Shattering the status quo
Gulf Business|June 2021
Georges Kern, CEO of Breitling, is swimming against the tide and gaining market share for the Swiss luxury watchmaker. Here’s what he’s doing right
VARUN GODINHO

In October 2019, a few months before the Covid-19 pandemic would strike with all its vicious fury, Breitling CEO Georges Kern was in Dubai for the Breitling Summit. At the event, he showed the new Aviator 8 Mosquito, spoke about the brand’s ‘modern retro’ concept, and even introduced to the audience the Swiss watchmaker’s youngest ever ambassador – 19-year-old Luke Bannister, a seven-time world drone champion. Later that afternoon, when I asked him what were the biggest threats to Breitling in 2020, he replied, “The only threats are those beyond our control – like Brexit, the situation in Hong Kong and trade wars.”

Those were the biggest pain points on the horizon back then. 2020 though proved to have ominous plans of its own.

When we spoke again last month, Kern didn’t deny that Covid-19 has had an impact on the business, but he said a strategy that was put in place pre-Covid helped buffer it. “Before Covid, Breitling already engaged in inclusive luxury – in the way we interacted with the customer in a very relaxed manner; casual luxury – where luxury becomes more casual and you can see it in our boutiques; and sustainable luxury – look at what we have been doing with packaging and straps. These three values helped us a lot during Covid and will help us post Covid too,” says Kern.

His optimism is not misplaced. In an annual report published in March by Morgan Stanley and LuxeConsult, Breitling stayed very much in the reckoning among Swiss watch brands that powered through 2020 without falling apart.

The report states that the entire Swiss watch industry is estimated to have shrunk by one third in 2020, with figures from the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry stating that exports dropped 21.8 per cent during the same period. Still, Breitling climbed from 13th position in terms of overall retail sales in 2019, to 11th place in 2020.

The report estimates Breitling’s turnover in 2020 to be CHF479m, occupying 2.4 per cent of the global Swiss retail market share. It adds that the brand sold an estimated 147,900 pieces, at an implied average retail price of CHF5,254 a piece. “We make roughly 160,000-170,000 watches a year,” confirms Kern. “We’ve gained market share last year. In the Middle East, we are part of the top five brands in turnover.”

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