Interview With Walter von Känel – The 1 Question To Ask (But No Worries, There Is More)
A few months ago, just after BaselWorld, I was invited to visit one of the production facilities and the museum of Longines in St-Imier. I was not allowed to take images from the production facility, but I will soon get back to you with an article on the Longines museum, that plays an important role in the company.
However, not only that, Longines arranged that I am able to sit down and have an interview with Walter von Känel in one of the meeting rooms of the head quarters. He freed his schedule to talk for over an hour.
Preparing an interview with someone who has been 46 years with Longines and 27 years as the CEO (or ‘chef’ as he calls it) of one of the largest watch manufacturers in the world is not easy. The questions that come to mind are ones that he must have heard a thousand times. I decide that besides a bit of regular watch industry talk, I will only ask one question. A question that he has been asked probably a thousand times as well, but I want to hear him say it. I decide to hold this question off for a while, as I haven’t met Mr Walter von Känel before and I am not sure what I can expect.
Mr Walter von Känel comes prepared as he enters the room with a binder of papers and the Longines collection book. The charismatic Von Känel sits down and shows this chart of Longines in terms of sales. Longines is the #4 brand in the world when it comes to watch sales, after Rolex, Omega and Cartier, measured in turnover. Longines is then followed by Tissot and Patek Philippe. The charts shows an interesting ‘peak’ from 2009 and onwards. I ask him about it.
Why this steep increase? You have to know that I try to focus on a few basics. These basics are consistency, continuation and focus. I was already 15 years with the company (in 1984) when we founded Swatch Group and I was lucky to be a member of the fusion team. Hayek Sr said to me: Walter, you have one target, that is to be number 1 in your price segment. The price segments for us are CHF 700 – CHF 1500 and CHF 1500 – CHF 3000. The average price of a Longines watch is CHF 2000. In the price range between CHF 1500 and CHF 3000, 1/3rd of all watches sold is a Longines watch. Going back to the vey simple mission I had then: We are number one in our price segment. We reached this by staying true to our basics of consistency, continuation and focus. To get back to you question, in 2008 and 2009, Longines took no losses despite the crisis. We had an outstanding performance in the Far East that made up for the slow market in the USA at that time.
With regards to our consistency, continuation and focusing policy, you have to know that already at the very beginning of Swatch Group, we insisted to respect the DNA of each brand (Longines, Tissot, Omega, RADO etc). We made a qualitative survey on the brands perception, worldwide. A few elements came to the surface, the usual things like being Swiss Made, tradition, nice looking watches/style. However, another interesting outcome was that Longines was considered to have the best price-quality ratio. Further more, we have heritage. Look at our museum, there is real heritage. No fake, created heritage. Real heritage.
You also have to know that at that time, we were still a manufacture. However, because we had ETA, we decided to stop being a manufacture. On one hand it was a pity to do this, on the other hand thanks to this decision to stop manufacturing movements we have this strong position today. We could not have been able to produce this volume with this quality without that important decision back then. I had this one condition though, not to bullshit people about the movements. We are selling Longines watches with the best ETA movements.
You showed me the most important price segments (CHF 700 – CHF 1500 and CHF 1500 – CHF 3000) for Longines. How important is sticking to these price brackets to you? A lot of brands seem to be increasing prices year-after-year.
Let me answer it this way: I spend a lot of time in the field. The most important employees to me are the ones in the shops. They are for me the best advisors. If someone is selling hundreds of watches per month, he (or she) has for me the experience of the contact with the customer. So we start with CHF 700. We need a starting price. You need bread and butter business. The Flagship watches are our real bread and butter and bring us volume. I don’t want to mention any names, but there was one company that went so high in prices that there were no more sales. You can’t be increasing the prices for no reason or because you think you are the King and think “I want to be there with my prices.”. The brand perception is the reality. We have to see what is going on in the field, what competition is doing. We respect our retailers, they are our partners.
Then, Walter von Känel gives an explanation of their best selling watches and collections. It is amazing to see that he, as the CEO of Longines, knows the retail price of every model he points out and which model is performing well. He knows the Longines retailer catalogue from cover to cover and the results of the sales of each of the collections – and some times even per model – inside.
At some point, Walter von Känel comes across the heritage collection in his big book. His eyes become bigger and suddenly it is not about numbers anymore, but about the history of Longines and watch making and his favourite pilot’s watch (WEEMS). He is proud to have the brand’s archives and museum. Under Von Känel’s leadership, the first heritage piece was the 1987 Lindbergh edition (60 years after the crossing of the Atlantic). In the same mood, Longines relaunched the WEEMS. The original can be seen in the museum.
Fratello Watches did a couple of reviews of the Heritage collection and even did a comparison between the re-edition Conquest versus the original model as well as one for the Flagship Heritage watch. You have to understand that the Heritage collection is only a small portion of the total production of Longines watches.
About the Longines Heritage collection, whom do you target with these watches? People who already have the original, or whose father had an original Conquest for example? Or just people who love vintage looking watches?
It is difficult to define collectors. Some of the watches are really limited and they have a limited production in general. [Walter von Känel goes through the collection again and shows which Heritage models perform well and why they were chosen to be a re-edition’. At some point he stops at the Legend Diver and says, “we stopped the no-date version and we had angry letters from people saying we don’t respect the original.”].
I am one of those.
We did both!!
Yes, but you discontinued the wrong one!!
Von Känel laughs and we discuss whether the Heritage watches of today will be the future’s classics or ‘vintage’ models worth collection. An impossible question to answer for him in the end. Time for me to ask the only question I really had in mind to ask Walter von Känel, although I am already quite sure of the answer he will give me.
One last question regarding the Heritage or vintage topic and I am pretty sure I know the answer already, as you told me earlier that Longines quit making their own movements in 1984 and you want to sell high volume. Will there ever be a 13ZN again?
Well, if you see our Longines Column-Wheel Chronograph and Column-Wheel Single Push-Piece Chronograph, it is not far away.
But still, those are not a 13ZN. You should do it. Make collectors of vintage Longines and vintage chronographs happy.
I want to concentrate on modern pieces. It is not even a matter of cost or the production volume of such a timepiece, but I need to stick to my philosophy: consistency, continuation and focus. This question about the 13ZN comes many times and it is a legitimate question. I don’t think that under my leadership, respecting my guidelines, there will be a 13ZN again. You are an honest guy to say: “You should do it”.
We continue our chat about watches, the watch industry and of course smart watches. A subject also touched by our colleagues from Time and Tide here. At the end of our meeting, Walter von Känel says to follow him and we walk to another room with a shelf with a lot of books and catalogs. He asks me what I have and what I need. He points out a white book called ‘At the heart of an Industrial Vocation – Longines watch movements (1832 – 2009), Tradition, Know-how, Innovation.’ and offers it to me. It is an impressive big book on Longines movements from past to present. Then we shake hands and Walter von Känel says “…about that 13ZN, you never know.” and winks. Despite his official comments, there is still hope.