It is three years since Georges Kern took the reins at Breitling following its acquisition by CVC Capital Partners, a London-based private equity firm, in 2017.
It is fortunate that he has had such a long run-up to the current crisis because the new energy he has bought to the business prepared it well for headwinds now facing the industry.
The product portfolio has been pruned and rationalised; branding has been modernised and unified; a five-year warranty offer has helped the brand amass precious data on its customers and its digital presence and marketing have been transformed.
Mr Kern has also relaunched Breitling’s retail presence with monobrand boutiques, predominately opened in conjunction with retail partners, mushrooming up all over the world.
He will be very glad the costs for most of these boutiques — virtually all of them closed for more than three months — will fall partly on partners rather than directly with Breitling.
Breitling is being built around the cult of Mr Kern. Despite a line-up of brand ambassadors that includes the likes of Brad Pitt and Charlize Theron, Mr Kern is the front man who has been popping up all over the internet since lock down began.
The first virtual Breitling Summit was created to launch a significant spread of new watches, among which the Superocean Heritage ’57 rainbow watch became an instant sell-out.
Breitling has since made a second limited edition run of the rainbow to raise money for front line healthcare workers in several countries.
There was also a good looking set 42mm Chronomat sports chronographs on a tubular retro steel bracelet that will be popular. I’m less sure about the ladies’ Navitimer, but I’m not exactly target market.
Breitling is convinced that Coronavirus will see off ostentatious displays of wealth for the foreseeable future, and expects its more relaxed approach to luxury to play better.
Selling watches from boutiques made to look like Manhattan loft apartment-style is part of the plan to capture this new type of customer, and so is an idea to do away with traditional watch boxes and papers in favor of digital paperwork and watch pouches.
Reaction to the plan was decidedly mixed in the comments section of USA.WatchPro.com, so Mr Kern may have to hedge his bets to make sure he does not alienate core customers.
Morgan Stanley estimates that Breitling sales rose by 22% in 2019 to $440 million.
That is the sort of tail wind brands will need to get to the other side of the current turbulence.