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THE BIG INTERVIEW: How Christopher Ward is thriving through the Covid-19 pandemic

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Christopher Ward co-founder Mike France is a born optimist, and sees the current crisis as an opportunity to grow and grab market share by sticking with its 2020 launch schedule and increasing its marketing budget. The company even unveiled its first television advert on the day Boris Johnson said we had reached the peak of the Coronavirus pandemic. Pressing forward while the industry has shrunk back helped sales soar by over 70% in early April, he reveals to Rob Corder in an uplifting tale of our times.

WatchPro: Before we come to talk about 2020, let’s look back at 2019, which was a very important year for Christopher Ward because you secured investment from the UK government’s Business Growth Fund of over £6 million, and also one of your co-founders — one of the original three men in a boat and the man who gave your brand its name — left the business.

Mike France: Yes, Chris jumped ship! 2019 was a good year and an eventful year, as you say, particularly bringing in the new investment. That means, for the first time, that it is not just Peter Ellis and I putting money into the business, which is nice.

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We completed that deal at the end of the summer and finished the year with sales up 19%, which was in line with our plan. We managed to close the year on target despite the financial year ending in March, which caught the start of the current crisis.

It was those early days when we felt the most significant effects of the Coronavirus. People really did not know what the hell was going on and we actually closed the business for two days while we regrouped. We took the decision immediately that we wanted to reopen and continue working, so we quickly organised social distancing within the office and managed to start trading again.
It was clear that the UK government wanted ecommerce businesses to continue trading, and we needed no such encouragement.

We started back with a skeleton staff and we have become very proficient at operating under the social distancing guidance. Over five weeks since we reopened, we have gradually increased the number of staff.

This morning, at what we call our morning prayers meeting, which we do over Zoom, my agenda for the next week is to really get serious because, May 7 onwards fingers-crossed, we are going to be in a gradual loosening of lock down.

The priority will be everybody’s security, but we are probably in better shape than companies that have not been trading because we have worked out the processes that enable us to stay safe and ramp up quickly.

WatchPro: Christopher Ward owns its own assembly in Switzerland. Were you able to keep that operating as well through the lock down?

Mike France: We were one of the very few places in Switzerland that was able to remain open. We had assumed back in December or January, when there were early indications of what was happening from our case manufacturer in China, that we were well covered with components. Therefore we had what we needed to continue assembly while everybody around us was closing.
The team have done a magnificent job. Our atelier in Biel has taken up some of the slack from another one of our facilities in Ticino, which is right in the south of Switzerland on the Italian border.

Some 60,000 workers commute across the border every day to work in the watch industry, and that remained open for a while. There are seven border crossings and they closed all but two. Some of the team had to queue for two hours to get through the border, but they were still doing that before they finally closed the border. At that point we moved all of our inventory to Biel and operated just from there.

So far we have not suffered any shortage of watches apart from a period when Sellita closed. That disrupted the timing of a watch launch — a chronograph based on Sellita’s 330 movement, but they could not get them to us before closing down, so we shuffled that launch to later in the year and pulled forward some other launches including the C90 Sapphire, which is arguably our most important launch of the first half of the year.

Christopher Ward’s C65 GMT Worldtimer has a fixed 24-hour inner ring and a time zone outer bezel that calculates the time in 24 cities around the world. The 41mm steel watch can be bought on a steel bracelet for £1,095 while versions with a leather strap or Cordura fabric and rubber hybrid waterproof strap are $1,140 – $1,250.

WatchPro: You are sounding remarkably positive, given the headwinds we are all facing.

Mike France: That’s right. Another piece of news is that we are, along with the UK Government, the only company to have created a new television advert during the current lock down. It is the first TV advert we have ever had, and it will promote the new C90 Sapphire launch.

WatchPro: How did you manage to produce a brand new advert during lock down?

Mike France: It was shot in London over the Easter weekend. There were just five people in the whole studio, all staying apart from each other and wearing all the protective equipment they needed. They did an astonishing job.

Part of the reason we applied for investment from the Business Growth Fund was to help us grow the business, and that largely comes from better marketing across the world. Since December, we have been working with a new team of media agencies on the planning, buying and creative side.

I appointed a guy called Steve Kershaw to the board as a non-exec back in August. His background was as a managing director of BBH [Bartle Bogle Hegarty], one of the world’s great advertising agencies. He has been instrumental in bringing together this group of agencies who have worked seamlessly together to improve the way Christopher Ward is promoted through a new written and visual language.

In terms of media buying and planning, we understood in late March that this period would sadly be very difficult for print titles, and that lock down was increasing television audiences by 40-50%. That was combined with the lowest costs per TVR that you have ever seen in your lifetime.

Those circumstances created an opportunity that we felt was too good to miss so we decided that, if we could, we would want to launch a new watch on TV at the end of April. As a team, we convinced ourselves that it was possible and this group of talented people were able to create an incredible advert in the most challenging of circumstances. It was quite remarkable.

WatchPro: It is also remarkable from a strategic point of view, given the challenges the watch industry is facing. It is worth stating that Christopher Ward has only ever sold direct to consumer through your own ecommerce website, so you have no retail partners and none of your own stores to close, but business must have been affected so the decision to press forward with your very first television advert is bold. It is also interesting that, as a digital native brand, you have chosen to go with television advertising.

Mike France: We always have digital campaigns supporting any activity we do in print, television or outdoor advertising. Our aim is simply to put our advertising where our customers will see it.
We are very clear about who our customers are. We could categorise them social-demographically, but that is all a bit hit-or-miss. What know they are quite wealthy, and aged 25 to 55. What differentiates them more than anything is that our customers are typically curious men. They are curious about life in general and not the classic brand ponies. They are independent of mind and spirit, and their curiosity leads them to brands like ours. We look to go where these people are likely to be reading, watching and visiting.

WatchPro: Where will the television advertisements be appearing?

Mike France: We have done an exclusive deal with Sky and we have secured prime positions and prime times around exactly the sort of programs that curious men are likely to be watching. It is very well targeted. In normal circumstances, we would not have had this sort of opportunity.

WatchPro: You are painting a picture of business as normal, even in this most extraordinarily difficult month. How difficult are you finding it right now in April in terms of sales and production?

Mike France: I hesitate to say it, but sales have been pretty good. We ended up 19% for the full financial year that ended in March. April will be stronger than that. For the first two weeks of April we were plus 72% and plus 75% year-on-year.

WatchPro: That is incredible to hear. What is your secret?

Mike France: We are purely an online brand and we have had great new launches. Unlike many brands, which have delayed their new launches, we have not changed our plans. The two big launches that we had scheduled for the March into April period — the C65 GMT World Timer and the C60 Elite GMT — have both been phenomenal. We have been fortunate that we were able to produce those watches and market them to our customers. They have gone down incredibly well.

Christopher Ward’s C60 Sapphire is water resistant to 600 metres, while its glossy sapphire dial adds interest and luxury to a watch selling for $920 – $1,020 on a steel bracelet.

WatchPro: Your product line up certainly feels like it is hitting the hottest trends right now.

Mike France: Sports watches are clearly on trend, and I do not see that slowing down any time soon. Also, the retro trends as you see with the C65 case. You will have seen all of the releases that would have been released at Baselworld and it was no shock to see that sports watches and retro are the hottest themes again.

A number of things have come together fortuitously for us at a very difficult time, and I must pay testament to the team. The attitude has been that we do not cut our engines when we are flying into a storm.

The world is littered with examples of people being sensibly aggressive in difficult time, which has always been my philosophy. It is bizarre, but I have always enjoyed recessions, because I have always seen them as opportunities to gain share. Most people tend to step back during recessions. The first budgets that always get cut are marketing and training. I always insist we do not cut
and, in fact, we have increased our marketing budget, which is what allows us to go on TV. And, right at the moment, there is a whole load of training going on for our new systems.

Steve Kershaw worked for BBH, and that agency is famous for zagging when others are zigging. When I look back through my career, that has always been my approach.

As long as you think it through and you are not foolhardy, these are the times when you can be adventurous and be really sensibly aggressive to grab share.

April saw the launch of Christopher Ward’s first dive watch with a second time zone indicator in the shape of the C60 Elite GMT 1000; a watch that is as useful traveling the world as it is exploring the oceans. Two different colour options are available – orange and blue or red and black and can be worn on a lightweight titanium bracelet or hybrid rubber/ Cordura strap. It is on sale now for $1,705 – $1,960.

WatchPro: You told me last year, soon after you secured the £6.25 million investment from the Business Growth Fund that a lot of that money would be put to work marketing Christopher Ward in the United States. Is that still the objective?

Mike France: We are not going on TV in the US just yet, but we are about to ramp up to our biggest exposure digitally in that market. We have a marketing programme all the way through the rest of this year and we are just at the start. We are ramping up.
We speak here in terms of volcanoes. This week is our biggest volcano [product launch] so far, but our biggest volcano is in September, and we are producing something very special then.

WatchPro: It is great to hear so much optimism right now.

Mike France: You have to be optimistic. It is a really important attribute to have at times like this. My job as the leader of a business is to set a tone, and there is enough negativity around so those of that are able to should set a sensibly optimistic tone. We will come through this and in many ways the world and the watch industry can and will be stronger.

Every recession normally ends up with the strongest surviving and getting stronger. That re-emergence of strength for any industry is a good thing. I also think that our society will benefit from this. I am optimistic about that.

Every business is about people, and this is the time to invest in the very best people. Over time, that will be paid back many times over.

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Rob Corder

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