Let’s begin 2018 as we mean to go on: For our first interview of the year, we flew out to Bienne, Switzerland to meet up with the President and CEO of Omega, Raynald Aeschlimann. Omega has gone through a degree of strategic transformation since Raynald took the helm at the end of 2016, leading to a period of great success for the brand. We sat down to talk about the brand’s history, future plans and how Raynald found himself in such a crucial role within the watch industry.
So, it’s been a year since you became the CEO of Omega. We were wondering how you’ve found the experience so far?
Well, there are many interesting, new aspects to being CEO, particularly when you’ve previously held the position of Vice President of Sales and Retail, for such a long time. I feel, that the evolution of Omega’s recent successes has a great deal to do with its proximity to its consumers and the careful tidying of our distribution channels. On that front, all the hard work of my colleagues, has really paid off. In many ways, I don’t actually see my job as CEO as being that different from my previous role.
Were there any noticeable changes at all?
Yes, there certainly were, because suddenly I became the individual responsible for saying that this or that, is what we’re going to do. It’s an interesting position to hold, because it’s not about having the pleasure of deciding, but more the pleasure of reviewing all the key information and then deciding. I remember looking forward to having this opportunity, because I felt well prepared for it; having 360 degree control over the brand’s direction of travel.
And what was the first step you took after becoming CEO?
The first step was to travel around the world with all the senior management team, to help develop a strategy, gathering information from different regions, building new ideas.
Did anything surprise you along the way?
Yes, certainly, I had one or two surprises. The first was experiencing the strength of the brand in a far more direct way, both as CEO, but also trying to put myself into the consumer’s shoes. Not all the projects that we started over the past twelve months have worked out exactly as expected, and I don’t want to pretend that I had 20/20 foresight, you never really know what might happen, but I did feel that these were the right moves for Omega, and that things have worked-out well for the brand.
"I spent about three months at the museum, with the master watchmaker, learning about the mechanics of watches. I couldn’t help but fall in love with every watch I was shown [...]"
We’ll be talking a little more about those projects shortly. Firstly, how did you become introduced to the watch world?
Well, I was born in Saint-Imier, and this town is similar in a sense to the old mining villages, where the entire town relies on one company.
Interesting, we are very familiar with Saint-Imier…
So, as you know, the brand at the centre of that town is Longines, where I began working as a trainee. I spent about three months at the museum, with the master watchmaker, learning about the mechanics of watches. I couldn’t help but fall in love with every watch I was shown, because the watchmaker would explain the entire story of each of the components; even though our actual job was just to list each of the watches in an inventory…
You were born into the industry, in a sense…
Absolutely. You live with the watch industry all around you; my parents' house was right beside the Heuer-Leonidas factory. The real Heuer Leonidas [laughs].
So, I remember seeing a lot of people I knew going into the factory every morning. A little while later, I decided to do a PhD in finance, so I had to take a break to work in the real world for a year [laughs]. I felt sure that I should be working in the luxury world, but it would need to be a product that I understood and had some attraction to. Then, with perfect timing, an opportunity came up at Omega, and I decided that this would be the job for me.
How were those early days at the brand?
The first task I was given, was to visit the museum for the first half of the day. I was almost alone in there, which gave me a nice environment to really get to know and understand the history of the brand. The history of the Speedmaster; how it developed and shaped a large part of the modern brand, really stood out for me. I think this is the best possible start you can have at Omega, because the museum, as small as it is, contains a large number of significant watches, that have made the brand what it is today.
Would you say that you decided quite early on that you wanted a career in the watch industry?
No… it wasn’t that much of a conscious decision, as at the time I probably would have preferred to do something else. I think my dream as a kid was to work with the Red Cross as a doctor. Even though my grandfather was a watchmaker, it was never a discussion that I should work in the watch industry. In the end, the opportunity came along at just the right time and happened to be a perfect fit in terms of what I sensed, would be a life-long passion.
"I had the chance to start at the best time, because in a way, it was the worst time for the brand."
You started your career with Omega in 1996, right?
Yes, that’s correct.
Would you say that there have been significant changes to the brand since then?
Yes, definitely. I had the chance to start at the best time, because in a way, it was the worst time for the brand. This was a time when Mr Hayek was starting and saying that he was planning on investing in the brand. For me to have been able to live through that transformation was vital. You know, I started almost the same day that Cindy Crawford visited the factory, and it was from that point that the modern evolution of the brand began. What has become increasingly clear to us, is who our consumer is, which has allowed us in turn, to be more successful in terms of the types of products we’re launching. It’s enabled us to triple the average price point of an Omega watch.
We are investing a lot in marketing, communicating who we are and what we stand for. The evolution has been an interesting challenge, particularly with cleaning-up our distribution, in the way that I mentioned before, where we went from 7,000 retail locations to 3,000 and gained twenty-one times more sales in the process. We’ve now launched e-commerce for the first time in the United States, because we believe this is the big next step in the brand’s evolution.
A large part of the strategy lies with your brand ambassadors, and we wondered if you think that this is still in line with the expectations of your millennial customers?
I understand why you would ask this, and it would be a valid question if we changed every year, but we have some incredible and very current ambassadors who have a long relationship with Omega. We have been working with Cindy Crawford for 25 years now, and it’s had a positive impact. Millennials aren’t stupid. They want to know why things are happening. We align ourselves with people who share and understand the same values as us. For us, it’s less important what their rank is, how many major this or that they’ve won, but what their values are.
A recent branch of the brand strategy seems to be around reissuing iconic watches from the brand’s history, do you remember the first reissue Omega released?
That was the ‘Broad Arrow’ Speedmaster re-edition in 1998.
And now one of the most recent is another Speedmaster for the ‘Speedy Tuesday’ edition…
" I’ve always been a big fan of the #speedytuesday hashtag on instagram, because it’s a celebration of the Speedmaster as a whole. It’s not just a celebration of the Moonwatch. "
How did that collaboration come about?
It began in the very room that we’re sitting in [looks around his office]. I’ve always been a big fan of the #speedytuesday hashtag on instagram, because it’s a celebration of the Speedmaster as a whole. It’s not just a celebration of the Moonwatch. The emergence of this ‘Speedy Tuesday’ hashtag was a great sign of the love that’s out there for the watch.
Instagram has had a huge impact on the world and, within the watch community, there is one watch that is celebrated time and time again, and that’s the Omega Speedmaster. So, I was sitting in this room with Robert-Jan Broer discussing possible ways to do a project together, and we decided to make a reissue Speedmaster.
How did the project go?
It was a great success, but also a great challenge. We’ve been conscious about so many people waiting for their watches, but we really wanted to introduce additional processes to be certain that they were perfect. We were very aware that the watches were going to connoisseurs, so this took a bit of additional time.
The Speedmaster range appears to be going from strength to strength at the moment, with some vintage pieces now reaching nearly $300,000 at auction. How do you feel about this?
Well, of course I’m thrilled that after all we’ve done to promote the evolution of the watch, this should happen, but I don’t personally believe in speculation at auction. Certainly, it’s a good way to make money on watches, and probably equally, a good way to show value to other brands, but I don’t think it’s something we should overly-focus on at Omega. Our priorities are elsewhere.
I believe that the Speedmaster community is one of passionate collectors, rather than speculators, but certainly, it’s a very good sign of strength for the brand that this is now happening.
Something we haven’t yet spoken about is METAS, can you explain to us the significance of a Master Chronometer certificate in today’s digital world?
Certainly, there are two main reasons. First of all, whilst a computer on your wrist, or in your pocket is a practical solution, these items will never be emotional products. It seems like a paradoxical thought, because this unemotional object contains images and messages that are incredible personal. The main point of difference is that you can download all that emotional content, throw away the device and upload it to a new one. A watch is not something you throw away, it resonates with emotional attachment.
I know plenty of people who have thrown a lot of phones away. I have a pile of all my old phones over there [gestures to a cupboard]. They’re empty, so I don’t care about them. For me, the watch is an emotional product; it grows to be very personal and retain memories that cannot be downloaded or transferred. This is why METAS is so important, and it’s all thanks to Mr. Hayek’s vision. I want to live with an experience on my wrist, and for me it’s essential that our product be the very best it can be.
Because METAS, for anyone unfamiliar, is a certificate of accuracy that goes beyond the expectations of COSC...
Yes exactly, we believe that the more we can give the customer, the better. So, accuracy should be very high. The certification is not just about the performance of the movement inside, by the way, but also about the magnetic resistance of the case. Even though it’s an emotional product, you still want it to be precise; it’s another of these paradoxes. What’s amazing about old Omegas is that they were made to such a high-quality, that even today, they run accurately and you care about it. It’s like having an old Hermes bag, because there is something special about it. A plastic bag might do the job, maybe even better, but…
… you want to keep the Hermes bag forever, because maybe on the inside there are the initials of your father or mother or grandfather and that makes it personal and special to you. That’s the reason you’re proud of it.
Being the CEO of a brand that is part of a large group, the Swatch Group, do you ever feel restrictions in what you’re able to do?
I think it’s the opposite, because if we did not have the Swatch Group, we would not be here. Secondly, I think we would be unable to be as technically innovative, without the backing of the group. There would be no Co-Axial adoption, there would be no METAS, there would be no Dark Side of the Moon, I mean, there wouldn’t even be a Speedmaster with its own movement; because we used to use Lemania movements. The Swatch Group is very strategically balanced, so we aren’t all fighting against one another, everyone can exist in their own league.
On a final note, is it true that Buzz Aldrin is working on making a watch for a Mars mission?
[laughs] I will tell you one thing. I love Buzz Aldrin, he’s an incredible person and to have seen him and George Clooney in the film we made together, was one of those career moments, where you just have to say wow. Buzz is a very inspiring person to be around, although sometimes he can be a little in…
…Yes, space. His dream would be to go to Mars tomorrow, or to have someone go to Mars. We have lots of ongoing discussions with him, but what I can say is that he dreams about Mars missions.
But, if any watch were to go to Mars, it should be an Omega.
For more information, please visit the Omega Website by clicking here.