Historical events always come unexpectedly. Like a thief who sneaks up at night when you sleep.

That is why we are never ready for such a sudden meeting. And this time too, we were not. This year, we are all forced to experience history firsthand. Due to the coronavirus, we have hit a wall, and the last certainties in the world have started to disappear one after another. For me (and probably for many people involved in the watchmaking industry), such certainties were some people, for example Walter von Känel, associated with Longines for over 50 years. When, as a journalist, I started writing about watches, he had been the President of Longines for over 10 years, and it seemed to me that he will always keep the post. Therefore, when in June of this year, the Swatch Group has announced changes in senior positions in several brands, it occurred to me that the world as I knew it ceases to exist. An era ends when Walter von Känel leaves. An era of continuity, consistency and common sense. Today, not even the best business school can educate such a sober-minded manager as Walter von Känel. A manager who does not speak lofty words nor use trained gestures. Walter von Känel is natural, and many times I heard how he laid out to us, journalists, in simple terms, why he has taken some decision.

“Colonel” (he was an officer in the Swiss military in the rank of colonel, hence the nickname) listened to the comments and, although he often disagreed with them, always remembered them. I remember a situation when together with a friend – a great, Slovenian journalist and a serious collector of watches, we had an arranged, joint interview with von Känel. Then Longines showed, among other things, a model from the Heritage collection, and before we could ask any questions, “Colonel” asked us what we thought about the new watch. We both replied frankly that we like it, although we would prefer it did not have a date window because then it would have an even more retro look. Very moved, “Colonel” furrowed his bushy brows and began to explain to us why this watch must have a date window. Then, every time, when I or my friend met him on some occasion, he grabbed one of the watches and smiling, half-jokingly, said: ‘this one does not have a date window’.

I have always been fascinated by how “Colonel” remembers so many people and conversations with them. After all, over the year, he met hundreds, maybe even thousands of people. But Walter von Känel is from the old school of managers who learned everything in practice and not on the theoretical study of the techniques of social engineering in one of the business schools. He spent most of his professional life in Longines: he was there before the company became a part of the Swatch Group, so he knows the watchmaking business inside out. And when Longines was absorbed by the Swatch Group, Walter von Känel got something else – freedom of action guaranteed by Nicolas Hayek (the founder of the Swatch Group). Today, many managers in the watchmaking industry lack such autonomy and courage in making decisions. This is best illustrated by the example of corporations such as LVMH and Richemont.

In the latter, recently, the pandemic exposed a human resources crisis prevailing in the group and led to, i.a., the departure of Sophie Guieysse, head of the HR of the corporation. However, as reported by the media, even though Guieysse was dismissed from her position, and Johann Rupert (CEO of the Richemont Group) has voluntarily reduced his salary by half, the situation in the group did not improve. So, speculation about who will have to leave next continue. The pandemic also showed that individual brands need autonomy, not manual control by a central board of directors composed of people who have never sold even a watchband, let alone a watch. Freedom of action of managers consists also of, among other things, respecting retailers, who often spent years building relations with individual brands, long before the emergence of large corporations. And they, experienced retailers, know best what customers want, because the sale of watches is their daily bread. Hence, it is worth treating them as partners and talking to them regularly, instead of merely giving instructions on what to do to cram as many watches as possible in the display window of their shop. The watchmaking industry has always been like a lens through which you can see all the changes: periods of prosperity and various crises that follow. The current crisis will certainly not be the last one, so it is time to build anew healthy relations with managers, retailers, collectors, and professional media. As Walter von Känel did.

No Comments