IWC CEO Christoph Grainger-Herr talks to Michael Friedberg

MF: Thank you for taking the time to let us learn more about you and your vision. Since taking over as CEO for IWC in April, how has the transition gone? Is there any challenge in the company that particularly surprises you or intrigues you at this early stage?

 

Christoph Grainger-Herr: It has been a very smooth transition, with a clear focus on continuity. During the last ten years, I have intensively worked with my predecessor on developing many of the concepts and strategies that are in place at IWC today. I was especially lucky that the last two or three positions I held before becoming the CEO gave me a complete insight into large parts of the company. So there haven’t been any surprises since I took over this April. I knew exactly what I was in for. 

 

It would be a different situation if you had somebody coming in from the outside. Of course the responsibilities and the scope of the task change once you become the CEO, but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable job.

 

MF: You are an architect by training and that makes for a unique skillset and perspective. How has your training as an architect shaped your view on what happens at IWC?

 

Christoph Grainger-Herr: What architects do by definition is they build visions. Their aesthetic expression may come in the shape of a building in the classical sense. But architects also create social visions. Especially on the scale of urban planning, they deeply influence how people live and how they interact in their communities. So there is definitely a shaping element to being an architect – much more than just defining whether a wall will be white or grey. Architects are cultural creators in society. 

 

To be able to think in aesthetic dimensions is very much in line with what we do at IWC, because as a luxury brand, we build dreams that our clients fall in love with. A creative mind set gives you a great advantage when it comes to shaping those dreams and implementing them consistently. And beyond efficiently managing a company, I think the main task in the luxury market today is to shape that vision which your clients identify with.

 

MF: Have you been interested in fine watches as long as your interest in architecture? When and how did your interest in watches start?

 

Christoph Grainger-Herr: My dad bought his first mechanical watch when I was about three years old. Because I didn’t get anything at the jeweler, he bought me a little Bernhardiner dog which I named Patek Philippe – so all through my childhood days I had this cuddly dog called Patek. 

 

The second exposure came after I started at university in Bournemouth. There was a watch retailer on my way to school, which happened to be an IWC dealer. I totally fell in love with the look of the Portofino and Portugieser Chronographs at that time. I reveled in the extreme clarity of the design. The black and white dials, the crispness that these watches expressed, this was something that really spoke to me. 

 

When I started my placement year, one of my first projects was to design a gentlemen’s accessory store in Sloane Street in London Longmire Cufflinks. I think that was the moment I became infatuated with creating shops for luxury goods. Later, I designed a jewelry shop in Rue du Rhône in Geneva, before I started to work in Basel and Zurich. Shortly after, I got a phone call from Richemont and went on to design the IWC museum in Schaffhausen. The rest is history.

To be able to think in aesthetic dimensions is very much in line with what we do at IWC, because as a luxury brand, we build dreams that our clients fall in love with

MF: While many of us as collectors have our favorite IWC timepieces, could you speculate on where the market is headed and how you see the trends or market forces that are shaping corporate strategy now?

 

Christoph Grainger-Herr: There are some fundamentals in the luxury industry which we always have to remember. The first one is that all watch brands are based on a very strong heritage, a signature that was established by the founding fathers of these companies. Founded by a watchmaking pioneer from New Hampshire, IWC’s heritage is deeply rooted in American entrepreneurship and engineering excellence – and that heritage still defines us today. 

 

To keep a brand viable, you have to strike the right balance between respecting that heritage and innovating to keep the brand fresh and current. After that, there are three more aspects:

 

One: your products have to be beautiful. There is not a single luxury product in the world that is ugly and successful. That simply does not exist. 

 

Two: your products have to be iconic and recognizable. If you think about all the great luxury products that come to mind, whether it’s Valentino heels, Hermès scarves or iconic cars like the Jaguar E-Type, the reason they are so successful is because they are beautiful and instantly recognizable. 

 

And three: Emotional storytelling and the narrative we charge our products with are becoming increasingly important.

MF: I understand that you are continuing the concept of creating narratives, in order to develop emotional responses to product. Why is this becoming critical to market positioning?

 

Christoph Grainger-Herr: As a luxury watch manufacturer, we are making an inessential product for which there is no intensive need. Nobody needs a mechanical watch just to tell the time. Your phone will do that for you. We are creating beautiful products with a captivating story. Many people who fall in love with a Pilot’s Watch had this childhood dream of becoming a pilot. Maybe inspired by films like Top Gun, to be in control of these jets. 

 

Later in life, when you pursue a more robust career, your Pilot’s Watch is what connects you with that dream. It’s something you can carry with you in every situation of life, something which becomes your personal compass and contains lots of personal memories. And contrary to other things we buy, like your house, your car or your boat, you can take your watch with you wherever you go and you never really have to take it off. It carries a huge symbolic power. So we need to create an experience our clients fall in love with. This is why I am convinced that emotional storytelling and heritage inspiration combined with beautiful and timeless design are the dominating factors in the watch market today.

 

To keep a brand viable, you have to strike the right balance between respecting that heritage and innovating to keep the brand fresh and current.

MF: Social media today also is integral to any company’s plans.  As you know, IWC was an early pioneer on the Internet with its Collectors’ Forum beginning in 2001. Where will social media move in the future, and how can does it make a difference for IWC?

 

Christoph Grainger-Herr: There has been a fundamental shift in the way we communicate with our clients. The main aspect is that we are moving away from a traditional broadcasting approach, where we speak to our clients once or twice per year via large campaigns, films, ads, or printed catalogues, to the much more instantaneous dialogue on social media. And this makes it possible to receive instant feedback on everything we do. It gives us a different perspective on what the clients like, or what they don’t like. 

 

Essentially, we are able to combine our own creative strategic process with real time customer feedback and hopefully end up making products which are much more adapted to what clients are asking for. I consider social media a very powerful tool to have an interactive, personal relationship with our clients, and not just broadcasting messages in one direction.

 

MF: IWC appears to have today diverse target markets and different watches. Is this a market advantage? Does the breadth of product line reflect new marketing strategies, including social media?

 

Christoph Grainger-Herr: We need to respect that markets have their unique characteristics. While there is one global umbrella strategy which is valid everywhere, you also have to localize your product strategy. 

 

In Western Europe or North America, for example, people may be more into bigger sports watches. In the Chinese market, on the other hand, there is a strong emphasis on smaller diameter watches which are slightly more elegant and classic. While the perception of IWC in a typical Western market may still be the “Engineered for men” style tool watch with Porsche design era materials like Titanium, the perception in some Asian markets, where IWC has been established much more recently, is somewhat warmer and more luxurious. 

 

As a brand, we need to reflect these different realities. This is why we try to offer a complete and diverse product portfolio.

 

MF: It seems that IWC is producing more pieces in the “affordable price” ranges and also more watches that are classic in design and somewhat smaller in diameter. Are these impressions correct? If so, what is the underlying thinking?

 

Christoph Grainger-Herr: I think it’s important to cater to a wide range of price points, because people progress in life, and so do their spending habits. IWC is not a lifetime achievement watch, but a watch for people who are on their way. You celebrate your first big job, your first bonus, you can start with a Portofino Automatic or a Pilot’s Watch Mark XVIII. And then, as you progress, you can move on to a Portugieser Automatic and beyond. It is also a correct observation that our portfolio is moving more into the classic and elegant range. 

 

Even though large and sporty design expressions are still appreciated, the gravitational point of the market currently is more in the classic and elegant field. This is also why we re-launched the Ingenieur into a slightly more elegant direction. That of course doesn’t mean the Ingenieur will forever be a classic watch. But it’s just how we make sure to stay relevant and fresh in the current context of the market.

MF: You’ve stated that IWC intends to produce current, but still timeless, watches. Is there an inherent dilemma between contemporary and classic? How does IWC address this?

 

Christoph Grainger-Herr: The wonderful thing about iconic designs is that they are truly timeless. If you create a beautiful design and execute it with passion and meticulous attention to detail, in technical excellence and quality, then it never goes out of fashion. Is there any period in history that the Jaguar E-Type was not current? 

 

When you get it right in the luxury industry, you have a product that will prevail, no matter what the current mood in the market is. Within your portfolio, of course you will have slightly more contemporary products which provide a sense of newness and animation. But if you look at the Portugieser or Pilot’s Watches lines, their design is basically unchanged since 1939. It’s the same with a Porsche 911. Of course there is a constant technical evolution, but the shape of this car is essentially the same since 1963. 

 

So I don’t consider the balance between contemporary and classic a dilemma, the opposite is true. If something looks as fresh and original as on the day you created it, then it’s a fantastic proof that you got the design right.

 

MF: Five years from now…what are you hoping to have achieved? What do you see as the new products, target markets or marketing techniques that will move IWC forward?

 

Christoph Grainger-Herr: We want to be able to strategically develop some key markets like the United States. This is something which I rank very high on my priorities list: to become a leading player in the U.S. At the same time, we want to successfully and further develop Asia, as we have done already, and really move up the ladder in terms of becoming one of the dominant luxury watch brands. That is where we are heading. The strategy we are pursuing is not a niche strategy, but we are obviously on a growth path.

 

MF: As IWC grows into the future, it embraces new markets and new trends. Yet, an important niche has been collectors who appreciate the craft, technique, and often history of IWC watches. I know that you are supportive of collectors and, in fact, attended the last collectors’ meeting dinner during SIHH. What do you believe is the role of a collector base in an evolving and growing IWC?

 

Christoph Grainger-Herr: Collectors are a fantastic group of people. They are passionate ambassadors who preserve the knowledge and the enthusiasm of the brand. They are a fantastic sounding board if you want to check current developments against the DNA of the brand. I really appreciate their feedback. Collectors are a fantastic community with a wealth of knowledge; a group of people driven by passion for our brand and our products. I consider us very lucky to have them as ambassadors, and I think they are a very important part of the IWC family.

 

MF: Thank you very much. I believe we’re in for exciting times.

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