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Keeping things ticking along nicely
EIGHT years on, Wilhelm Schmid appears to be still going strong at A Lange & Sohne. Along with Nicolas Bos at Van Cleef & Arpels, the former BMW car executive is about the only chief executive who survived the shake-up of Swiss luxury Richemont's top management in the past two years, which saw the exit or reshuffle of CEOs at the group's watch brands that include Cartier, IWC, Montblanc, Vacheron Constantin and Officine Panerai.
The 55-year-old Mr Schmid, who came to helm the German watch-making brand of high-quality mechanical timepieces in 2011, is not about to retire. Yet, at a recent interview, he seemed pleased to inform that A Lange & Sohne, which counts Philippe Dufour - widely deemed as the greatest watchmaker alive - among its admirers, is in much-better shape that before he took over its reins.
It's "more international" and it has "developed great technical skills", put together "a more balanced watch portfolio" than before and built a new factory.
"We were very much Lange 1 when I arrived," says Mr Schmid, a German citizen. "Today we have a lot more to offer than just Lange 1, which is our most important product. But as you know, the other (models) are (also) gaining in importance. We have boutiques around the world, like in Singapore. We've probably one of the most sustainable and modern manufacturing (plant) that you can find in the watch industry."
Completed three years ago at a cost of tens of millions of euros, the carbon dioxide-neutral 58,000 square-foot factory in Glashutte, the historic home of Germany's watch-making industry, is fitted with cutting-edge CNC machines, free of dust and has large atelier windows looking out into the surrounding countryside.
The energy efficient building, home to 600 workers, half of them watchmakers, united the watch-assembling and finishing departments as well as logistics and parts production. The marketing and communications team has been moved to the German capital of Berlin since October last year.
What Mr Schmid says amounts to saying that A Lange & Sohne has, under his watch, already laid the foundation for its future - which means a lot to a brand that is, as he points out, still relatively young.
Though it was founded in 1845, A Lange & Sohne as we know today - its reputation, its watches - began life only in 1990, less than 30 years ago.
But Mr Schmid was quick to stress that A Lange & Sohne's accomplishments in the past eight years was not his doing alone. "It's a team effort," he adds.
Still, Mr Schmid is the one who provides the vision and guidance in the company. And, of course, he still calls the shots in key decisions. The CEO, for instance, is adamant that the brand will never make watches in stainless steel for its regular collections - even though a one-off special 1815 Homage to Walter Lange in steel recently went under the hammer for around US$852,000, the most expensive Lange timepiece ever sold at an auction.
"We could easily do tomorrow everything in stainless steel," Mr Schmid says. "Everybody will love and cry for it. But it won't be the right step."
He also always keeps A Lange & Sohn's DNA in his sights, making sure the brand never steers far from its roots. So while the Grand Lange 1 "Lumen" was a big hit when it was rolled out in 2013, Mr Schmid wasn't carried away by its success to produce more of the models. The watch, which has a partially transparent dial with hands and markers that glow in the dark, is esoteric by the brand's standards - and that's not A Lange & Sohne's style, according to him.
"The Lumen is great for design but we must not lose our classical identity," Mr Schmid says. "But we also have to give to certain pockets of the market which desire a more design approach."
The restraint he showed for the Grand Lange 1 "Lumen" also reflected a balancing act of treading the fine line between playing it safe and venturing into new markets. "You never put all your eggs in one basket, but you explore new baskets," Mr Schmid advises. "Stay true to what you are but don't become complacent, ignorant of others."
His vision for the company is "to ensure there is always enough work" for his workers, especially the watchmakers. "I have to make sure I do a good job. I have to ensure that we always have sustainable growth to ensure there's more than enough work for my people."
According to Mr Schmid, A Lange & Sohn will always depend more on the skills of its workers than on machines. And its watch-making skills, though built only in a relatively short time, have reached levels that are the envy of even much-older watch-making companies. "We can do grand complications, minute repeaters, triple split chronographs," Mr Schmid says.
"People buy us not because we do things with machines," he adds. "People buy us because they've seen and experienced that what we do is done by hands, with passion. They know a machine can do it better, but they love the imperfections. The beauty is in the imperfection."
According to Mr Schmid, A Lange & Sohne is now capable of producing every part of a watch. "We are today a lot more independent than before. We can produce everything in-house, if we want."
That's the kind of self-sufficiency which virtually all the big fine watch-making brands dream of.
Despite an expanded factory, Mr Schmid says there are no plans to add more lines to the existing collections, which he reckons are extensive enough to cover mechanical timepieces from the simplest to the most complicated. Smart watches are definitely not on the drawing board, because they won't fit into Lange's mechnical watch-making culture.
The Lange boss seems content with the brand's global presence at the moment, which Mr Schmid describes as "nicely distributed" - though the Lange boutiques, already opened in most of the key cities, "can improve and we'll do that".
"It's on-going work, fine-tuning, constantly moving," Mr Schmid says. "We've to keep moving, we can't stand still in this world, or we'll become obsolete very, very quickly."