Gisbert L. Brunner was born in 1947 and has worked with every sort of precision timepiece, though mainly wristwatches, since the 1960s. He has now published more than 15 books on the subject. He is also in demand the world over as a public speaker.
The history of the America’s Cup, the world’s best-known and oldest sailing regatta, stretches back to 1851, when the schooner America and its crew consisting of members of the New York Yacht Club (NYYC) were victorious at the £100 Cup. At the finish line, the British monarch, Queen Victoria, asked who was second. She was told, “Your Majesty! There is no second!” The rule still applies in the America’s Cup to this day. The winner takes it all. There is no second. There are only challengers. And one team with their eye on the 35th America’s Cup in Bermuda in June 2017 is Sweden’s Artemis Racing, skippered by Iain Percy.
Artemis Racing is a professional sailing team representing the Royal Swedish Yacht Club (Kungliga Svenska Segel Sällskapet, or KSSS). The team was founded in 2006 by Torbjörn Törnqvist and named after the Greek goddess Artemis. It has been victorious at the MedCup, the TP52 World Championships and the RC44 World Championships. Artemis Racing also competed at the 34th America’s Cup as the Challenger of Record.
The team’s partner, Ulysse Nardin, known on the high seas for their fine precision marine chronometer and observation watch timepieces, launched a limited edition of their lead Marine Diver watch in Gothenburg during the race weekend of August 28-30 2015.
The 250 samples of the limited edition Marine Diver Artemis Racing have a 44-mm stainless steel case and, it goes without saying, a unidirectional rotating bezel. It is water-resistant at up to 30 bar. The UN 26 automatic calibre, with Eta movement, has a power reserve indicator at the figure 12 and a date window. An Artemis race catamaran is engraved on the underside. It retails for €8,500.
IN GOTHENBURG I HAD THE GOOD FORTUNE TO SPEAK TO PATRIK P. HOFFMANN, THE CEO OF ULYSSE NARDIN:
Patrik, you’ve been with Ulysse Nardin for so long now. You built up the American market and then took on the role of CEO. Can you tell us how it was when you got the news, which was a total surprise to all of us, of principal shareholder Rolf Schnyder’s death?
PATRIK HOFFMANN: It wasn’t at all surprising to me. I was in close contact with Rolf so knew his death was coming. Which is why, as of 2008, I did about 50 % of my work in the US and the rest in our Swiss headquarters. Rolf’s illness was very short, but at some point we could see the end was near. Now you might ask if what came next was a great challenge. I don’t want to sound arrogant but the handover actually went smoothly.
Did Rolf help with that himself?
Rolf really did herald the change in good time. He put his people in positions where he wanted them to be. His living will even foresaw who would take over leadership positions at the manufacture after his death. In that sense, he deserves the greatest credit himself. But quite apart from that, the whole team was as one when it came to his brand and product philosophy. Everybody in a top management position had worked with Rolf for at least 15 years.
When you put it that way, we do now fully see how the transition was so smooth.
It meant we could keep the whole culture going. The big decision had already been made in 2003/2004. That saw the development of our own manufacture. I spoke to Rolf on the telephone four days before he died. That’s when he gave clearance for our 118 calibre. He said that he had to go to hospital and that I should do whatever was necessary from now on. We could proceed on those principles when he came back.
But sadly Rolf didn’t come back.
Indeed. But thankfully everything was in place. The roadmap was already there. We were in a position to work on as he would have wanted.
Then there was the interim period when Rolf’s wife, Chai, presided over the board. How did you feel about that?
Things proceeded smoothly because Chai wasn’t actively involved in the day-to-day running of the business as president of the board. Lucky we had plenty of freedom to shape the future of Ulysse Nardin.
You are now owned by Kering, a large French luxury goods corporation. In retrospect, you can probably give a very clear assessment of the difference between an owner-managed company and a corporation.
I’m probably the best person to make that assessment, yes. It’s a serious change for me with regard to the day-to-day running of the business. But all I can say is that I’m very happy. We can make quick decisions. And if I have to make a more important decision in conjunction with Kering, it’s actually just as quick as it was before. Support for our production strategy is particularly important to me. I’m especially pleased about how that’s working out.
That period before Kering took over in the second half of 2014 must have been full of hopes and fears.
You’re telling me. You know the interested parties. The potential options ranged from all change to business as usual.
How did you react when you heard Kering’s proposal?
We were all pleased and it was really great for me personally.
That must mean you report directly to Albert Bensoussan, the CEO of Kering’s Luxury Watch and Jewellery Division.
Exactly. All decisions go via him. We have an excellent relationship.
Do you now develop Ulysse Nardin’s strategy for the future together? Or do you develop it with your team and he gives it the nod?
Basically, we’re independent. But we developed a Roadmap 2020 and naturally that was coordinated with Albert Bensoussan.
Ulysse Nardin has been all about innovation ever since Rolf Schnyder took over, hasn’t it? I remember the Trilogy, designed with Ludwig Oechslin, the GMT +/- and the Freak, the first watch to use silicon.
You’re absolutely right about that. If we look back, the last 30 years have been far more crucial for Ulysse Nardin than the 140 years that came before that. The last 30 years have been and continue to be absolutely definitive for our company. But I have to add that Ludwig Oechslin couldn’t have done it on his own. He had ideas and concepts but they only came to fruition with Rolf Schnyder, his entrepreneurial acumen and Ulysse Nardin’s competent staff. Incidentally, Ludwig didn’t have anything to do with the revolutionary Ulysse escapement and certain other developments. Basically, Ludwig contributes on some things now and on others not at all. But we still have a very good relationship.
In 2001, Ulysse Nardin went and made it acceptable to use silicon in mechanical movements. As someone who’s been there right from the beginning, how do you view the material and it being tested in movements? Were there problems with the early Freak watches?
We were able to solve all the problems that we had at the very start relatively quickly. The Freak is no longer exotic now. It’s a firm feature of our collection. The watches work without a hitch. Ludwig once called the Freak a laboratory on the wrist. And that’s exactly what it is. So we’re counting on silicon and we also have the perfect partner in Sigatec from Sion. Of course there’s the odd doubting voice here and there. But silicon has definitely proved itself.
What happens next?
I don’t think silicon is the be all and end all. Other things are bound to come along too. But for now we’re developing almost all our innovations based on silicon.
That means that sooner or later all your calibres will have silicon features. A silicon escapement. A silicon hairspring.
You said it.
Like Patek Philippe, Rolex and the Swatch Group, Ulysse Nardin also has the right to use a silicon hairspring. But that means you have to oxidise the surface due to temperature stabilisation.
We do that. Oxidisation is actually part of the mystery surrounding the silicon hairspring. But it’s essential and it’s high-tech.
Does Sigatec have the relevant expertise or do you work with the university in Neuchâtel?
No, we can do that by ourselves and are independent in that area.
Four years ago, Ulysse Nardin bought Ebel’s chronograph calibre 137. What’s happening in that area?
At the moment we’re using our calibre 150 with silicon components. But we still had to make certain adjustments. Now our perpetual calendar is coming into play too. But I can’t say anything more for now on further developments based on the calibre 150. But I can promise that things are going to happen there. We’ll go public at Baselworld 2016. The future is the calibre 153.
Let’s stick with your calibres for a moment. For the Freaks and co. you’ve long since manufactured the calibre yourselves. But what about in the middle and lower price range? What level of autonomy are you going for at Ulysse Nardin?
Our target is 90 %. We’ll stick with a couple of external calibres, such as those from Claret. The rest we’ll manufacture ourselves. And relatively quickly at that.
Are you already in a position to do that?
We are, so that’s not a problem.
As Kering members, you have to share calibres as part of improving synergies. Might you do that with Girard-Perregaux? They don’t have any integrated automatic chronographs of their own, after all.
The most important thing for us is that we hang on to our DNA. The movement is of extraordinary significance in that sense. There are certain things we can never give away, such as the perpetual calendar or the smart dual-time construction. Opportunities for working together behind the scenes are quite another story. When it boils down to it, we obviously have to make the most of sensible synergies. We’d be stupid not to. That would cancel out the whole point of the group effect.
But there are areas where it’s fairly easy to bring synergies to fruition. I’m thinking of distribution and service.
That’s already happening. In the US, Girard-Perregaux is now fully integrated into Ulysse Nardin’s extremely well-placed distribution system. It works wonderfully as long as you keep vendors and marketing apart. But logistics and customer service go well together. In Italy we’re with Girard-Perregaux. The same thing is about to happen in Japan. We’re using Sowind, because they are extremely well organised.
What’s happening in Germany and Austria? Ulysse Nardin is in an ideal position there when it comes to sales and service.
But let me say that there is change in the pipeline. As far as I’m concerned, post-sales customer service is the be all and end all. That was top priority when I was responsible for the US. A brand is only as good as its customer service. That’s no different in Germany.
While we’re on markets… How are things in Russia? Ulysse Nardin has had a very strong presence there for a long time now. Are you suffering with the current situation?
Russia is still big for us. Of course we face certain challenges. But you have to see Russia’s problems as closely bound up with the price of oil.
Is Russia still your number two market after the US?
It is, but we don’t see Russia in isolation. I still think in terms of the former Soviet states, so Ukraine, Kazakhstan and the other countries too.
How are things looking in China?
Fortunately, China has never been of such importance where we’re concerned. That works in our favour at the moment. For us what Chinese tourists get up to in Switzerland, France, Italy and, to some extent, Germany is much more important. We may still be a small player but the developments are extremely encouraging.
Are you suffering from the nigh on 50 % drop in sales in Hong Kong?
We are. There’s no denying that. But almost all our rivals are suffering too. Anyone who says they’re not suffering isn’t telling the truth.
Do sales in Europe, say, make up for that?
Partly, but not in full. The mistake we made at Ulysse Nardin, in addition to a lack of commercialisation, was that we focused very heavily – too heavily, I would say – on the US and Russia. As you know, Rolf lived in Malaysia. Some people there don’t understand why we didn’t make much more of an effort with the Far East much earlier. But we are well organised there. Time will tell. We’re in the development process and we have good people, at least.
What’s your lead product? The Marine range?
There are two answers to that question. Numerically, yes, Marine is way out in front. But you mustn’t forget that the high-end products have become extremely important for us. Like the Freak or the Sonnerie en passant. But Marine is still an extremely important pillar. And it’s the symbol of Ulysse Nardin. Product care is highly important. Part of that means us reining in our range of products.
Do you have too many similar models in your collection?
Who doesn’t? We certainly do, in any case. That’s why we’ve cut that back enormously in the last four years. And we’ll continue to do that over the next five. That’s an absolute necessity in these globalised times. You can’t publicise hundreds of different models in the various markets.
Let’s get back to the America’s Cup. You are partnering Artemis Racing. That makes sense seeing as Ulysse Nardin has a great maritime tradition, what with your well-known marine chronometer. How did the decision to work together come about? It’s actually the first time Ulysse Nardin has ever done anything like this.
Once we’d signed the deal with Kering, the decision to work together came about via our new owner. As a product-focused company, it was very important for us to lend weight to marketing and design. We’re very good when it comes to design and products and always have been. Now we have to catch up in other areas.
On the subject of design… That was very strongly influenced by Rolf and the brand’s strong presence in, say, Russia. You could even say that design has been a very polarising factor. What’s your strategy in that regard?
To be brief, we have to be a bit more commercial when it comes to design but somehow we need to hang on to that polarising element. We’ve done studies and understood that there are certain parts of our DNA that we can’t give up under any circumstances. An Ulysse Nardin simply has to maintain its distinctive design, in my view.
One last question. What does working with Artemis Racing mean for the company?
The project was extraordinarily important for all 300 Ulysse Nardin staff members. They’d been waiting for something like that to come up for a long time. It was also important to our retail partners. They wanted to see and needed to see that we were getting things moving in that direction.
About Patrik P. Hoffmann
Born November 30 1964 in Reigoldswil, Switzerland
From 1991 to 1996 head of regional sales for Oris and authorised signatory for markets in the US, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Germany, Scandinavia and the Netherlands.
1996 to 1999 CEO at Swiss Prestige, Kuala Lumpur and Swiss Prestige, Singapore
From 1997 also CEO at Oris International Ltd, Hong Kong
1999 to 2008 Vice-President and CEO of Ulysse Nardin Inc. North America and the Caribbean
From 2008 also Vice-President for Worldwide Sales and Marketing
From 2011, CEO of Ulysse Nardin
Ulysse Nardin has the charismatic Rolf Schnyder, who was born on July 31 1935 and died on April 14 2011 in Kuala Lumpur, to thank for its renaissance. If ever there was a man you want to call spontaneous, creative, risk-taking, extraordinary and charismatic in good faith, then that man was Rolf W. Schnyder.
At Baselworld 2011, I had seen the 75-year-old in all his dynamism at the Ulysse Nardin stand. Shortly after the trade show came to an end, we received the stunning news of the unexpected death of this visionary, dyed-in-the-wool entrepreneur.
His peerless career began when he was 22 and worked as a Swiss watch sales specialist in Thailand. In 1968, Rolf opened the first Swiss factory to produce watch components in that country. He later added to that a watch case plant in Manila and a factory which made dials in Malaysia.
Rolf Schnyder was so fascinated by the Far Eastern way of life that he set up home in Kuala Lumpur, married his wife, Chai, from Sarawak, and had three children with her. When I visited Rolf in his wonderful home high above the city in 1994, he spoke to me openly and honestly. “We’ve achieved more than I could have hoped for in my wildest dreams and I am a thoroughly happy man.”
In 1982, he invested about 1.5 million Swiss francs in Ulysse Nardin, founded in 1846 but then languishing due to the quartz revolution. Dieter Meier, a member of the Swiss pop group Yello, came in with a minority stake, as did his brother, Balthasar Meier, the owner of the well-known stockings company Fogal, and Ulysse Nardin once again became an attractive brand.
The liaison with watchmaker and scientist Ludwig Oechslin brought the breakthrough in 1985 in the form of the highly complex Astrolabium Galileo Galilei astronomical wristwatch which adorned the cover of the Guinness Book of Records in 1988.
For a passionate lateral thinker like Rolf, mechanical watchmaking should never get bogged down in tradition. He constantly focused his efforts on what the technology of the present day could offer too. To that end, Rolf Schnyder and Ulysse Nardin became pioneers for the use of silicon in mechanical timepieces in 2001. In that same year, Rolf was awarded the Prix Gaïa for Entrepreneurship in recognition of his great services to the art of watchmaking