October 1 marks the anniversary of the passing of the watch industry’s greatest personalities. On this day in 2001, Günter Blümlein passed away after a short illness, and the watchmaking world mourned the passing of a giant. Our Special Correspondent, Dr. Frank Muller remembers his mentor.
We ran several in memoriam articles on this day years in a row, written by our Chief Editor, who also have had a personal relationship with Günter Blümlein.
Our Chief Editor penned his tribute in 2001 when he attended Günter Blümlein’s funeral service in Schaffhausen. It was published in Timezome.com, but we could not find the link to the original post. And recapped in 2003.
Remarks by Dr. Frank Muller:
What characterizes a successful entrepreneur: the development of sales and profitability of the companies he leads, the number of jobs created, the awards won for innovative products, a sky-rocking share price? Do such achievements count during a lifetime, or is it more important how long they have a positive effect posthumously? Whichever measure you may want to apply, you will find that Günter Blümlein, like very few in the history of the modern watch industry, was extremely successful during his lifetime, and his deeds still resonate in us today.
Günther Blümlein – the early years
Günther Blümlein was born on March 21, 1943, in Nuremberg. He grew up in the devastated post-war Germany, became an engineer and worked as a manager in the watch division of the German industrial group Diehl. In 1956, Junghans in the Black Forest became a part of Diehl. This is where Blümlein made his first experience as a restructuring expert when he joined Junghans in the 1970s. In 1980, he moved to VDO Schindling AG, a manufacturer of speedometers and car armatures, which had just acquired the companies IWC and Jaeger-LeCoultre in 1978. These two fledgling companies were united under the umbrella of Les Manufactures Horlogères (LMH) headed by Blümlein. In 1990, Blümlein, as the holding company’s CEO added the newly founded A. Lange & Söhne. He also conducted the sales negotiations with Richemont SA, which acquired LMH in 2001. Until his untimely death, Blümlein made a significant contribution to the integration of the three watch brands into the Geneva based luxury group. He died on October 1, 2001, after a brief, serious illness.
IWC and Jaeger-LeCoultre
The watch brands IWC and Jaeger-LeCoultre would not exist today without the essential contribution of Günter Blümlein. In the 1980s, by rigorously streamlining the product range, strategic realignments and investments at both companies. He constructed the basis on which the two brands would later benefit from the global renaissance of the classic and fine mechanical wristwatch.
Blümlein initiated Jaeger-LeCoultre’s focus on the cult object of the Reverso. He helped IWC to achieve a new profile with innovative product concepts such as the IWC Grande Complication (pioneering the principle of modular complications) and later the Il Destriero Scafusia. Design icons such as the DaVinci, the Mark XII (today Spitfire) or the Portuguese emerged under his regime.
He took courageous approaches in branding, something that is perhaps no longer appropriate in today’s times of political correctness, he ensured that boring and dusty brands were given a new shine – for example at IWC with the ground-breaking campaign about the gender battle between men and women: “Almost as complicated as a woman. Except it’s on time “.
He also initiated new forms of customer dialog at his time: professional, generally accessible and attractive factory tours or dialog via just emerging social media in 1998! In those days, watch manufactures were secret places, quite alien to collectors and journalists. But he decided to open up the manufactures of IWC, JLC and Lange.
A. Lange & Söhne
But Blümlein achieved his master stroke with A. Lange & Söhne. Even if, as he later admitted, he knew nothing about the history F.A. Lange and the watchmaking town of Glashütte until the fall of the Berlin Wall, he was quick to recognize the potential for an entrepreneurial project that would become one of the most astonishing success in the history of the watch industry.
“With Lange being developed from scratch, I wanted to avoid all the usual mistakes in the watch industry,” he confessed.
Milestones: After four years of preparation the reborn brand was presented to the world in a perfectly planned and staged market launch in October 24, 1994. The Herculean task took 20 million euros of pre-investment, immeasurable technical know how and marketing genius and the insight to the establish Walter Lange as the public representative of the company to successfully link back to the F.A. Lange. The initial collection of 4 watches – the Lange 1, the Saxonia, the Arkade and the Tourbillon Pour Le Mérite with the clear brand positioning of “A legend comes home” met with a resounding success!
No timepiece summarises Blümlein’s legacy in product development and communicative skill better than Lange’s exceptional Datograph, which was introduced in 1999. The approach of an in-house chronograph, built from ground up was unheard of back in the day when the giants of the industry like Patek Philippe, Rolex, Audemars Piguet all used third party sources for their chronograph movements. And yet, the the new German upstart could muster their own. In one fell swoop, he silenced his competitors.
For years, Lange advertisement had a tongue in cheek, perhaps mischievous claim “The Swiss build the best watches in the world, the Saxons too.” As an example, here is an advertisement showing the Lange 1 in doubled-page spread displayed side by side with a timepiece from IWC. Versions with the Datograph and others with the JLC watches were also done. A brilliant marketing idea of Günter Blümlein.
Indeed, Blümlein had a fine sense humour. He was characterized by a very rare complexity: a very sharp mind, engineering comprehension, entrepreneurial courage, strategic vision, creativity, curiosity and good human judgment. Added to this was the diligence of a 70 hour working week. His talent enabled him to bundle resources wisely, which made him very suitable for corporate portfolio management. For instance, he decreed that the horological function of the big date, earlier developed in the 1960s by the Swiss company Venus and later improved and patented by Jaeger-LeCoultre, became an anchor in the A. Lange & Söhne collection. Just as Blümlein made sure that Lange received substantial support from sister companies IWC and Jaeger-LeCoultre in the early days.
Personal contact with Günter Blümlein could be demanding. He was aware of his great abilities, and therefore his sometimes explosive personality was not entirely devoid of vanity. Dialogue with him took strength, courage and, above all, very good arguments. Blümlein was always open to them. So it is not surprising that he was able to have experts like Henry-John Belmont or Reinhard Meis, and external partners like Giulio Papi in his teams. To those whose opinions he valued, he would confidently delegate work and responsibilities. As the uncontested commander-in-chief at all three brands, with a capacity to micro-manage if needed, Blümlein had nevertheless great human trust and was able to grant huge liberties to his people. Nowhere was this more evident than in the case of young talents he promoted and who have become impressive personalities in industry themselves: Jean-François Mojon, Richard Habring and Robert Greubel (all while they were in IWC), Jérôme Lambert and Max Büsser (when they were in Jaeger-LeCoultre) or Uwe Ahrendt and Christine Hutter (while they were at Lange).
And that trust was given to me, too: I owe a lot to Günter Blümlein. Which brand owner or corporate HR manager today would hire a 33-year-old doctoral student with no industry experience with the promise of making him managing director of a luxury brand like A. Lange & Söhne in just one year? That was what he did for me. My professional career was fortunately very much shaped by him, initially in the watch industry, and later as an international luxury consultant. His multifaceted abilities have inspired me in many ways, his human integrity remains a role model for me.
Günter Blümlein died on October 1st, 2001 at the age of only 58 years. Commercially, his success can hardly be measured better than in those 4 billion Swiss francs that Richemont SA was willing to pay for Les Manufactures Horlogères in 2001 – an impressive 10 times the turnover of the holding company. And IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Lange continue to be very successful still largely based on the strategies that were defined under Blümlein’s rule decades ago. It seems more significant to me, however, that when those people, who had the privilege to experience him personally, meet today will inevitably always speak of him with admiration and gratitude. Those who are remembered this way must have truly achieved great deeds.
Frank Müller was managing director at A. Lange & Söhne and CEO at Glashütte Original. At Swatch Group he was a member of the extended management board. In 2009, he founded the consultancy firm The Bridge To Luxury TBTL. Frank Müller studied business administration at the University of Mannheim, the ESCP Europe and received his doctorate from the University of St. Gallen.