A meeting with the Chef of Longines, as he calls himself, Walter von Kânel is always one which promises to be interesting. A man with an effervescent personality, and a sprightly 75 year old (born Sept 1, 1941), with some 54 years in the industry, 48 years in Longines, and 31 of those as “the Chef”. I approached the interview, not without a little trepidation I must add. Certainly a man of this immense experience must have already been asked any question that I might have in mind, perhaps even hundreds of times before. But the anxiety soon vanished when I stepped into his room at the Longines booth in Baselworld. He boomed, and welcomed me as an old friend, though this was the first time we met. And immediately put me at ease. A quality in management often overlooked, but one of utmost importance.
We quickly settled in. And got on to the business of the interview. We started to discuss what were the most significant highlights in his career. Given the length of his service to the industry and the company, and how his illustrious leadership has guided Longines to now be the fourth largest watchmaker in the industry by turnover. After Rolex, Omega, and Cartier. And with Tissot and Patek Philippe immediately after.
His reply was swift. But in characteristic manner, he first whipped up a notepad and a pencil, and as he spoke, he wrote the points down on paper. He was intimately familiar with all the facts, including dates, model numbers and retail prices. He never had to refer to any document, which was very impressive to us, especially for a brand boss.
He outlined three milestones:
- The changing of Longines from a family business into a group. In 1969 when he joined Longines, it was still a family business. Longines became part of Société Suisse de Microélectronique et d’Horlogerie (SMH), now renamed The Swatch Group in 1983. This was a massive change in management philosophy. Which, among other aspects, saw the transition from manufakture to a établisseur. A manufakture makes the ebauché and the components which make up the movement. The établisseur assembles the movement from components that are made outside the company. Today, all of Longines watches are made exclusively by sister company ETA, while before assimilation into Swatch Group, Longines was a true manufacture. And often competing directly with now stable mate Omega, even for the prestigious Olympic timing sponsorships.
- The transition from technical based to marketing driven. In his early days in Longines, the technicians led the company. “We produce it, you sell it”, was the motto in which the company was managed. But this soon changed after the quartz revolution. The market demanded a specific kind of watch, and the marketing/sales people were intimately familiar to the market needs. The management philosophy then changed to “You produce what we can sell”. A change which led to the market driven watchmaking we see today, and no doubt is one of the key reasons for Longines’ great commercial success.
- The change from analog to digital. But a road which was not taken by Longines. While the watchmaking world was fussing over digital displays in the 1970s, the buzz words were LED, LCD, Combo. Under Walter von Kânel’s leadership, Longines stuck to her roots, and remained true and focused on analog displays. Today, we see the same focus on analog watches, both quartz and mechanical. Walter told us that the current trend for Smartwatches are “not our market, but perhaps that of Apple, the Chinese, Samsung, TAG and perhaps Frederic Constant.”
Longines will remain focused on consistency and continuity.
Walter von Kânel
No idle boast. For a company who makes 6000 watches a day, remaining focused, consistent and with good continuity from its 185 years of history into the future is no easy task. But one which Walter is eminently suited to lead.
Accuracy and Chronometry
Accuracy and chronometry is one of the mainstays in the Longines story. Longines first made history of being the most accurate wristwatch in 1984. This feat was achieved with the Conquest V.H.P. (short for “Very High Precision”) beating Seiko’s Twin Quartz (announced in 1978). The 84 Conquest V.H.P. was the result of a long history in sporting timekeeping. Perhaps starting in 1954 with the Chronocinégines, a quartz timekeeper linked to a 1/100th of a second camera developed to capture athletes crossing the finishing line at sporting events. The bulky electronic clocks eventually evolved into precision quartz wristwatches like the Ultra-Quartz of 1969, and then in 1984 with the Conquest V.H.P., capable of a rate of +/-10 seconds a year (the Seiko Twin Quartz was capable of +/- 12 seconds a year).
We chatted about how this key tenet remains important in Longines’ philosophy. Of course, this led to the discussion of the new Longines Conquest V.H.P. for 2017 – taking the limit of accuracy to just 5 seconds a year.
The Longines Marketplace
The discussion then moved to the product mix of Longines today. Walter remarked that Longines’ production is currently 80% mechanical watches. Interestingly, sales in China, show that mechanical watches consistently outsell quartz. “Quartz watches are difficult to sell in China,” Walter says. “Except for V.H.P., which does ok”. But the US market prefer quartz watches, and in Russia, the demand is 50/50.
Walter also stated that Longines makes 1.4 million watches a year, accounting for some CHF 1.5 billion in revenues. Of this China account for about half a million watches. Not a surprising figure, considering that this is probably typical of most mid-luxury Swiss watch companies.
We concluded our short meeting with our last question for the day: 2017 marks the 185th Anniversary of Longines, one of the oldest brands in the industry. What is Walter’s vision for the next 185? With a wink in his eye, he quickly remarked, “to go from no4 to no3 in turnover.” and with that, we concluded our meeting with a promise that he will visit us soon in Singapore.