Raynald Aeschlimann: “OMEGA HAS SHAPED MY LIFE FOR THE LAST 20 YEARS”
Gisbert L. Brunner has been writing about watches and watch brands since 1981.
On April 6 2016, the Swatch Group announced that Raynald Aeschlimann would be taking over the helm at Omega as of June 1. The 45-year-old Swiss knows the brand better than almost anyone. 20 years ago, the Economics graduate joined the august brand as a sales and marketing project manager. Omega was experiencing a period upheaval due to some serious managerial mistakes. It only took five years for him to rise to the key position of vice president and international head of sales, retail and marketing. By 2000, Raynald was director for the Spanish market and in by 2004 he was director of Omega USA. In 2010, he became the co-ordinator for Swatch Group activity on the Indian sub-continent.
In addition to his management roles, Raynald Aeschlimann is also a board member at the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry FH. In 2013, his employer also gave him increased group management roles. The responsibility he has taken on is huge. With an annual turnover somewhere between two and three billion Swiss francs, Omega is not only by far the most important member of the Swatch Group but also a vital advertisement for it. On July 5 2016, I had the good fortune to speak to Raynald Aeschlimann.
THE RED BULLETIN: How does it feel to be the CEO of the most important member of the Swatch Group?
Raynald Aeschlimann: What can I say? On the one hand I feel incredibly at ease because it’s Omega. And Omega has had a special place both in the Swatch Group and in the hearts of the Hayek family for a long time now. On the other hand, as the president and CEO, I know how important the Swatch Group is to Omega. If it weren’t for the Swatch Group, the brand wouldn’t be where it is today. And the current products wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the Swatch Group either.
What does that mean?
Take the ceramics we use in the new Seamaster Planet Ocean Deep Black. Or METAS certification. For both, the work they do with ETA or the Asulab (the Swatch Group research and development centre) is indispensable. Everything we created technologically in years gone by and everything we hope to innovate in the future is dependent on that co-operation. In that sense it’s an honour that we at Omega can take advantage of all that expertise. With that in mind, I wouldn’t want to claim that Omega is the most important brand within the Swatch Group.
It had long been known that Stephen Urquhart was going to retire when he turned 70. Does that mean everyone was running around the place excitedly, trying to anticipate who’d be up next for the job?
It was important for me that someone from our tried and tested team be made boss. It could have been someone else. But the passion for the brand had to continue. I’d been in the management team for a long time and now I’m the boss. That makes me happy and I’m also very grateful to Mr Hayek. But nothing has changed as regards the character of the team. We’re only strong at Omega because we’re in it together.
If I’m not mistaken, you had long been touted as the successor to Stephen Urquhart. Is that sort of thing a curse or a blessing?
That’s a good question, and one I don’t really have an answer to. What’s definitely true is that I always treated Mr Urquhart with respect and that Omega has shaped my life for the last 20 years now. When I completed my studies I said that I would only work at Omega for a year on a specific project so that I could go and work on my doctoral thesis. But things worked out differently and the work I’ve done at Omega has taught me an enormous amount about professional life. And I became passionate about Omega, and that isn’t going to change any time soon. Colleagues such as Jean-Claude Monachon and Andreas Hobmeier share the same passion.
Omega has had less happy days, if I may hark back to the early 1990s.
I still remember the in-house discussions with Mr Hayek Sr. when we had all sorts of problems with the products themselves and with marketing that we had to work through. Sometimes things were very agitated. But in the end we always came up with solutions. But looking back I can say that we work hard and we had to do our homework when it came to product development, production, quality, distribution and marketing. We had four extremely tough years before we finally came on the market with coaxial escapement in 1999 and opened our own first Omega boutique.
Omega sits on three supporting pillars in my opinion. One of them is testimonials, and I’m thinking of people like Cindy Crawford or James Bond and even the Olympic Games.
I couldn’t agree more. At Omega we have developed a clear and coherent marketing strategy based on our testimonials and, as you can still see today, we’ve persevered with it through the years. Cindy Crawford is still involved, as are James Bond, NASA and the Olympics. We don’t gain anything from short-term thinking. We know our DNA and we look after it. But nor can we afford to lose sight of the right products. At Omega we have developed and optimised them in keeping with our strategy. 20 years ago we had no good products; we have to be open and honest about that. But now we’re at the forefront.
The second pillar for me is Moonwatch and everything that goes with it.
I completely agree with you again. The Speedmaster is the iconic watch par excellence, and that’s no exaggeration. The history with the Moon landing. Then it saved astronauts’ lives. But we also worked hard on this range too, as the Dark Side Of The Moon or the new Speedmaster with moon-phase display show. Our new technological advances are in these watches. But it still is and will remain a Speedmaster. And I’ll even go so far as to say that in the next few years you can rely on us to come up with more surprises in the same area.
Let’s talk about the third pillar, which I would label coaxial, manufacturing, anti-magnetism and METAS.
I’m in complete agreement with you yet again. There are visions behind everything. Nicolas G. Hayek set the ball rolling in the 1990s when he brought Omega and George Daniels’ coaxial escapement together. He knew the industry and knew what Omega needed. Omega is not a €20,000 or €30,000 brand. We need to sell 700,000 watches every year and that brings along a whole range of other challenges. So what we’re talking about here is industrialisation. The coaxial escapement was the perfect new milestone. The same can be said of anti-magnetic watches and METAS. Both came from visions.
What’s the vision of the new Omega CEO?
Customer focus, achieving results, master certification… and all without huge price increases. When we launched the 15,000G watch we said that this addition shouldn’t cost more than an extra 400 Swiss Francs. The same still applies, although in addition to the 15,000G, we now also offer extensive METAS certification. So Omega offers customers real and, more importantly, affordable added value with visionary products. That makes us popular with young people who have a dream but can’t afford to spend however many thousands of euros on a wristwatch. That’s why testimonials and James Bond in particular are so important.
For me the Speedmaster Professional with the classic hand-wound chronograph is still the archetypal affordable icon. The watch has already been around for a good 50 years and the price has always remained reasonable.
You hit the nail on the head. At Omega, we foster both external and internal values. And we really do pay attention to price. It’s also why an increasing number of brands muscle their way in on our traditional price range when times are tough. But it’s not just about price. It depends what you’re offering the customer for that price. That’s why we’re successful. I come from a background in markets and know what goes on in them. If you spend money on Omega, you get a great brand with a long tradition, plus quality, longevity, manufacturing and certification, to name just a few things. That makes the customer feel good. Today that is what sets arrogant brands apart from Swatch Group brands, where this philosophy is standard.
Is the Speedmaster a product that will never go out of fashion, like the Royal Oak, the Submariner or the Nautilus?
Absolutely. It’s good to talk about the Speedmaster range every now and again because on the one hand it’s one of the products that wrote time-keeping history and it needs to go on. But on the other we need to look to the future. How can we continue to develop the Speedmaster? We’re still working on a solution there because the Speedmaster range won’t forgive any mistakes. But the whole family is going to increase in size and will definitely be even better in future.
The classic Speedmaster Professional with the tried and tested 1863 hand-wound calibre doesn’t yet have METAS certification. Could there be any movement on that front within the foreseeable future?
We’ll wait till next year with that if you don’t mind. I don’t want to say any more about that for now.
OK, I get the message. What I miss, and this also has to do with the future vision of the new Omega CEO, are really beautiful retro models. There’s the Moonwatch, the Seamaster Ploprof… But I’m thinking of a few years back when at least one model from Omega’s rich history came on the market every year.
I can understand that. But let me also refer you to Baselworld 2017.
Let’s stick with looking back, though. And let me take you to the 1940s. Rolex was already the eternal rival. That’s no different now, which is no doubt a huge challenge for the current Omega CEO, who is roughly the same age as Jean-Fred Dufour at Rolex.
It’s an incredible challenge, let me tell you. But what could be a huge advantage for me is that I’ve already worked at Omega for 20 years whereas Mr Dufour is relatively new at Rolex. This knowledge of the brand means I know the rocky road we’ve come down all too well and I have huge respect for what we’ve achieved. With that in mind, I can take Omega into the future in good faith and with great passion. Times have changed and they will continue to change. But the brand DNA remains the same. And I know that DNA better than anyone and would like to build the future of Omega based on that while keeping an eye on our competitor, Rolex.
Rolex and Omega share the tradition and philosophy of giving you a lot of watch for your money. Plus a promise of quality, certification and a guarantee that goes beyond the standard.
I don’t have anything to add to that. Technology in the sense of what I can offer the customer and genuine values are significant factors when it comes to success these days. In that sense, the competition between the two brands is and will continue to be particularly interesting. But let me emphasise that our chief motivation isn’t based in perpetual competition but rather in the fact that we want to continually take the Omega brand forward with our own achievements and values. And on that front there is every possibility that one day we’ll be number one.