Michel Herbelin, the eponymous founder of France’s largest independent watch company, made his first timepieces in the aftermath of World War II and survived the 1970s by pivoting into quartz watch production. Now the founder’s son Pierre-Michel and grandson Maxime are steering the business and aim to reignite sales outside its most successful markets of France and Canada with better support for its partners as Rob Corder discovered on a visit the Michel Herbelin headquarters in the French/Swiss border village of Charquemont.
Michel Herbelin did not exhibit at Baselworld this year. Instead, the company invited its retail partners to visit its home in Charquemont, a village in the east of France just 7 miles from the Swiss border and a scenic 90 minute drive from Basel.
The change of tactic not only saved the company huge amounts of time and money, it also played to its strengths as a family-owned and run business communicating, in general, with other family-owned and run businesses on the retail side.
WatchPro visited Michel Herbelin in Charquemont two months after Baselworld, and met with two generations of the Herbelin family: current chief executive Pierre-Michel, the son of Michel [senior] who first started making watches in the shadow of World War II in 1947, and Maxime, his grandson, who now handles all marketing for the brand and is likely one day to take over from his father as part of a next generation management team.
“I am always happy to say that my grandfather started this business right here 72 years ago. I am happy to be working with my father, knowing that one day he will be able to retire. We are involved in shaping the future and we will continue the same way,” Maxime Herbelin says.
The story of Michel Herbelin is deeply personal to the family. Michel learned watchmaking at a very early age and, when France was liberated by the allies in 1944, began the process of turning a pastime into a business. “In 1947 almost every house in Charquemont was also a small watch company led by somebody in the family. There were 30-40 very small watch factories and it was the centre of the watch industry for the whole of France. We were using the same suppliers as the Swiss, and the Swiss were using some parts from us here in France,” Pierre-Michel describes.
“My mother was a teacher so she provided the money for the household and my father spent it making watches. He used to say that he would only go to sell watches only once he had run out of space for them in the kitchen draw because otherwise we would have run out of money,” he adds.
As Europe recovered, Mr Michel Herbelin became more professional, and his business grew to employ 15-20 people. He also worked with a network of other component-makers in the village to make finished timepieces. Most of the production was private label for other brands, but Mr Herbelin became increasingly driven to make watches under his own name.
“He wanted the name to become the brand like he saw with the famous fashion houses like Yves Saint Laurent. So through the early 1960s his team was still making private label watches but at the same time he was building up his own branded mechanical watch business,” recalls the founder’s son Pierre-Michel.
By the end of the 1960s the family no longer relied on the teacher’s salary of Mrs Herbelin, as the business ramped up production of mechanical timepieces. But the quartz crisis of the 1970s was about to change all that. “When quartz watches arrived from Japan, made by Citizen and Seiko, my father was disappointed that they had managed to make more precise watches at cheaper prices. It was a massive shock that destroyed the French industry,” Pierre-Michel says.
The crisis is often written about in relation to the famous Swiss brands it hurt, but the experience of the Herbelins brings a very personal edge to the story. “I remember seeing my father sitting on the stairs in our house and crying because everything was disappearing,” Pierre-Michel describes.
Michel Herbelin, the company, was closely aligned with the Swiss watch industry, and made the difficult decision to pivot towards making quartz watches using Swiss movements. “We started with quartz and that saved us. That was a brave decision and a smart decision at that time,” says Pierre-Michel.
In the decade following that decision, Michel Herbelin became what today we would describe as a fashion watch business, making attractive quartz watches for men and women, and making early inroads into exporting abroad.
The creation of the nautically-inspired Newport range in 1988 gave the company fresh momentum and has become by far its most important product.
“We did not know it would be such a huge success, but it has grown to represent something like 45% of our turnover,” Maxime Herbelin reveals. “That was a brand new start for the company because it made people consider us as genuine watchmakers. The company became associated with the Newport and we put a lot of marketing behind it to accelerate it,” he adds.
The success of Newport also funded a return to mechanical watchmaking, which has prepared the company for the current surge in popularity for the traditional timepieces.
Its home country of France is by far the biggest market for Michel Herbelin, accounting for around half of global sales, but it is also selling well in Germany, South Korea, Belgium and Canada, WatchPro learns.
The United States has been poorly served, the company admits, particularly with a failed attempt to develop an ecommerce site for this market.
“When you have a company the size of Michel Herbelin, we depend heavily on the quality of the people we work. A good partner makes all the difference. The reason we are doing better in South Korea than in, for example, Spain, is that we have a great partner in South Korea,” he adds.
Michel Herbelin knows that it is far from a household name in most countries, which is why it wants to develop personal relationships with distributors and retailers in markets like the USA where it does little business.
“We believe in wholesale and we believe in having people on the ground persuading retailers to look at the quality and the style we bring with our watches. We truly believe that retailers also have to sell. We do not make Rolexes that sell themselves. We need retailers that can give customers advice and build relationships,” Maxime advises. “We need our retail partners to know that we are not just going to sell them our watches and hope for the best, we are going to help them increase sales with our marketing efforts.”
Online is another crucial battleground, and Pierre-Michel admits the company has not done a perfect job up until now. It launched an ecommerce site for the United States, but it faced so many technical issues the decision was taken to close it. There is still a site for the UK selling Michel Herbelin’s own watches, but it too has problems and will be replaced this year with an improved ecommerce platform.
No brand will survive without a successful digital strategy across the web, social media and internal systems that constantly learn from incoming customer data, and Michel Herbelin must get this right.
But the business will also continue to use its family-owned independent status to work at a more personal level with its partners and customers.
The transition from the current stewardship by Pierre-Michel to the management team of which Maxime is a part, will see a continuation of that philosophy. “The new generation of management is a mixture of family and people outside the family. That is a good balance because it brings fresh blood and new ideas,” concludes Pierre-Michel.