Christopher Ward currently produces around 20,000 timepieces per year at the manufacture it owns in Switzerland. It has taken 14 years to grow the business to this point, but its co-founder Mike France thinks it is about to accelerate with sales doubling or even quadrupling in the coming years thanks to an increased focus on North American sales.
Like many self-made businessmen, Mike France is a master of understatement about his career achievements and measured in his forecasts about where Christopher Ward, the watch business he co-founded 2004, will go in the coming years.
The watch business is a second career for Mr France, whose first success was as head of pre-school toy company Early Learning Centre (ELC), which he turned around from a company losing $15 million per year into a profitable global enterprise that was sold in 2004 for almost $100 million.
Fourteen years on from the sale of ELC and the creation of Christopher Ward, Mr France is still motivated by the challenge of building a business that is not just profitable, but enjoyable. “The initial motivation to create a watch company was purely boredom. There are only so many beaches you can lie on. After we sold ELC, a month passed and I was already getting itchy feet. The intention from the start was to do something that was interesting to us, that was fun, and that we could make a profit with. That remains the case today. We are in the business of fun, profit and doing things we love,” he insists.
The story goes that the watch company was conceived during a boat trip in 2004 when Mr France and his friend and fellow ELC director Peter Ellis were chatting to the boat’s owner and skipper Christopher Ward. All three were watch lovers, but believed that the growth of the Internet and fledgling emergence of ecommerce, provided an opportunity to do things differently. What if, they mused, they produced watches of the same quality as the biggest Swiss watchmakers, but instead of selling them through wholesalers and into retail, they cut out all the middlemen and went directly to customers via the Internet?
The costs of traditional distribution and mass marketing multiplies the price that a customer pays for a watch many times over. Christopher Ward would be different, Mr France insisted; never selling for more than three times what it cost to produce.
The business started in re-purposed chicken shed in Berkshire with £50,000 ($75,000) of seed capital from Mr France and Mr Ellis. In its first year of trading, Christopher Ward sold 500 watches from its own website at an average price of $300.
Within 12 years, according to a first person account by Mr France for the Real Business news service in 2016, the company had a team of 40 people and turnover of around $10 million.
As well as its headquarters and design office in the UK, Christopher Ward also owns its own watchmaking facility in Biel, Switzerland, having merged with its movement maker Synergies Horlogères in 2014.
Things have moved on significantly since 2016, particularly on the product development side. “I would say with reasonable certainty that we are the UK’s largest manufacturer of mechanical watches by some distance. And we feel we are only at the foothills. I have a pretty clear view about how big Christopher Ward can be, and what we have been doing in the past 3-4 years is completely re-engineer the entire collection. I am very proud of what the team has done in that regard,” Mr France describes.
“We had a huge change of gear in May 2016 when we re-branded, and that has been extremely successful. We now have a singular Christopher Ward look across all parts of our collections, and people are increasingly noticing that. It has attracted a record number of new people to the brand. 60% of all watches we sell are to new people. The re-branding was mainly, or in part, to attract new people to Christopher Ward and has turned out to be a major step in that direction,” he adds.
The more coherent design across the Christopher Ward family was orchestrated by Adrian Buchmann, a Swiss-born designer who had worked as a freelance watch designer for a number of brands. Mr Buchmann worked closely with the manufacturing team headed by Jorg Badrer and Johannes Jahnke in Biel to tighten up the range and give it a signature style across the entire range. “In the past two years, every watch we have introduced has been phenomenal. Huge credit has to go to the designers and our watchmaking team in Biel because they have done an exceptional job at creating some astonishing watches,” Mr France says.
Christopher Ward expects to make and sell around 20,000 watches this year, according to Mr France, making it comfortably Britain’s biggest watchmaking business. However, the work since 2016 on the design, manufacturing, marketing and developing the team has put the business on a footing to grow far faster. “We have grown every year since our inception. This year I would anticipate something like 20% growth to around 20,000 watches per annum and we will likely have our most profitable year this year as well. We are very happy about that growth, but we are still relatively small against some of the monoliths out there. The template for the future is better than it has ever been from a business and product point of view and we feel ready to really put the foot on the accelerator for growth,” Mr France suggests.
With the business on such a sound footing, it could be time to bring in outside funding for the first time in Christopher Ward’s history. “Until now, the business has been entirely funded by myself, Peter [Ellis] and Jorg [Bader]. That may change at some point in the future. We may look to bring in outside finance because we have a model that we know works. We have a collection that I think can stand up against anybody in our price bracket, and we have a proposition that is pretty unique in the world of watchmaking. To take that to the world you need money. And while we have been able to get this far with our own money, Croesus I am not,” says Mr France.
The business already has customers in 109 countries and sells from eight geographically targeted websites, but the vast majority of sales still come from the UK and North America. The company has a US dollar website that generates around 26% of global sales, a Canadian dollar website that accounts for 6% and the UK site that generates 48% of sales. The remaining 20% of sales are spread thinly across the rest of the world.
Christopher Ward’s smaller markets are growing at the fastest rate, but from a lower base. North America is the big opportunity, because it is already selling around 5000 watches there. “The US is a key target market for us, and we feel we are hardly touching the surface,” Mr France says.
Increasing the company’s marketing activities is the next step to take the brand global. “We are constantly looking to enhance our new product development line, but the models need money to Spread the Ward across the world. I have been around long enough so that I can smell momentum. The numbers are there, but there is something else going on. I really feel that now with Christopher Ward; we are at a tipping point. There is a sense of expectancy and excitement across the company,” Mr France urges.
Expansion should be cheaper less complex for Christopher Ward than for traditional watch companies with multi-layered distribution. The business only has physical infrastructure in the UK and Switzerland, and can ship watches to customers around the world from Europe. “Products can be moved quickly and easily around the world now. If we were having this conversation 15 years ago, I would probably have said that I needed a US-based warehouse. But that is not required because we can ship to the US within 24 hours. I only see that improving and getting easier for us and for our customers. That fundamentally alters the way we can grow into markets without huge capital expenditure. The beauty of our model is that it is low in capital intensity. That is another reason why at this point I am not prepared to consider physical stores, which would dramatically increase costs,” Mr France states.
Remarkably, the original vision conceived by Mike France, Peter Ellis and Christopher Ward on a boat on the River Thames in 2004 has survived largely unchanged to the present day. The company was certainly ahead of its time in its belief that customers would pay more than $1000 for watches over the Internet without ever needing to touch them. The trick to growing this global customer base without ever selling Christopher Ward watches from shops has been a laser-like focus on making the online experience as reliable, enjoyable and simple as possible.
“We take the view that we constantly strive to be excellent at what we do. We seem to have lots of touch points with our customers. I would argue we are closer to them than many brands with physical space because excellent customer service online is far superior to the usual customer service given in a shop. We have a really powerful, industry-leading guarantee. You can more or less try before you buy with us. That has been the case since we set up. You can buy one of our watches and send it back within 60 days with no quibbles. We guarantee the movement for 5 years. That makes it easy for people to buy online for us,” Mr France claims. “I am a big advocate for focus rather than dissipating effort, so we have to be great at what we do.”
Christopher Warm might not have changed its business model, but its competitors certainly have. A decade ago there were almost no watches being sold over the Internet, now the big Swiss groups are getting their digital acts together, plus there is a proliferation of new brands that spring up on Kickstarter one day and start selling online to the world the next. Mr France concedes that things are different, but thinks that too many brands have little new to say, and the people starting these watch companies are in it for a fast buck. “There are more brands operating in the $500 to $2000 price arena, but we are yet to come across any that have our model when you truly compare like for like in terms of the quality of the materials, the quality of the design, the quality of all the components we use, the fact that we are Swiss made. It is very rare that we find anybody that offers anything close to what we do,” he suggests.
Christopher Ward does get good press from watch journalists for all of the strengths that Mr France lists, but the world is full of potential customers that know little about the complexities of producing in house movements, and care even less. So called Instabrands, run by young entrepreneurs bristling with knowledge about social media and influencer marketing, are mushrooming. And their customers want instant gratification more than lectures about the intricacies of Swiss watchmaking. “You are right that many people might not be able to tell the difference in quality,” Mr France agrees. “But we are not trying to sell to everybody. We do a lot of work researching and talking to our customer base and we have a very good handle on what a typical Christopher Ward customer looks like. They tend to be slightly more curious individuals and they are definitely part of this growing constituency of people who want to know what they are buying, they really enjoy the search and finding brands that offer something different and genuine craftsmanship, and they are not easily swayed by a lot of the nonsense and hyperbole that goes along with luxury brands. That might not be everybody, it might not even be the biggest part of the market, but it is a vain of individuals that are more discerning,” he concludes.