We have known Jérôme Lambert for a long time. Since he became Jaeger LeCoultre’s CEO in 2002 at the tender age of 33. He was instrumental in growing JLC to the technical juggernaut it is today. He also spent a stint as Chairman of A. Lange & Söhne with oversight on the German manufacture from 2009 to 2011. He went on to become CEO of Montblanc from 2013 in move which surprised even industry insiders. We caught up with him when he was in Singapore in January 2016, and again in his office in SIHH. This is an insider peek into our conversation.
Jérôme Lambert: of character, of boundless energy and of passion
Jérôme Lambert is known within the industry as quite the energizer bunny…full of energy, enthusiasm, and always busy. An anecdote to illustrate. In 2010, I was working on my book project (“A. Lange & Söhne: the Pour le Mérite Collection“), Jérôme had oversight of A. Lange & Söhne, and was acting as CEO after Fabian Krone had left. Jérôme was still running Jaeger LeCoultre as CEO then, and after a full day in Le Sentier, he would hop on the plane and fly to Dresden, arriving past midnight. I was staying in the same modest hotel as he was. The Heidehof was a peculiar little hotel in the middle of the Saxon countryside. It played a key role in the revival of A. Lange & Söhne, as Günter Blümlein held many important meetings there during the startup stages. Anyway, he would arrive past midnight, and have the hotel prepare a late supper for him. And would start the next day as early as 6am for his morning run. He always seem to be in training for a marathon somewhere in the world. He tells us, he runs several a year. And even in deep winter in Dippoldiswalde where the Heidehof was located is known to be the coldest city in Germany, he would faithfully do his morning run. Frequently he would also conduct business meetings and reviews with his key executives during the run. He spared me of the winter run, though, as I usually caught up with him for breakfast after his run, to discuss progress on the book. He would then spend the rest of the day in Glashütte, and fly back to Switzerland that evening. This would go on almost weekly for the nearly the entire duration of his tenure at Lange.
Such is the boundless energy of the man. And the passion which drives him. To me, this is real character. And this character, coupled with a clear and communicated vision is what makes him a great leader.
As Jérôme shared his passion, and how he managed the transformation of both JLC and Lange, it became clear that a different strategy was needed at Montblanc. With JLC, being an old manufacture, he was passionate to create a brand which is more than the Reverso. And to establish technical supremacy. With Lange, a newly revived brand his vision was for it to remain small, exclusive. And to continue to produce horologically significant watches which rival the best in the world. We think he did well, and left both companies in good shape for the next generation leaders – Daniel Reido at JLC and Wilhelm Schmid at Lange.
Quo vadis, Montblanc Watches?
And with Montblanc? Jérôme’s vision is to show that the brand’s capacity to create. He immediately sought to increase the brand’s presence. Within the first 2.5 years, he introduced 17 new references, 5 new collections. Quickly he established the three tenets: Craftsmanship, Performance and Value for Money.
The integration of Minerva is another focus. Instead of absorbing Minerva into mainstream Montblanc and disappearing into its belly, he sought to leverage on Minerva’s capabilities and created a common development unit. Minerva and the Villeret collection was to remain somewhat a maison within the maison. A mid sized watchmaking manufacture.
The Villeret collection occupies a very special place within the Montblanc collection. This is where the high end haute horologie movements are being made. Jérôme was intent to communicate this. All the movements are signed Minerva, and have the characteristic Devil’s Tail.
To demonstrate his confidence, he let the Minerva facilities stay in Villeret, but for them to work closely with the Montblanc facilities in Le Locle. He made Le Locle the headquarters of the Watchmaking Division. A total of 150 people work in Le Locle, where 9 are watchmakers, and 2 technical specialists who work at the hairspring production.
We discussed that there were rumors that he has taken his experiences in JLC and transplanted them into Montblanc. The cylindrical escapement was one example. He quickly rebutted that Montblanc had developed and patented the cylindrical hairspring a full year before JLC. The Montblanc Bicylindric Tourbillon debuted in 2011. JLC’s Master Grande Tradition Tourbillon Cylindrique à Quantième Perpétuel Jubilee was shown in 2013. We discussed a few more examples, and conclude that these accusations were not true and had no basis.
For the next great push forward, we turned to the recent appointment of Davide Cerrato as Managing Director of Montblanc Watches. We have known Davide since he early days as Communications Director at Officine Panerai, and later as Vice President of Marketing, Design and Product Development at Tudor. In this role, he was largely seen as the key to the rebirth of Tudor as a brand on its own merits, instead of behind the shadows as the poor cousin to Rolex. Davide was responsible for this transformation, effecting the new breath of life to the new models, like the North Flag and the Pelagos. How will his role be within Montblanc? Jérôme said that Davide will run the watches division as MD, and will be based in Le Locle. He has MDs in the other Montblanc divisions as well, so this is not a new thing. The mission for Davide is simple. Re-explore the aesthetic roots. Focus on communications. Both key skills Davide already demonstrated excellence in his career. He also shares with Jérôme the passion for fine watchmaking, and as both men are self declared “Product Guys”, both will be fully involved in product development of the next watches from Montblanc.
The discussion turned to his favorite piece from this year’s collection. CEOs often shy away from this question, preferring to say that they love all the novelties as their own children, showing no preferences.
But Jérôme immediately offered tha the new Montblanc 4810 Orbis Terrarum Pocket Watch 110 years Edition was his favorite. Why? Its a pocket watch. It is a courageous choice…not many manufacturers are making pocket watches these days. The format as a pocket watch meant that the timepiece could be larger, and more space was available for decoration. Villaret was known for its finishing, and this watch was to become the example of what they can do. On his wrist was the wristwatch version. The Montblanc 4810 Orbis Terrarum.
At this point, Jérôme noticed that as I was writing notes with my fountain pen on a Moleskin notebook (from Greubel Forsey, no less) and the ink was smearing as I wrote, we launched into a discussion on writing paper.
Jérôme spoke of the need for fine writing paper as a corollary to a fine writing instrument. To ensure high quality, Montblanc produces its own paper. The paper and the leather bound books are produced with the leather goods at their manufacture in Florence. Total vertical integration. And as pens are all manufactured in Montblanc facilities in Germany, this was an all in-house capability for the Writing Instruments Division where none of their competitors approach in terms of size, complexity or range.
Some insights into the Montblanc business
We turned for a moment where Jérôme threw light on the proportions of the divisions within the Montblanc business. Just prior to SIHH, the Richemont Group had released their third quarter report for the year ending 31 December 2015. The report shows that revenue for the watchmaking brands was down four percent at constant exchange rates. The report also specifically mentioned that Montblanc had posted modest growth despite the overall negative earnings for the Watchmaking Division.This is a good result for Jérôme and his team. And testament that he is doing the right things for Montblanc.
Currently, Writing Instruments still account for some 40% of Montblanc’s business, with Leather and Watches taking up almost equally 25% stakes each. Jérôme did not elaborate on the remainder 10%, but we assume its the Jewellery business. However, in Asia, the Writing Instruments account for only 35%, and Watches for some 30%, and Leather remaining at 25% of the business. In China, this proportion of business is even more in favor of Watches which is a larger business than Writing Instruments.
We concluded with a portrait session, and had to part as the next journal was already at the door for his next interview. It was our last meeting for that day, and as we left, it was already 6pm. The Energizer Bunny, nontheless, continues and soldiers on for his next interview as we wandered into the SIHH halls and picked up a flute of champagne.