2020 was going to be a great year for Bremont. It hoped to complete construction of a new headquarters and move all of its watchmaking divisions under a single roof, and it was likely to unveil its first in house movement. But the business, like all of us, is now facing the fight of its life to emerge relatively undamaged by the Coronavirus pandemic that has forced virtually all of its retail partners to close. How does co-founder Giles English see the path ahead? Rob Corder caught up with him over Zoom to find out.
Times like these shine a light on the fundamental values of every individual and organisation, and Bremont has shown its generosity in two ways during the Coronavirus outbreak. First, the company offered to switch production at its UK watchmaking facility to the manufacture, assembly and testing of precision parts for ventilators at a time when the country’s health service was crying out for more equipment.
Co-founder Nick English said in the last week of March — just as the UK was entering its hard lock down period — that the company had already put a bid in to government to offer its services, if and when required. “At this moment in time, we see there is an opportunity to use our capabilities to help with manufacturing parts for much-needed ventilators,” Mr English told his local newspaper.
In time, it became clear that the health service would not run out of capacity for ventilators and the offer was not taken up, so Bremont switched to another means of support by raising money Food4Heroes, an organisation that provides 20,000 meals per week to front line health workers.
Bremont made a limited run of bracelets, which sold for £35 each on its website, with all profits donated to the Food4Heroes charity.
“It’s really heart-warming to see people come together in times like these and initiatives like this are exactly what it’s all about, helping each other. If we at Bremont can help in keeping Food4Heroes going and simultaneously build some more momentum around it then it’s a privilege to do so. We are proud to be supporting this wonderful charity,” Bremont co-founder Giles English says.
Charity and altruism are easier at times of plenty, but these are not those times. Emotions change from week to week and the challenges of running companies on dramatically reduced costs as sales collapse keep coming.
For Bremont, its survival is not in doubt, according to co-founder Giles English, but it fears for retail partners that have been forced to close stores for months. “We are having to make drastic cuts to cope with everything, but we are lucky to be in a strong position financially and have had good backing from our bank and our investors,” he says in a WatchPro Originals interview.
“What is key to every business is just to survive and get through it. If you come out the other side, you will be fine. The concern would be for businesses that were weak going into this. They are going to find it hard. I am sure we are going to see a lot of casualties from both retailers and brands,” he predicts.
Remarkably, Bremont’s watchmaking facility remains open and is still making watches despite wholesale operations hitting a wall as retailers closed their doors. A job retention scheme by the UK government — where employees that have no work are “furloughed” and paid 80% of their salaries up to a maximum of £2500 per month — has helped to cut payroll costs without losing valuable team members.
“We have furloughed a load of people but we are still manufacturing. Our core business of wholesale has completely stopped around the world, including the cruise industry. We are starting to do a little bit of business in Asia and our store is still open in Hong Kong. But it is very slow at the moment,” Mr English admits.
It would be churlish to suggest that the timing of the pandemic was worse for Bremont than any other business. As Mr English says, himself, the virus is one of the first health emergencies to hit everybody: rich or poor in every country. But 2020 was going to be a spectacular year for the company with a brand new headquarters that would pull together all of its UK manufacturing and assembly operations under one roof, and the launch of Bremont’s first in house movement. Neither are likely to be ready this year. Construction stopped entirely on the new headquarters in April and may not restart even after lock down as Bremont concentrates its resources into generating immediate sales.
The UK market had also thrown off the uncertainty around leaving the European Union after Boris Johnson’s landslide general election victory in December, so confidence was rising at the beginning of the year. “This was looking like a really positive year. January and February were really strong months. We felt like we had got over the whole Brexit uncertainty. We are not really reliant on Chinese customers, so suspension of their travel at the start of the year did not affect us. We were really positive,” recalls Mr English.
The business even managed to launch a number of new watches before lock down, because it was not going to appear at Baselworld. First came the Bremont Rose, made to mark the brand’s sponsorship of England’s home of rugby, Twickenham. Then came a watches to mark the completion of “Project Possible”, a challenge to climb the world’s 14 highest mountains by Bremont brand ambassador Mirmal ‘Nims’ Purja MBE, in the form of a limited edition GMT diver’s watch. Two Alt1 pilot chronographs were added to the core collection: the Alt1- C Griffon and the Alt1-C Jet.
In late April — with lock down in Europe and America deep into its second month — the company launched a new Martin Baker collection, the MBII, which can be configured online.
Bremont knows that for the business to return to any sort of normality, its retail partners have to get through this crisis as well. It is going to go on for a very long time and we are doing our best to help support our retailers because we are all in this together. There are lots of discussions going on regarding cash collection, and we know that is really hard for everyone,” Mr English describes.
The MBII launch is designed, in part, to support retailers because the online configuration tool can be embedded in a partner’s website. Watches sold through these partner sites will be made and shipped by Bremont, so retailers get a cut of the deal without tying up cash buying inventory.
The initiative has additional appeal during lock down because customers can enjoy designing their own MBII watch from the comfort of their living rooms, and have it shipped to them directly.
There is a feeling this year that the world’s biggest watchmakers have been sluggish, unresponsive and out-flanked by more nimble challenger brands like Bremont, which have been doing everything possible to stay active and engaged. “We are also not a big beast, which makes us more nimble. We aim to use that to our advantage. We have to keep energy and momentum going. We have stripped back what we are launching this year, but we are still launching because I feel the industry needs to keep the excitement going. If you stop all that, it is detrimental to everybody,” Mr English believes. “If you are a brand where you have built everything around launching every collection at once during Baselworld or Geneva, you are losing flexibility, which makes things more difficult.”
Another advantage, or sorts, over its larger rivals is that Bremont is not particularly strong with Chinese customers, which are unlikely to travel for at least the rest of this year to buy watches in places like London, Zurich, Los Angeles, Hong Kong or Paris. Around 40-50% of all luxury watches are sold to Chinese citizens, but at least three quarters of those are bought outside China.
Bremont’s focus has been on more domestic customers, and many of its most successful retail partners are outside the major shopping hot spots. “We have always been quite well spread as a business. We started our own online store quite early, we have the military business [watches sold with insignia to specific military units], and we have partners all around the world. The Chinese issue is very interesting. Obviously they will not travel as much for a long time, but the domestic market within China will grow considerably,” Mr English suggests.
“That will challenge retailers that are heavily dependent on visiting Chinese customers. The tourism and business travel market in general will take a long time to recover, so retailers in the global cities like London, New York and Dubai will find it tough,” he adds.
Julien Tornare, chief executive of Zenith, a direct rival to Bremont, agrees. “Chinese customers account for 50% of Zenith sales. We have to adapt because travel retail will be dead for the rest of the year,” he told WatchPro.
Bremont may not be a brand that is strong with Chinese customers yet, but the hiatus in travel retail could create an opportunity to capture them at home. “We are not a Chinese brand, but when we look at our future investments and where we are planning to open boutiques, China has to be quite high on our priority list because the country accounts for around 40% of global luxury spending,” says Mr English.
Bremont has introduced an online service that lets customers design their own version of its Martin Baker (MB) watches. The system, which is live now on Bremont.com and can be embedded within the website of Bremont’s authorised dealers, has pre-loaded dials, cases, casebacks, barrels and straps choices to choose from for the latest collection, which has been relaunched this year as the MBII.
Customers can change the barrel colour to blue, orange, yellow, green, anthracite, purple, bronze, jet or titanium. The personalised movement can be admired through a special open case back version which is a first in the MB collection.
There will be over 100 different possible designs in terms of case and dial, and over 1000 factoring in the different straps. Once configured and ordered online, delivery of a custom MB will be 12-14 weeks, Bremont says.