Reuter/La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland
Watchmaker Breitling is confident it will be able to preserve its independence thanks to a committed family owner willing to invest for the long term, even in difficult times.
Swiss watchmakers such as Breitling face dwindling sales in their biggest market, Hong Kong, while Europe is getting fewer tourist shoppers in the wake of Islamist attacks.
Breitling vice-president Jean-Paul Girardin told Reuters he is confident the Schneider family is committed to the business, despite speculation about its future following the death last year of Ernest Schneider who bought it in 1979.
“The third generation of the Schneiders is in the starting blocks,” Girardin said in an interview at Breitling’s factory.
Schneider’s son Theodore took over from him in the 1990s, Girardin said, adding Theodore’s own son and nephew also work in the family firm.
“Theodore Schneider doesn’t like being in the spotlight, but he is very present when it comes to running the business,” said Girardin, who has been with Breitling since 1992, adding that he saw no signs the family would consider selling up.
Flexibility has also been critical during a tough patch for sales of Breitling’s niche watches, many of which are tailor-made for pilots and quite bulky.
“We decide in weekly meetings what to produce.
Our stock levels are healthy, even in Hong Kong,” said Girardin, who regularly pilots the company helicopter.
Founded by Leon Breitling in the Swiss Jura Mountains in 1884, Breitling is one of the last sizeable Swiss watch labels still owned by a family after a wave of consolidation from the 1990s led to the emergence of leaders Swatch Group, Richemont and LVMH.
Breitling produced around 147,000 watches last year — based on figures from an independent Swiss institute — with most models costing 10,000-15,000 Swiss francs ($15,131), and Girardin expects sales to be flat this year.
One bright spot is Breitling’s connected chronograph, which it launched in December at a price of around 8,000 francs.
The watch, which can transmit data to a smartphone via a bluetooth connection, is selling well, especially in the United States, Girardin said.
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