development). While Wilhelm is now one of the longest serving brand CEOs in Richemont’s portfolio, it is the past year that has seen the greatest change and the more formidable challenges. “In the last 12 months there have been two trends that have radically shaped the luxury watch sector. First, for anyone who loves fine watchmaking, we live in days of paradise. There have never been as many inventions, as many different watches, as many different styles than you see today.
Second, a very conservative industry was very quick on their heels to adapt to the digital world because that was the only way to stay close to the customers. I was going to events and mingling with others and suddenly, almost overnight, that was restricted.”
The juxtaposition of seemingly diverse trends of classic watchmaking and the new digital world has been navigated adroitly by Wilhelm Schmid, “If you want to stay very traditional, you also have to accept that in other areas you must be on top of your game. Covid and the pandemic was a fire accelerator for that whole process. Fifteen months ago if I had asked customers to join me on Zoom, they would have said, ‘no, I want to see you in person to celebrate that moment where I have that wonderful watch around my wrist.’ Then we all learn the hard way that for quite a while it would simply not be possible. People still love watches, still want to enjoy them and that changed their behaviour so we adapted accordingly. Is that switch here to stay? Very likely. Will events come back? Also highly probable. Will it be different? For sure, because the combination of the digital and physical worlds and how that will create a journey will be the master recipe of the future.”
All of which will become ever more important as A. Lange & Söhne look into establishing themselves in the Chinese market. A simple perusal of the number of job vacancies posted by the brand on social media platforms such as LinkedIn give ample evidence of their ambition in the Far East. What has been welcomed by Wilhelm is how collectors have understood the concepts and intricacies of Lange’s creations even through screen time, proving that the brand can successfully project its desired image over an electronic medium, despite the watch not being tried or seen on the wrist. However, unlike some brands, Lange will not be producing limited editions sold through an e-commerce website in the foreseeable future.
However, unlike some brands, Lange will not be producing limited editions sold through an e-commerce website in the foreseeable future…
Asked to recall his favourite moments in the past decade Wilhelm is quick to list three. “First, hearing the gongs of the Grand Complication in 2013 and then launching it at SIHH. Second, the beautiful day where we inaugurated the new manufacture in August 2015 and Chancellor Merkel did us the honour of opening it. And finally, on October 24th, 2019 when we launched the Odysseus.”
The Odysseus was A. Lange & Söhne’s venture into the steel sports watch category. A very popular segment of the horology market but one that is arguably already overpopulated and dominated by Gerald Genta designs, making it difficult to enter. It was a move that divided opinion as to whether this was a sector Lange should be competing in. The Odysseus was not universally popular at the start, but Schmid persevered and there is now a waitlist.
The trial and ordeal over its launch was something Schmid welcomed, “The little brothers of change are mistake and fear. Every time you change something, some people will like it and there will be even more that will hate it. We released the Odysseus and were all prepared to weather the storm. There was a huge controversial discussion in the beginning, I would have been greatly disappointed if there had not been, because only due to that discussion the watch gained traction and became so prominent. If you do something which is expected, which is just an evolution of things you did before, you will not change. You have to be radical and I think the Odysseus was.”
Wilhelm has no regrets about his career move. He feels that working within a small, specialised firm that nonetheless has global reach “is a more rewarding experience.” Equally, the watch industry is not the only one forced to transform in the past decade. “I don’t envy my colleagues in the motor world”, Wilhelm reflected, “The car industry was fascinating because I am thrilled by cars. But I love what I do with A. Lange & Söhne more than what I could potentially do within any big global player. What makes it special at Lange is seeing the almost immediate impact any decision makes on the firm. There is no hiding. You are there for the success, but you also have to scratch your forehead if you make mistakes, admit to them and avoid making them again. That is not possible in a big corporation.”
As to the next decade, Wilhelm Schmid is looking to safeguard A. Lange & Söhne’s future. Despite many other challenges, the main focus is to encourage the next generation of collectors to ensure that the apprentices who are training now will have a job in the industry. “If we do not instil that collecting gene and that relevance for mechanical watches within the young generation, who is then going to buy watches 15 years from now?” concludes Wilhelm, “that is where I see my focus. I see it as a true challenge that we need to address every single day.”
Words: Dr Andrew Hildreth