Georges Kern is perhaps the most interesting man in watchmaking. That’s a bold claim, I know, but his world view and his strategic business mind make him a fountain of knowledge from which to learn the nuts and bolts of running one of the watch world’s biggest names.
In 2017, he raised plenty of eyebrows within the industry when he turned his back on a lucrative position as head of watchmaking for the Richemont group, just four months into the role, to become CEO – and a 5% shareholder – of a faltering Breitling. At the time, the independent brand was running short on steam among the cut and thrust of the luxury watch market, but Kern had a clear vision and over the last six years has systematically rebuilt the company from the ground up.
Success and a vast spike in revenue has followed. In the Top 20 Swiss Watch Company Ranking for 2022, a scoreboard for the best-selling watch brands in terms of revenue and units published by Morgan Stanley, it was revealed that Breitling is now the ninth ranked brand – rising an impressive ten places since 2017 when Kern took over.
But this is just the beginning: “I really think that Breitling has a phenomenal potential to be easily in the top five brands in the world, or even better,” Kern tells me as we sit in the comfortable surroundings of the Breitling townhouse on Regent Street.
I sat down with the CEO at an exciting juncture in his tenure. The recent relaunch of the Avenger collection signals the end of the modernisation and repositioning of Breitling’s catalogue. The boutiques have been remodelled, the ambassadors refreshed, and the internal structure have all changed. It begs the question: what now?
Kern gives us a small preview to the future in the interview below. He looks ahead to Breitling’s 140th anniversary in 2024, talks about his sense of style, and his inspirations.
I really think Breitling has a phenomenal potential to easily be in the top five brands in the world
Square Mile: What upcoming project are you most excited about?
Georges Kern: Well, next year is our 140th anniversary of Breitling, which is an important moment for us. Our plan is to release a few more higher priced watches to commemorate the occasion and there are some other great surprises in the pipeline. There are many elements to the Breitling story that we’ve not yet been able to tell. I think the anniversary next year is a great opportunity to reveal all of that.
There are two parts, I would say, in building a brand: the first part, which we did over the last five years, is repositioning the brand and redefining the strategy – and it happens to have been extremely successful. So you don’t change the strategy when it works. No, you’ve hit the nail on the head and you will continue to persistently do more of the same in the coming years. That doesn’t mean that we are becoming boring. We will animate our brand with limited editions, with new movements, with new complications and new partnerships. But we’ll do that in the frame that we’ve been defining over the last five years.
In marketing terms, we had to work on relevance, becoming more relevant as a brand through our product design and our values.
Now, we have to work on what we call esteem, meaning giving reassurance to the customer, to the clients, about our rich history, our technical capacities, the roots of the Breitling family and brand. This is what we need to communicate more.
It would have been a mistake to start with this five or six years ago, because that was not the point. The point was that we had lost our relevance in the watch market and we needed to become more relevant. But where we find ourselves today is very different and the time is right to solidify the brand. So we are still in search of excellence, still animating a lot and still giving nutrition to the brand, but in a frame which is defined.
Franz J Venzin
SM: What is your proudest professional achievement to date?
GK: It’s the achievement of tomorrow. I mean, we’re very happy. Everything’s going fine, but you always want to do more and better and improve and it’s great to win. It’s better to win and win again. I will be proud about what we’re going to achieve tomorrow.
Not everybody chases multiple successes. I’ve heard interviews from sports people after competitions where they’ve finished third and they’ll say, “But I won last time.” And I think it’s a totally wrong attitude. The right attitude should be “I’m a Champions League winner, and I want to win again. Why not?”
SM: What has been the most surreal moment in your career?
GK: So if the question is what was the most surreal moment of my life, it’s probably when I decided to leave my previous job to go into a much smaller brand and become a shareholder. That was, for me personally, a surreal moment. And I would say for a large portion of the public also, they couldn’t understand why I would do this.
My friends and people who knew me totally understood, but many outside of my close circle thought I was crazy.
Then, over the last 20 or 30 years in the industry, I’ve experienced everything. I’ve met fantastic people, artists, creative people and managers, but also experienced terrible moments like overnight having to shut down the manufacturing centre because of Covid, et cetera. So you go through incredible ups and downs, stimulating moments and shocking moments, but this is part of the business.
SM: What do you hope to achieve that you haven’t yet?
GK: I don’t want to be too obvious, but I really think that Breitling has a phenomenal potential to be easily in the top five brands in the world, or even better. I’ve never managed a brand in my life with such strong intrinsic assets as Breitling in terms of history, in terms of back catalogue, in terms of products, in terms of wide appeal. And therefore, we always say at the end of our presentations, “This is just the beginning” because there’s actually so much more to come. We are just at the beginning of our development stage. We want to get the maximum out of Breitling’s enormous potential.
SM: Outside of your family, who is your biggest inspiration?
GK: I’ve never been that inspired by sports people or musicians. I would have loved to meet with Leonardo da Vinci or with Napoleon, but a living person? I admire many people, for sure, but the only person I really would like to meet is Warren Buffet. I think he’s extraordinary and I think he’s amazing in terms of being humble, funny, successful, straightforward, simple ideas. His main tenet: “I only invest in things I understand.” He’s an incredible personality.
SM: Tell me something that perhaps the wider watch world doesn’t know about you?
GK: I’m probably one of the most open CEOs in the watch industry. And I’ve shared many things about my personal life. I’ve shared my hobbies in sports or my hobbies in filmmaking and my love for dogs. There’s nothing extraordinary left that I haven’t shared in terms of my life already. The rest is too private.
SM: Talk to me about your favourite item of clothing and what it means to you.
GK: I like well-dressed people and dressing well, but there’s not really one piece that’s special to me. I saw the David Beckham documentary on Netflix. And when he’s going through his wardrobe and he’s opening one of the drawers, he said, “Oh, somebody went into this.” I probably have 1% of his wardrobe, but otherwise I’m also very structured in the way I do things. My wife was laughing when we saw that. She said, “That’s you!”
I have a leather bomber jacket that I like to wear when we are talking about pilots’ watches. But no, I love all fashion. I like super sporty – I wear a lot of Deus Ex Machina apparel in the summer, which is a partner of Breitling. But I also like more formal clothing such as tuxedos and suits. It’s like with our watches, we are a generalist brand offering a wide variety from sporty to elegant – and that’s what I also like in terms of clothes. I’m not one of these directors who only wears black shirts and black trousers.
SM: Do you have a favourite watch, and why is it so special to you?
GK: I have many watches from my previous brands and all the watches where I was strongly involved with the designers and the development are special to me in a way. Obviously, today I only wear Breitling.
I think in the future, if I perhaps take a step back from the watch industry, I will start wearing all of these watches again. Funnily enough, the only brand I own, which is not from a brand I was working for, is Girard-Perregaux but from the Luigi ‘Gino’ Macaluso era. There’s a historic 1930s model, a GP 7000 series and a Richeville.
Gino Macaluso was an architect and you felt it in the way he built products. He had an architectural approach to the products, and I think they were aesthetically appealing. So I bought them probably almost 20 years ago. It doesn’t exist anymore but the Richeville was a beautiful tonneau chronograph in rose gold and then the historic piece is a curved rectangular watch, which I think is called the 1930s. It’s the only brand I have that’s not from the portfolio of brands I managed in the past.
I'd really like to meet Warren Buffet. He’s extraordinary – humble, funny, straightforward
SM: Is there an item that you have thrown away or you’ve lost that you really miss?
GK: No, I don’t have an emotional attachment to objects. I had some of the most beautiful sports cars and I sold them all. Now I’m driving electric and I don’t miss any of them. When you’re young, you want to have a sports car. You live in the moment but then with age, your priorities change.
It was funny, I bought my first sports car when I got my first child, my boy, he’s now 27, but he was just a baby, a couple of weeks old and my neighbour came over and said, “It’s crazy. Your family is getting bigger and bigger and your cars are getting smaller and smaller.” Back then I was panicking at the thought of not being able to drive a sports car anymore. But I don’t miss all of that nowadays.
SM: As someone who isn’t attached to objects, what’s next on your shopping list?
GK: I think if I were to invest in anything, it would be art. I like to go to museums and that’s really stoked my interest lately. Hence, I would buy modern art and see where it takes me.
SM: And finally, what would you buy if money was no object?
GK: Probably a phenomenal castle somewhere in France and renovate it. Not to live like a king or a prince, but to live in beautiful architecture and in a beautiful garden. These castles always have such beautiful gardens. Maybe something to think about for the future.
For more information, see breitling.com