INTERVIEW: Ralph Simons, Frederique Constant

Ralph-Simmons.jpg

The global director of sales talks about cracking the UK market.

Frédérique Constant’s Ralph Simmons talks to Rob Corder about cracking the UK market by pushing its way upmarket.

It should never have worked. Swiss watch brands need more than 200 years’ of history, horological skills passed down from father to son over several generations, and stories of escaping with family jewels during the Russian or French revolution.

The launch of a Swiss watch brand in 1988 looked about as out of place as hosting American baseball at Lords, planting Merlot grapes in Burgundy or Primark on Savile Row. Some things just aren’t done.

Peter Stas, founder and chief executive of Frédérique Constant, thought otherwise. Moreover, he rode roughshod over a tradition that dictated that mechanical Swiss watches should, as a bare minimum, have a five-figure price tag.

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With its first collection launching in 1992, the company broke ranks among Geneva watchmakers with a mission not to restrict the interest in Frédérique Constant watches to a limited and elitist circle of connoisseurs but rather to a broader selection of appreciative enthusiasts who want to enjoy high quality classical watches at sensible prices.

A beautifully designed, stainless steel mechanical watch, for example, can retail for as little as £500, with hand-wound solid gold models available for £3,000.

Against all odds, and with the Swiss watch-making industry aghast, the plan worked. From 1996 to 2008, the company increased sales year-on-year by 25 percent to 30 percent, achieving worldwide sales in 2008 of more than 90,000 units.
The global recession briefly arrested the company’s growth in 2009, but this year Frédérique Constant expects to break through the 100,000 unit sales mark for the first time.

“2010 is looking like finishing around 45 percent up on last year,” reveals Ralph Simons, Frédérique Constant’s global director of sales, in an exclusive interview with Professional Jeweller.

But, while global sales are flying, thanks largely to Frédérique Constant’s mix of luxury, affordability and creative celebrity-led marketing, the UK has underperformed.

Simons believes the brand has been incorrectly positioned in the UK until this year. Previous distributors, he explained, had focused too much on the affordable price of Frédérique Constant watches, which meant they were being sold into lower end retailers alongside low- to mid-end brands. “We needed a higher-end distributor who understands luxury,” he explains.

The company believes it has found the right partner this time in Argento Fine Products, which has added Frédérique Constant into a stable that includes Roger Dubuis, Giuliano Mazzuoli and Ladoire Genève.

“We started with Argento in May. It is a small, passionate, family-owned business with a real focus on luxury,” says Simons. “Their approach to selling the brand has been just right. First, they sell Frédérique Constant as a luxury brand to their retailers, then they shock them with the price.”

It is early days for the new relationship, but the evidence so far is that retailers have been more positive. “It has been very encouraging,” says Simons.

The target in the UK is for Frédérique Constant to be sold by the most prestigious jewellers in every town and city. The brand has 20 stockists today, and hopes to increase this to between 35 and 40 next year and 150 doors in 3 to 5 years’ time.

Conversations took place with major multiples including Aurum Holdings at BaselWorld last year, and buying consortium The Houlden Group has agreed to recommend the brand to its 60 member stores, Simons discloses.

Frédérique Constant is looking to sign up British celebrities to become brand ambassadors next year. Simons would not say which celebrities are in the frame, but he did reveal that he hopes to be working with people from the worlds of television, movies and classical performing art.

The company is also planning significant events in the UK and might even hold its major fundraising party for heart disease charities known as the Passion Awards here. The spectacular party is held every two years and draws together industry leaders with stars of show business for a gala evening that celebrates entrepreneurial spirit. This year’s Passion Awards raised US$50,000 (£31,900) for the American Heart Foundation.

2011 is shaping up to be another record year for Frédérique Constant. The company is launching 35 new products at BaselWorld including an entirely new line of products that have so far been shown only to staff and key partners.
It is noteworthy how far the company has progressed from its roots of creating and selling only men’s watches. The portfolio now includes men’s, ladies’ and junior lines and in 2010 men’s watches accounted for less than 60 percent of unit sales while a ladies’ watch, the Double Heart Beat in chocolate, topped the sales chart across the world.

Cracking the UK market remains a key priority. In May last year, the company’s chief executive Peter Stas admitted to Professional Jeweller that the UK accounted for only 0.5 percent of Frédérique Constant’s global business. The target, he said, is to grow this to more like 3 percent of worldwide share, bringing it more into line with other Western European countries.

Argento Fine Products is at the vanguard of this British growth strategy, and is showing early signs of success in repositioning Frédérique Constant as an accessible luxury brand for upmarket jewellers to consider. And with such an illustrious partner and a morphing offer, the UK is looking like a sweeter prospect for the precocious Swiss watchmaker.

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