Changing what is old and established is always difficult, sometimes even painful. Nobody would dream of refurnishing a gothic cathedral, rejigging production methods of renowned champagnes or altering the recipe of the finest chocolate. Business, however, is not beautiful, it’s about efficiency and profits, and in the glittery world of luxury, if not handled with great care, it can have the impact of a very cold shower on a very hot day.
On a backdrop of stormy economic times, Baume & Mercier were lucky to find a man who could rise to the challenge of strict business needs with the requirements of a traditional brand.
In September 2009, Alain Zimmermann, who earned his spurs within Richemont Group in various posts at IWC and Cartier, was chosen as CEO just as the company prepared to celebrate its 180th anniversary.He came at a critical juncture. Changes are a must, and in hard times, he says, they are easier to push through, since people expect them. Swiss Style met him at the CEO’s office and, with a magnificent view of the Mont Blanc, discussed his managerial style and his vision.
“People think that if you have the good products you are safe,” says Alain Zimmermann breezily. “But that is only partly true, because you also need to understand how to make some changes.” After analysing the options for Baume & Mercier, Zimmermann identified the distribution network as the place to set the pruning scissors. As he explains, the business model at Baume & Mercier is built on wholesale and there are no such things as brand boutiques. This has some significant advantages, as the retailers are fully involved in the success of the company. Their loyalty, too, has been confirmed by up to 40 years of representation for Baume & Mercier. Some are in the third generation with the company. “These people truly love Baume & Mercier,” he points out, “this is something I did not know before meeting them”.
On the other hand, wholesalers also demand input and investments on the part of the partner brand. They need training and regular visits to make sure all the visual merchandising and displays are in place and that they have the right assortment and collections at their disposal. Zimmermann did the math and realised that 3,400 doors – the industry’s casual description of shops – was excessive and it was time to downsize and rebalance the network within the continents, to use his words. Following an in-depth assessment of the situation in strong collaboration with supervisor Georges Kern, a strategy was designed that involved above all speed: Within 15 months, the number of doors was reduced to 1,600. “Now we can guarantee real partnerships, we visit every six weeks and we organize customized events and training,” says Zimmermann with no hint of regrets in his voice. “The retailers see that it works, their visibility has increased dramatically and turnout has remained unchanged in spite of all the closed doors.”
Connecting with the base
A former chief marketing officer, with over ten years of industry experience at Cartier and IWC as well as in private banking, Zimmermann does not lack the experience to make these tough decisions alone. His approach, however, was different, and involved some basic leadership moves. Every morning, for example, the first thing he did was walk around the offices and see how people are doing. Sharing information with the team in a collegial manner and especially with brand top management is a way to increase trust and confidence. His first step as CEO was to know who works a Baume & Mercier and get a feeling for the situation.
“I had discussions, either one-on-one or in groups, first with the departments’ managers, then with nearly all employees in Switzerland and in our worldwide subsidiaries,” he recalls. Indeed, making sure the company was vertically behind him and the new project was of crucial importance in those hectic days with extremely tight deadlines and a constant need for budgetary controls. For two whole months Zimmermann and his team travelled, listened and assessed to get “a feeling for the situation.”
Virtual facts of life
Following the restructuring of the distribution, another network came onto Zimmermann’s radar. This time, however, it was a virtual one: Baume & Mercier inaugurated its Facebook and Twitter pages and has been very dynamic in the use of social media. Having no boutiques, this seemed the best way to get closer to customers. Zimmermann suggests that the equation of success in the watch industry is made of three parts: the product, a defined and differentiating brand universe full of emotion, and a clear network distribution based on partnership. “We realized that history, tradition and heritage are something that some of our competitors do not have: we have a story to tell and people like listening to stories,” he says. However, he goes on, “Baume & Mercier has always been innovative and if you tell stories in a standard, static way, you get little more than good press releases.” Within one year the community grew from zero to 102,000, a jump in public appreciation that even makes the rationalist CEO overtly happy.
“Every brand has its own genetic code,” he argues. “If you lose it because you are too opportunistic and you just follow some trends, you end up being too far from your garden and you are lost. Suddenly, your customers do not identify with you any more.” One problem was a constant flood of products. The company has now shifted gear and will offer short collections that steer close to the brand DNA with a positioning on the classic-elegant segment for both men and women and a price ranging from CHF 2,000 to 4,000. As for the future, Zimmermann has one large dream: “A museum that will reflect our 180 plus years of heritage, and where we will continue to tell our story and evoke emotions.”
History of firsts
The Baume family stems from the cradle of watchmaking, the Franches Montagne. In 1830, Louis-Joseph Baume, opened one of the first watchmaking workshops in the village of Les Bois. His sons expanded the business under the name of “Frères Baume” and gradually spread the reputation of the family business as a high-quality manufacturer, with a shop in London no less. The company won countless awards, including the prestigious Kew Observatory precision competition in 1892 and the Geneva Seal, bestowed in 1919. In 1918 William Baume joined forces with the jeweler Paul Mercier to create a line of watches that would anticipate the dress watch of later decades. 1946 saw the Marquise, a bestseller up until the early 1960s. The 1970s saw avant-garde models like the Galaxy and Stardust for women, and the Riviera for men, with its legendary dodecagonal case, one of the first sport watches made of steel. After joining the Richemont group in 1988, Baume & Mercier came up with the Capeland, the Hampton, the unforgettable Linea, homage to a self-confident and feminine woman, and the Classima: each confirmed the brand’s ability to remain attuned to the tastes of the world.
Article by Andrea Bonzanni