In conversation with Christoph Grainger-Herr, CEO of IWC
We had a deligt speaking with the CEO of IWC, Christoph Grainger-Herr.
Tell us about your experience in several different departments and divisions at IWC. Where did it all start and how were the transitions like into new departments?
Well, that's an interesting thing. You know, I think I had probably 13 or so jobs, but I've always done the same. So to the present day, it hasn't really changed. I've started in trademarketing on the exhibitions and boutiques. Back in the day, I’ve really just been hired as a project manager. And then I started to design the stuff from a laptop and drive our creative director absolutely crazy, because I started to change things. I did thisa couple of years, and then the trademarketing things,which really is all of that plus visual merchandising, architecture, exhibitions and so on. What I’ve learned from all of that, I'd be seeing different countries, different cultures, what our clients are looking for, the building specifics in all of these different countries, which is super interesting. And also you get to meet all of the global teams. After that, I did a little bit of a stint in marketing. This was basically everything apart from Corp comms, but all of the print marketing, consumer marketing, catalogues, websiteand all that. And from there, I started to work quite heavily on other brands within the group. We did the retail concept, we would agree to BM concept for merch. Then in the end, I returned to retail here in Switzerland, did that for about two months. Then I did the sales director role for about 10 days, four to six weeks or something. And then the announcement came. So it was quite linear in the end and quite fast and quite scary. But, here we are.
And I think really, what have I taken from it? I think, it's when you work transversally, it's very, very, very interesting because you get to learn the entire organization inside out, including different countries. I think that gives you a really good head start to then pick up all sorts of different tasks and challenges. But once you understand what production takes, you know I worked for six years on the manufacturer design here for the new manufacturing building, that really gives you the inside out view of how, what comes together. And after that you see the whole commercial side for the boutiques and the exhibitions and that in the end gives you quite a good understanding of the global picture.
And you learn. I mean, at the end of the day you learned that in luxury brand you're telling an aesthetic story and that story has to be consistent across all the different touch points. And the more you are able to combine the unique different requirements of social media versus physical stores versus production facilities into a consistent story that both your colleagues, as well as your clients and everybody can buy into mentally, the easier job you have to explain what your brand stands for and what is on brand and what is not on brand. And I think one of the most difficult things is if you have brands that are completely inconsistently implemented and then have like a front of house in the back of house, it sometimes becomes confusing to take the right decisions. Whereas I think if you have this consistency, then after that, it's much easier for people to make their own judgmentson what's the right thing to do or not, because we're not in a business that's based on purely data and research. I mean, it is increasingly luckily based on some data inside, but you know, the best creations in the world of luxury are not derived by data analytics or marketing briefing or anything like that. It takes a moment of creativity and then you have to do a call whether this is something that fits your brand or not. And that's the decision between hopefully a hit product and something that ends up in the door.
When you say creativity, how important do you think is innovation in the luxury segment, particularly for watches?
Well, if you think about the fact that we're basically in a moment central business, we don't make something that is based on purely functional need, on just functional characteristics. So that moves it away from the ins and outs of checklists, right or wrong assessment of what you're doing. And you're into an area where it's all about the emotion you evoke, it's about things like scarcity, it's about things like perceived hotness and exclusivity and that you can only do by creating. I wouldn't necessarily always call it purely sort of innovation in terms of technical content, but it is really in the entire brand universe, from products to communication, to retail experience, to the way you talk about the brand, of what it activates. Creativity is absolutely key. And keeping that fascination, that’s not killing off the brand into something too predictable or even too boring, it's always this balancing act between newness and the sort of preserving the icons that we've been familiar with for the last 18 years or longer. And that's at the end of the day heritage and DNA versus newness and supply versus scarcity. That's kind of the leavers, which we have to play in our industry to keep our brands relevant and keep our fans.
When did your first interest for watches arise?
The first time I showed interest for watches was kind of a forced situation. My dad was buying his first Patek Nautilus back in the eighties. It felt to me like it took all day and I was sitting there looking at all these watches and I apparently knew this was a quality of mine when I was younger. I must've lost that, I was incredibly patient and waited there for hours on end. And in the end they bought me a Bernese dog cuddly toy. That was kinda my first contact with watches. Then I think I really picked it up again at the university. In my gap year I had the chance to work not only in fashion stores about men's jewelry and accessories, but also in the heart of London.
I think that's the first time when I really started to look into the beauty of these objects, when the shop kind of becomes an art gallery. And I think this is the thing with hard luxury. It's almost like a sculpture museum space rather than just a shop. It's very different from a fashion store. And I started to like that because the complexity that goes into something very simple, it's all about presentation, lighting, quality, etc., but you have all of the requirements of security materials, automation, all of this stuff behind. I really started to enjoy that sort of work. And I walked past the jewelers near my university in Bournemouth. And I started to really feel quite interested in IWC back in the day, because I loved the purity of detail.
I love that engineering approach to the design, that understated confidence in the brand quite a lot. And then it will only be a couple of years later when I moved to Switzerland and I started to go privately to shows like Baselworldand become actually interested in IWC and the first watch that really caught me at the end was 2004 generation of the Aquatimer, which was made about the time when I moved to Switzerland. And then a couple of years into my university and professional experience here, there was a phone call whether we wanted to design an IWC museum. I loved that idea and jumped at itand that was it. I walked into the door here and thoughtI like it and that's never changed.
I’ve also read and found quite interesting that you were a former military athlete. How do you manage to stay in shape nowadays, with such a time consuming job?
I think you have to define at some point what do you mean by staying in shape for yourself. Because in the beginning, when you're at university, you have the time to properly train for competitions and so on. And especially when you're in the world of mountain running, trail running, any series of skiing. Whatever it is, it takes a tremendous amount of prep time. And at some point in your professional life you have to realize that can't be objective anymore. I mean, I admire all of the CEOs that do on eIronman after another. Literally, I'm not that angry at myself that I would get up at three o'clock every morning and do triathlon training. I think once you're in this mode in your life, it never goes away, but you have to realize at some point that you're going to be mildly ambitious. These days, I do about one bigger thing a year, be that a competition or a ride or something else. But I do this for the fun of it and not for beating the world record. It's changed quite a bit.
I don't know how I do it. Well, actually when you're traveling outside of the current lockdown, it's easy. Cause I only have myself to look after when I'm traveling. I enjoy running, whether it’s in Central park, Hong Kong, Red Rock Canyon or Vegas. There's plenty of stunning runs in South beach, Miami. I often pick my hotels in a way that they're convenient for exercising. Just recently, on the last trip before lockdown, it was my first time to Dallas. And we really needed to look at hotels so that they're close to the most promising running routes. Here at home, I try and fit it in whenever I can.
What are your thoughts on sustainability in the watch industry? Is there anything particularly that you are doing to do more sustainable and responsible to the environment?
I think it starts really with the product itself. When I look today at what we have done as humankind over the last 30, 40 years, we we've gone into quite a questionable cycle of throwaway consumption, times where things are being bought and replaced really frequently. We buy clothes and devices and we replace some of them and throw them away. And I think that mechanical watches have always made quite a powerful statement about sustainability, because you creating something that a is not in fashion, but that is timeless beauty. You build it in a way that it's designed to last forever and you maintain it for sometimes hundreds and hundreds of years. There’s really trust in where they’re made in, in one place in the heart of Europe that is preserving jobs, preserving craftsmanship and skills.
At the same time, you are not shipping products 16 times around the planet before they get to end consumers. When you come to Schaffhausen, we were set up right here where I'm sitting in my office. Florentine Ariosto Jones came from America and he set up IWC here and we're still here today, taking the same power from the river that Jones took directly via boats. We take it from the hydroponic station, but it's still the same thing.
When you come to Chicago, I can show you everybody from the initial watch designer to every step of the process of construction, to every step of manufacturing and even to the people who write the advertising headline, who create the movies and design the boutiques. I don't think that today there's many industries in many businesses, where you can still go to a single place and see the creation of something from start to finish. And when you buy it, you have something which really is absolutely unique to that process.
And then on top of that, I think my approach to sustainability is always that for us, it's a mindset. And that's a constant striving for trying to do things better than we did before. Nobody is perfect, but if we can improve our sourcing like we did with the gold sourcing, where we came out on top of the WWF study a couple of years ago, if we start launching sustainability reports, if we reduce the packaging that we ship around, eliminate plastic and non-recycled materials, eliminate plastic as much as we can from the supply chain in the brand globally, then bit by bit you're creating a product that people can feel genuinely good about.
One of the key things for us is that I don't run a front of house, back of house operations. So we welcome up to 10.000 people a year here in Schaffhausenand we show them everything and they can meet the people behind the process. And there's no double floors or hidden dark room. That's really important, because I think increasingly consumers demand, rightfully, to know where things are coming from, how things are being made and what the impact is.
It's something that is also coming out of the current situation. If we question a little bit the way we consume and the way we focus on things that really mean something to us and that we enjoy every time we use them. We wear them and we look after them and we repair them and fix them and maintain them. I do think that there is something to be learned from a throwaway consumption culture. When you think about the fact that all humans on the planet can probably fit into one cubic kilometer, if we pack them in tightly, it the end we deplete all of the resources on that very quickly. It's something to reconsider. And I think making things that are designed to be beautiful in hundreds of years and designed to last, can only be a good thing in that context.
Have you ever been to Amsterdam and if so, how would you describe the experience?
Yes, I've been to Amsterdam a few times. It looks like it has abeautiful quality of life and the right balance between urban density, sort of design, art, expression and instill kind of energy, which I like. Our e-com shipping center for Europe actually sits right in the heart of Amsterdam and there are some practical challenges when you are in an old, historic building in the heart of the city and you're trying to adapt that to modern automated warehouse standards. It’s a beautiful city to be in.
But I would change your airport, I think the distance between the runway and the terminal at Schipol is just ridiculous. To get from your gate to the exit of Schipol youcan probably easily walk for 40 minutes. The craziest spread out airport terminals anywhere on the planet. Zurich is literally, and I'm not saying that because we use it here, one of the most efficient airports where you can fly direct to almost anywhere, but you can get from the aircraft door to your car in literally seven minutes, if you don't have checked luggage, so it's ultra efficient in and out.
What do you have planned in the future, not after Corona really but in general?
As you know and as you're experiencing yourself, we just had a crash course in all sorts of video, remote technology. And that's really driven a whole range of innovation projects very quickly. So we're excited about all the possibilities that we've discovered through remote events and streaming and being able to extend sort of everything that we do or have done traditionally physically into the digital space, where we're suddenly creating a much broader reach and a much better experience for people who weren't able to travel halfway around the globe to take part in something previously. I think there's a lot of exciting things to come and the habits that have been formed in the last couple of months will surely stay with us and are really accelerating that process towards a more integrated world of physical and digital. And I'm very excited about that, because at the end of the day, that's just going to make our brands a better experience and we will be able to provide a better service.
Jana Letonja & Timotej Letonja