We caught up with Wilhelm Schmid, CEO of A. Lange & Söhne over a video call, and discuss his last decade in office as the chief, and what his future plans are for the maison.
Our last In Conversation with Wilhelm Schmid was a while back in 2014. We do chat rather frequently with Wilhelm, but have not spoken with him for nearly a year, with the pandemic going on, and the lack of the ability to travel. So we recently caught up with him over a video call, just before the madness of Watches and Wonders Geneva 2021, and chatted.
In conversation: Wilhelm Schmid, CEO A. Lange & Söhne
We began with small talk about the state of the business, and it was heartening to know that Lange continues to produce good profits despite the difficult 2020. This is important, because this will allow the brand the funds needed to invest in the future.
We decided to do a Q&A style article. Both the questions and Deployant Editorial comments and answers from Wilhelm are paraphrased to capture the intent of the messages.
A decade on the helm
What was the state of the business when you took over in 2011 as CEO of Lange. What were the pressing issues you had to deal with?
When I arrived at A. Lange & Söhne, I was very impressed with the substance and fabric of the brand’s spirit which had already been baked in. The brand had a strong value system, a robust ecosystem to support this and was highly resilient. The structure was so well established and solid, such that no single person, be it CEO or anyone else could easily destroy. I sought to keep these strong fundamentals.
But what was also clear then was that the company had many custodians who became important stakeholders. These guardians come from within the company and without. They had always seen it as their duty to protect the brand image, but also to criticize when they see fit. Though never to impose their own personality, but always in the interest of the brand. This was impressive. This, I sought to continue to nurture. Important lesson #1: The company is built on solid rock.
Also clear to me then was there was a lack of direction. The strong base built by my predecessors was waiting for leadership. The watch world was still recovering from the Lehman Brothers crisis (which hit in 2007, but left a trail of economic bloodshed in its wake), and Lange then lacked direct contact with the end customer. This I sought to change. And were my first priorities. Important lesson #2: Know your customers.
Looking inwards to see outside
Who are Lange customers, and how do they differ from other watch brands?
The Lange customer is more an expert of watches than the regular watch collector. They are more informed. More passionate. And have more experience in collecting watches. And are almost always more focused and understand more clearly what they want.
For a brand making 5 to 6 thousand watches a year, we are uniquely positioned to be in direct contact with our end customers. We are perhaps the only global brand to be able to get this close. My goal is to be close to and serve this collector customer. Those who are passionate about watchmaking and the brand. Those who will buy and wear the watch, and not to put it out into the market to make a quick buck. And to deny the pure investor.
Serving the passionate collector
So your priority as Lange CEO is to ensure that the watches go to the real customer who are passionate about the watches and not to flippers or investors. How are you going about to to this?
To this end, we need to know who the real customer is, so that we are able to serve him/her better. This has led to a policy that our boutiques and retail network will require applications for the high demand models in our collections. This is the only way to ensure that the watches are not sold to the grey and black market players.
I understand the system is not perfect, and I have received a lot of feedback, including from you (referring to Peter Chong, our Chief Editor). Long time customers and supporters of the brand sometimes tell us that they are feeling abandoned. And they do not have access to the popular models, like the new Odysseus, or the Lange 1 Perpetual Calendar if they have not made a recent purchase from a boutique. I can certainly understand the frustration. And truly appreciate the passion that these persons took the trouble to reach out to contact us directly or via intermediaries like yourself. So my message to them is to ask that the community bear with us as we work through the system. We are still learning, and trying to get it right. We are open to hear other ways to do this better. It might take us some time, but we will get it right. The intent is to ensure that all of our watches end up in the hands of true collectors. Important lesson #3: Serve the real customer. Deny the investor.
What do you see as your top 3 achievements over this last decade?
As you limit me to three in my term as CEO, I would have to say the following:
- the launch of the Grande Complication in 2013.
- the new manufacture in 2015.
- the launch of the Odysseus.
These are the highlights of the last 10 years. Building a grand complication is important to establish the beach head, so to speak. To signify that we have the capability. And we have arrived. With it, we have completed the cycle of all the major classical complications in horology. Following the Grande Complication which had a recommended retail price of about EUR 2 millon, we then developed the Zeitwerk Minute Repeater in 2015. And the Odysseus collection in 2019. I see the Odysseus as another important landmark as this is the first time Lange has ventured to make a sports watch. This is a greenfield for Lange, and an opportunity to reach ou and attract new collectors and new customers.
And the move to the new manufacture building is critical to streamline our production. The purpose is not to increase production volume per say, but to make the manufacturing process easier and simpler. All production departments are under one roof. In the long term, we might consider increasing production. But not right now. The biggest inhibitor to this is the limited supply of high skilled watchmakers. We have had our own Watchmaking school since 1998. And we continue to produce impressive graduates. They will need hands on experience on the production floor with basic caliber before moving up to more complicated ones. There is a certain momentum in this process, which will determine our production capacity. We still need to ensure that the watches remain top quality, so will need the people working on them to be highly skilled. Thus this capability will grow, but will need time.
This took us to about 90 minutes of video call, and the next interviewer was already waiting to speak to Wilhelm. We wrapped up with some formalities and ended the call.
We decided not to use the low resolution video conferencing screen shots which we took during the session. But to use higher resolution photographs we took when Wilhelm visited Singapore for the re-opening of the Boutique in September 2019. The photographs were taken with available light in Salt Restaurant, Ion Orchard. Leica S Type 007 with the Summarit 70 f/2.5 ASPH CS.