With a desire to be “more entrepreneurial, to invest”, Georges Kern joined Breitling as CEO and shareholder in September 2017.
Breitling’s origins are in Saint-Imier, Switzerland, where it was founded by Léon Breitling, before being acquired by watchmaker and pilot Ernest Schneider in 1979. The ensuing decades saw the brand stay in the Schneider family and produce the masculine pilot chronograph watches now synonymous with the brand. In 2017, it was bought by UK private equity group CVC Capital Partners, and Kern was appointed to the helm.
The 53-year-old has 25 years of watch industry experience, most recently at Richemont and IWC, where he was the firm’s youngest-ever appointed CEO. Now his reign as CEO at Breitling is heralding a new direction for the brand, marked first by a simplification of its product structure.
“The product portfolio was much too complicated,” Kern said at a press conference in New York in February. “Too many product lines missing clear design codes and differentiation and too many variations of the same watch model in terms of dials, bracelets, colours – it was confusing. You’re knocked out by the visual complexity. Too much choice is no choice.”
Kern has brought Breitling down from the skies to reorganise its watch collections according to three pillars – air, sea and land. Alongside the pilot’s range with the legendary Navitimer, are the Superocean diving watches, the Chronomat line with its universal appeal, the instruments for professionals, like for example the Exospace B55 and the new elegant Premier line, dedicated to the Land segment, combining purpose and style.
Kern describes the new direction as a means of broadening Breitling’s customer base to include its recent fans as well as those who admire its vintage timepieces. “The interesting thing here at Breitling is that we have two totally different communities,” he explains.
“We have, on one side, the community who likes the bigger, bulkier pilot’s watches of the past 40 years, which made Breitling very successful. As well as a second community, who love the Breitling of the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. At that time, Breitling made some of the most beautiful products – and more classic, more conservative watches.
“What we need to do is bring those two communities together,” he adds, “If you compare it to the car industry, for example, why would Mercedes only do limousines, if they can also attract customers with SUVs and convertibles?”
Kern is also differentiating the brand from other luxury watchmakers.
“We want to be the informal challenger, the cool alternative to the conservative brands,” he says. “It’s about a more informal way of doing luxury, a luxury that is inclusive not exclusive, and in a really positive way.”
Ambassadors and partners
If you look at the brand’s latest promotional concept, its boutiques, its point-of-sale material and its ambassadors – which includes champion surfer Kelly Slater, award-winning actors Charlize Theron and Brad Pitt, and environmentalist and adventurer David de Rothschild – the image is clearly one of a brand that is cool, sporty and relaxed, but elegant, Kern explains.
To push this idea further, Kern has created squads for the new 360° campaign #squadonamission with teams of outstanding personalities , who are recognised among the best in their respective fields. “This is how we differentiate ourselves,” says Kern. Other watch companies aren’t aligning themselves with sports like surfing and the triathlon, or with explorers like Bertrand Piccard and David de Rothschild.
These connections run deeper that simply good-looking faces in ad campaigns. It’s an opportunity for Breitling to make an environmental statement. For example, Breitling has partnered with Slater’s eco-conscious clothing label, Outerknown. It fits perfectly with the brand’s direction as well as the responsibility we have as humans, explains Kern. There is a clear link between a “cool, youthful” image and sustainability”.
“Society is changing and millennials have a totally different attitude towards the environment than my generation. Working with people like Kelly Slater on ECONYL, which is a strap made of recycled nylon coming from fishing nets, makes a statement.
“We cannot change the world… but Breitling can have influence with our activities, our celebrities and our campaigns: We can send a message and raise awareness about issues like ocean conservation, which is the main issue I want to focus on.
“Anybody, be it a company or a private person, should do the maximum they can do in their sphere of influence. “Responsibility is part of what is considered as cool today.” he continues. “What I want with these activities is to make people aware of how important sustainability is to our planet.”
While Kern has certainly not revealed any plans for Breitling’s timepieces to go digital, he recognises that “the normal way to do business today is online”. The company is much more active in digital marketing now says the CEO, and Breitling’s ecommerce capabilities will launch in China and the US this month, and in Europe in January.
“We want to be truly omnichannel,” he explains. “We need to give the opportunity for the customer to buy the product when and how they want. If they want to buy a Breitling at 2am, they can go to our website and do so.”
The aim is for seamless online and instore experiences. The Breitling boutiques themselves are representative of the brand’s cool, informal luxe style. Think industrial loft design with pool tables and surfboards. “Our boutiques are marketing tools too, at the end of the day.”
Eyes wide open
When it comes to the mind behind the grand plans, Kern describes himself as an observer. “I always tell my team, ‘Walk with open eyes through life’. See what is happening in the car industry, in architecture, in fashion… Just open your eyes and you will have inspiration and you will understand what is going on in the world.
“Know what movies are being watched, what music is listened to, what is going on with innovative companies… get interested in humankind and what is going on in the planet. Do all this, and you should get enough inspiration to do the right thing.”
The executive impressively turned around his previous company, IWC, reportedly growing its sales figures from US$140 million to US$800 million during his 15-year tenure. So the expectations are high for Breitling’s new era with Kern at the helm.
Though Kern recognises his past successes, they don’t define him. “There are many moments in professional life that you’re proud of. But the problem is you have to start every morning again. So at the end of the day, if you fail nobody cares about your successes of the past. “I’m not a past-driven person, I just look forward.”