At IWC Schaffhausen, Putting on a Show
New York Times, Jan. 17, 2016
BEVERLY HILLS, CALIF. — Georges Kern had a big night ahead of him. The chief executive of the Swiss watchmaker IWC Schaffhausen, Mr. Kern was in Los Angeles last month for the grand opening of IWC’s 2,300-square-foot flagship on Rodeo Drive.
On tap: A cocktail party at the boutique for clients, the media and celebrity friends of the brand, followed by an intimate dinner at Spago featuring a performance by the Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter Aloe Blacc, the stage name of Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins III.
Mr. Kern, 50, a lover of Tinseltown, was in his element.
“You feel good when, after 13 years — when we were nowhere in terms of turnover or recognition — you have the critical mass to be on one of the best streets in the world, beside the biggest brands on the planet,” he said.
IWC, short for International Watch Co., dates to 1868, when a Bostonian named Florentine Ariosto Jones founded a watchmaking operation in Schaffhausen, in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. But Mr. Kern was referring to the time that had passed since he joined the brand, becoming the youngest chief executive within Compagnie Financière Richemont, the Geneva-based luxury group that acquired IWC in 2000.
At the time of the acquisition, IWC was a small brand with a well-regarded but obscure reputation. It belonged to Les Manufactures Horlogères, known as LMH, a group owned by the German company Mannesmann, which included the better-known watchmakers Jaeger-LeCoultre and A.Lange & Söhne.
Under Mr. Kern’s stewardship, IWC has grown from 360 employees to roughly 750, and maintains 70 of its own stores worldwide. Richemont, which also counts the fashion houses Chloé and Azzedine Alaïa and the pen and watch maker Montblanc among its 19 luxury businesses — does not allow its brands to disclose individual sales figures.
But estimates put IWC’s 2014 revenue at 780 million Swiss francs, or $779 million, compared with 40 million at the time of the Richemont acquisition, according to Alexander Linz, founder of Watch-insider.com.
Identified with emblematic timepieces such as the sporty Pilot’s Watches or the elegant Portugieser collection, which celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2015, IWC produces mostly oversize, masculine models, promoted by the nine-year-old tagline “Engineered for men.” Prices range from $4,100 to $345,000.
A year ago, however, the brand switched gears and introduced a new Portofino collection in a smaller case size, dusted with diamonds. While Mr. Kern acknowledged that it was time for a mature brand like IWC to enter the women’s sector, he was quick to emphasize the androgynous quality of the watches. “The product is not girly,” he said.
A jeweler’s son born in Düsseldorf, Germany, Mr. Kern learned early the distinction between men’s and women’s luxuries. After studying political science in Strasbourg, France, and earning a business degree from the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, he joined Kraft Foods. But he soon left the fast-moving consumer goods category for a marketing position at TAG Heuer, a watchmaker owned by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.