A conversation between Swiss Style Senior Watch Editor Olivier Jungers and Sylvain Verdon, brand manager Switzerland for Baume & Mercier
Sylvain Verdon’s boyish looks belie the truth of his experience in the watch industry. At 32 years of age, and with nine years of service to the firm, he is responsible for Baume & Mercier’s plum Swiss market. Swiss Style Senior Watch Editor Olivier Jungers spoke with Verdon about management style and Helvetia’s watch market.
Swiss Style: You’ve seen the company from the outside, from the inside, internal markets, external markets. You’ve seen it all.
Sylvain Verdon: It’s funny because as a child, one of the first watches that appealed to me was a Baume & Mercier. I come from a small town, Fribourg, and we had one retailer still selling the brand. I was about 15 or 16 years old, looking in the windows and dreaming about owning a Hampton; and here I am 15 years later working for the brand.
SS: And you own a Hampton, I’m sure.
SV: Yes! It’s one of the pillars of the brand. So, if you are a Baume & Mercier fan, you have to own a Hampton.
SS: In your role as manager of the Swiss market, you’ve come a long way. You’ve had experiences in different parts of the world and I’m sure those experiences have been quite helpful in managing a market that is quite complex—multilingual, multicultural. Tell us about your past and how, over time, you’ve accumulated knowledge that is useful to what you are doing today.
SV: When I joined Baume & Mercier I knew the managing director for the brand in the Middle East. As a young man, I was really mobile and flexible, and this is something that you have to be in order to be involved in this kind of business today.
I remember the managing director calling me and asking, “Do you want to work for Baume & Mercier?” I said, “yes,” and he said, “It’s in Dubai. When can you start?” I answered, “In three weeks.” Less than a month later I left Switzerland. I had an apartment and a car. I sold all my furniture, and I had never even been to Dubai. So I landed with my two suitcases and started working there. It was a very interesting experience because, first of all, the city is very internationally oriented so you can have your breakfast with an Indian, then play tennis with another friend from New Zealand, then you have lunch with two colleagues—one from Algeria, the other from Australia. I would say the world is in Dubai.
I was responsible for brand sales for the Middle East and India. That means 13 countries, so I was always in the plane. It was a very new experience for me: it was market development, and this is what I wanted to do. I was lucky because development in the Dubai region was in full swing, and to work with people that were creating business in record time was exhilarating.
SS: So, in essence, you benefitted from being in a development phase, and your career took off simultaneously.
SV: And, I would say that just to work in a different culture is so important. It’s good professionally, but also personally. I spent 3 1/2 years there.
SS: What was your next step?
SV: I knew that one day I would come back to Switzerland, and when I was in Dubai I started to learn German again. I found the only teacher in Dubai who was teaching German to French people. All my friends were incredulous, asking what I was thinking! And I said, “You know, in Switzerland 65-percent of the people speak German, so if you don’t know how to speak the language your horizons are limited. You haven’t got a chance.” After three years in Dubai I felt I’d gained substantial experience with market development. The next step would be to work in a major market. You don’t find a more substantial market than Switzerland. They’ve been selling watches here for 200 years.
Switzerland is interesting because of its consumers. If there is one average revenue in the world that allows local people to buy Baume & Mercier, it’s Switzerland. On the other hand, you have all these tourists. So, as we say in French, ‘You harvest in other countries, but don’t forget to seed locally’.
SS: You were saying that you are, in essence, dealing with different cultures in the same country as a market manager. Do the different languages pose a problem?
SV: I’ll give you an example. We held training courses in Zurich, Geneva and Lugano. In Swiss Romande, participants were five minutes late. In Lugano, they were 10 minutes late. In Zurich, they came 15 minutes early. It’s extraordinary because even if you are all living together there are those cultural differences between the different parts of Switzerland. Let me come back to German language skills. For a Swiss German, when you speak German it’s like walking in his shoes. You can really build something on that connection. I learned German, and now for the last six months I’ve been learning the Swiss German dialect, which is really tough. You adapt to your clients. Take the first step. Go to them and they will come to you. That’s my philosophy.
SS: I’m quite impressed because here you are at the age of 32 with all this experience, and yet still your strategy is to adapt, adapt, adapt.
SV: Part of that is training. You have, for instance, some brands that visit the retailer once a year. I travel to Lucerne every two weeks. And I spend time there. I received feedback from one of the retailers in Lucerne. He said that of the 30 brands they have, the most active is Baume & Mercier. This is not because we’re always there, but because we stop by to say, ‘Hello, how is it going?’ We send them gifts for their birthdays. We take them out to eat.
The devil is in the detail. But in the end you have to consider the salesman. You’ve got to spend 80-percent of your time with the man selling the product, and 20-percent with the owner.
SS: You’re investing in the final link to the customer.
SV: They are our ambassadors.
SS: When you are dealing with 30 brands in a specific shop in Lucerne where traffic is in and out all day long, being able to create empathy with the final link must be time-consuming and energy-consuming but, as you say, that is what entices the salesman to pull out a Baume & Mercier instead of another watch.
SV: When you are trying to play a role, after a couple of times they can see it. One of the things I never forget is where I come from. I come from Fribourg. My grandparents were farmers. I grew up farming with my grandfather. I didn’t grow up in a world where people are disingenuous and try to be something that they’re not. If you are above-board with people, at the end of the day you are going to see a return on that. I don’t try to play a role and I think that people, at the end of the day, appreciate that.
SS: Being genuine is not easy for everyone.
SV: You know about the Emotional Quotient, the EQ? It says that when you have the skills to put yourself in the position of the other person, you understand everything because you know what his expectations are, what he wants, what he needs.
SS: As we were saying earlier, often people heading out from university consider that it’s owed to them to find a fantastic, highly paid job.
SV: People don’t have time. They want to get the money and be home at 4:00 in the afternoon. On the other hand, I would say that what’s interesting at Baume & Mercier is that if you are young and you do your job, the brand will help you and give you a better position. That’s another reason why I love this brand. They gave me a chance to show that I am able to do something. I am 32 years old. Sometimes the guys from the other brands who have my position are 50 or 60. I am sure that Baume & Mercier is really the only brand that gives you the chance to move ahead if you are good.
SS: As an individual manager, what do you expect your next steps to be?
SV: To be honest, it’s hard to tell. First of all I would say that my goal is to stay in this market because I don’t like spending only two years in a position and then leaving. If you really want to make a difference you need to spend a minimum of three or four years. I have some new people on my team now, and my objective is to make sure that these people are comfortable in their jobs should I decide to leave one day. I just want to make sure that when that day that comes, my successor will inherit a clean market, that people are content, and that the team is on track.