A Lange & Sohne's Wilhelm Schmid Talks Watches, Cars
Recently-appointed CEO Wilhelm Schmid talks brand strategy as he gets behind the wheel of the German watchmaking company A. Lange & Söhne.
From automobiles to timepieces; from being the head of sales and marketing for BMW in South Africa to your appointment as CEO of A. Lange & Söhne… how did this come about?
Some people think that making this transition is difficult, and it was difficult, as they are different industries. However, I had a small advantage because I was always very much into watches. I’ve loved watches all my life! I was passionate enough to go deeper into the brand and the manufactory, which made it a bit easier for me. A year has gone by since I joined A. Lange & Söhne, but it feels like it’s been 10 years. When I think back to my time at BMW, it feels like a decade ago. I had a steep learning curve from both, business and company points of view. I’ve also settled in at Glashütte, working with brand managers around the world and running the manufactory, which was a challenge in the beginning.
Do you see any parallels between the two product categories?
Both are German brands with a global presence. They have a sharp profile—I think that our profile is sharper than that of BMW. This is because BMW offers a range of options, whereas our focus is on solid shareholder structure. There are some similarities, but there are also a few differences. Unlike BMW, A. Lange & Söhne is a small company; BMW is one of the 30 biggest companies in Germany. So you can imagine, simply from a management point of view that it is a different ball game. I like what we have today because it’s almost like a family business and there is the spirit of a family business within A. Lange & Söhne.
You mentioned that although you’ve been with the company for a year, it feels like a decade…
Yes, it feels that way because of the learning curve. Every day is a challenge; I travel and find out that the brand’s challenges in Asia are different from Europe or even the US. At the same time, you learn from the players in the industry—customers, retailers and even journalists. The amount of information that one has to capture, file and absorb—that alone perhaps gives me the feeling that my BMW days are long gone.
What are your plans for A. Lange & Söhne?
The challenge—or what I call our duty— is that the brand’s DNA always remains stable. While we have to answer to our customers, we must never forget where we come from. A. Lange & Söhne is not an experiment. It is a brand that should stay for the next 100 years and that’s how we will treat it. So, for us, the focus is on the long-term development of the brand. We will not opt for quick wins even if that has a consequence. We want to build a brand that will always be A. Lange & Söhne—recognisable from the products, the way we communicate and even our points of sale where you meet us.
A. Lange & Söhne has always practised a more discreet form of communication. Is this likely to change?
Usually, A. Lange & Söhne is not the first watch purchase of anyone. People who buy an A. Lange & Söhne timepiece have made their way into the world of watches. They know about brands and us, as well. I wouldn’t call them experts, but they are knowledgeable. This is, of course, one customer group. Then there is a customer group that wants more than this. We personally welcome such a customer, who, once in his lifetime, wants to see how these watches are made. So for a very select group of people—we can’t do this on a big scale—we offer the opportunity to try their hand at what our people do. Additionally, we do offer the Academy course, which is extended to very few people.
You must be receiving requests for customised timepieces? Given the scale of production, how do you treat such requests?
Presently, we are building 28 different movements. This in itself is complex. If we start to make individual watches, it will be unfair to our other customers because we would have to reduce the number of pieces that we produce. At the moment, we do some very limited pieces, such as presenting a customised Zeitwerk for a charity auction in Singapore. But these are exceptions; not the rule.
Which is your favourite timepiece?
It’s like asking me to pick my favourite child. By picking one, you imply that you don’t like the others as much. However, I must admit that if I had to attend a black-tie event, I would choose the Saxonia Thin because that watch makes you feel perfectly dressed. My day-to-day watch is usually a Datograph Perpetual Calendar. With its big dial and legible numerals, I can read the time easily, making it especially convenient. It’s also a very classical combination of complications. One of the advantages of my job is that I’m spoilt for choice! [laughs]