Speaking with Breitling CEO, Georges Kern, on family, heritage and a new direction

We sat down with the watch industry heavyweight to chat about what we can expect in the future from the historic Maison

Just over a year into his role as the Chief Executive of Breitling, Georges Kern is already making waves. That’s no mean feat in a  brand which has prided itself on stoic consistency for well over a century. The veteran watch executive, whose résumé includes a 15-year stint in the top job at IWC Schaffhausen, is looking to shed any outdated stereotypes and broaden Breitling’s demographic to target hitherto untapped markets.

But no matter where this exciting vision for change might lead Breitling with Kern at its helm, the hallmarks of this iconic brand won’t be going anywhere. Underpinning the new business model is a desire to keep creating modern classics, with watches which are designed to both stand the test of time and age gracefully.

We spoke with the 53-year-old visionary to discover the key to the perfect business pitch, the power of learning from the past, and why technology will never, ever outsmart a handcrafted timepiece.

My father, René Kern, was a jeweller in Düsseldorf, so my initial exposure to the world of luxury came very early. The time I spent at companies like TAG Heuer and Richemont obviously enhanced my knowledge of and my interest in the luxury goods industry greatly.  

Because of my family’s connection to the watch and jewellery industry, I was exposed to a wide range of very fine products from an early age. Even in those days, I was strongly attracted to Breitling.

There are so many aspects of Breitling’s heritage that inspire me. From the brand’s very beginnings in the late 19th Century, the founding fathers were relentlessly innovative. Breitling’s development of the modern chronograph is a very important piece of our history, as are the onboard instruments used from the earliest days of aviation. These, of course, were the forebears of the aviator watches that gave Breitling its global reputation. But it wasn’t only about these instruments for professionals. In the 1940s, we introduced the original Premier family, a collection of watches that were appreciated for their elegance and style. These days, we are taking the chance to remind people that Breitling’s DNA isn’t defined merely by watches with extraordinary function; it also includes truly elegant design values.

In the next five years we hope to appeal to some demographics not normally associated with Breitling. We look forward to attracting more women and we are enthusiastically targeting new customers in Asia, along with our traditionally strong markets in Europe and the USA.

A substantial number of Breitling aficionados, especially in the USA, are interested in robust watches with impressive dimensions and sports functions.

I have a feeling that people will be debating how the watch industry should react to the advent of smart watches for years to come. But essentially, we are talking about two completely legitimate products that serve very different purposes. On one hand, we have smart watches, which are utility products designed for specific applications — sport, health and certain lifestyle functions. On the other, we have mechanical watches that are valued for their craftsmanship, their tradition and their luxury. They are aspirational and emotional and they make a very different statement than a so-called smart watch does.

A Breitling or another fine mechanical watch is designed to work for generations. I’d be surprised if, in sixty years, there is much interest in a smart watch — or any smart product — manufactured in 2018. Take a look back at the best mechanical watches manufactured in 1957 or 1958 — they’re coveted collector’s items.

When the Breitling business model changed, there was a great deal of interest in the company and how it might be affected. While we were very much in the spotlight, we also wanted to assure media, retailers, the public, and importantly, our employees, that the brand had a viable future and that exciting things would be happening. We went on a two-month roadshow and visited all of our markets around the globe. We also gave numerous interviews to the media so that they could report accurately on the brand’s new direction. By explaining our intention and the changes in the organisation, we were able to assure and comfort our partners worldwide.

At the moment I’m wearing a prototype for testing from the Premier line that we are launching in a couple of weeks. It’s a beautiful, stylish three-hand watch whose history can be traced back to the original Premier collection.

The key to all the great business pitches is simple: Remain humble and listen.

The best piece of business advice I’ve received was to always make sure that whatever you intend to do is designed to generate revenue and profit.

I think there is a tendency among entrepreneurs to not respect the past. By focusing so intently on the future, they sometimes forget how many lessons can be learned from what has come before.

I’m a huge admirer of Warren Buffett, who has shown us that it’s possible to remain absolutely true to our principles and achieve enormous success, and also Jeff Bezos, who has an unparalleled sense of the global business environment and an incredible strategic vision.

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