He parties with the likes of Emily Blunt and Cate Blanchett and was a chief executive at 36. In a rare interview, blunt-talking Georges Kern tells GC what it is like to run one of the world’s leading watch brands
“They did what they could with what they had before I came along,” says Georges Kern, the straight-talking German chief executive of IWC Schaffhausen.
He is speaking in a Dubai hotel ahead of a lavish party he is throwing that evening to mark the annual IWC filmmakers’ award, held as part of the Dubai International Film Festival.
At 36, Kern took the helm of Richemont-owned IWC, making him the youngest chief executive within the group at the time. His task was to help put the then mostly masculine sporty brand on the same global playing field as other luxury Swiss watch houses.
It was a challenge to say the least, considering IWC only had a retail presence in three European countries. But Kern got to work and over the past 12 years has masterminded IWC’s commercial success with the same military precision that goes into crafting its watch calibres.
Part of Kern’s plan was bricks and mortar. Today IWC, which is the only watch brand based in eastern Switzerland, has boutiques in New York, Hong Kong, Beijing, Tokyo and Dubai.
In December, the firm opened its flagship London boutique in New Bond Street, which IWC managers hope will cater to the city’s increasingly global and well-heeled shoppers.
So if Kern sounds overly confident with his assertion “they were doing the best they could” before he came along, he was simply stating the truth.
“Everything changed,” he says of the company’s evolution.
“It is like taking a football team from the third division into the champions’ league. This is what we did.”
Is there a surefire recipe for success? “If there was then everybody would apply it and everybody would be successful,” he says.
But the firm’s penchant for utilising A list stars like Cate Blanchett and Emily Blunt in multimillion dollar advertising campaigns could play a role in their winning formula.
“Marketing and communication is not a science,” says the sharp-tongued chief executive.
“I have never interviewed or met good marketing people who actually studied marketing, never. Creative people have that in them.”
Kern studied business administration at St Gallen university in Switzerland before getting his first job as a brand manager at Kraft Foods.
He famously delivered a speech to 1,100 of the world’s top marketing directors in Switzerland and asked everyone in the room to raise their hand if they thought they were a creative person.
“Of course they all put up their hands,” he recalls. Then he asked who played football and almost all the men put up their hands.
Finally he asked who played like the Argentine team captain Lionel Messi. No one raised their hand.
“My point was that you need to have a vision of how you want to play and IWC always plays offensive, never defensive,” he says now.
“That is our philosophy. I prefer winning 4-3 than 1-0. Everybody knows how Barcelona play but nobody can play like them.
“Right now IWC is playing in the champions’ league. We are always in the quarter-final or semi-final but we will be in the final in the next five years. We have the wiliness, which is the basis of every success.”
That is not to say, he adds, that creativity cannot be taught.
“What I learnt at Kraft was systems and methods, how to approach a problem or build a plan. But these are techniques which are very different to filling a technique with an idea.”
His game plan seems to be working to date. This year IWC launched its Portofino midsized collection — a 37mm watch designed with both women and the Asian market in mind — to positive reviews. The collection was unveiled in a short film with a star-studded Hollywood cast in what can only be described as understated elegance, shot in black and white by filmmaker Peter Lindbergh in the Italian coastal town the watch range was named after.
Kern says the inspiration came because one quarter of IWC watches are sold to women: “You had women who could not buy our watches because they were too big or too small so we decided to go for a watch that was 37mm in diameter and called it midsize.
“Of course, the style is more feminine than our standard collection but when you look at the pictures, you see Cate Blanchett and Emily Blunt in tuxedos and you see a more masculine approach in the women.”
Although Kern insists IWC does not distinguish between men and women’s watches, he admits the Portofino collection has proven popular with men in Asia, who account for 40 per cent of sales on the continent, while in Europe and North America it is “mainly women who buy the midsized pieces.”
He says this is where IWC’s brand power really takes grip, with the firm never pigeonholing itself into one particular genre.
“We have very different products – very sporty products, very bulky and very elegant products – all under the same umbrella,” he says.“But it depends on how strong your brand umbrella is and how authentic and real everything is under that umbrella.
“The strength of IWC is that we have a very contemporary image and can do many things. We have opened ourselves into many different areas and it is all credible, from Formula One to the Laureus [Sport for Good] foundation. But that is very much a question of feeling.”
Kern says IWC turns down hundreds of commercial sponsorship proposals as well as non-commercial from NGOs because they are not the right fit for the brand.
“What you see is one per cent. We have kicked out 99 per cent already,” he says.
“We have been approached by every football team on this planet as well as half of Hollywood asking to work with us but we will not do it because it is not in line with our brand.”
Pointing to IWC’s Le Petite Prince and Top Gun Pilot watches, which are limited special editions, as examples of the brand’s diversity, Kern says: “Some people are attracted by the toughness of Top Gun and some by the romance of Antoine de Saint-Exupery [the French poet, adventurer and pilot referenced by Le Petite Prince watch]. They are both opposites yet somehow fit into the brand perfectly.”
The sky is the limit for Kern and even that is within reaching distance. His team are prepping for the watch industry’s most exclusive fair, Salon International De La Haute Horlogeries (SIHH), which takes place every January in Geneva.
IWC is this year going with the theme of ‘high watchmaking’. In previous years, Kern has taken his visitors on a tour of the Galapagos islands to mark the launch of the Ingenieur line and he even created a flight simulator for the Top Gun Pilot line. Will this year’s exhibition be as dramatic?
“It is very different. It is about high watchmaking so the dream will be about the sky, the stars and the moon.
“It will be very technical – about functions, movements, very much filled with the technical content of a super powerful engine of a car,” he says.
When he comes back down to earth, IWC will be focusing on developing its market around the world.
“We have been growing strongly. In Asia the market is still growing but when you go from zero to double it is not a big deal.
“When you reach a certain level, it is much more difficult to increase your market share.”
Ever confident, he adds: “In the next three to five years, we will be one of the absolute leading brands.”