In conversation with Rolf Studer – Co-CEO Oris on his thoughts about the ongoing situation with the Coronavirus epidemic, Baselworld, Inclusive Luxury, and doing the right thing by “Honouring Our Heroes”.

Tell me what’s going on at Oris right now?

Somebody needs to stay on the ship, so I’m here at the manufacture now. At the moment it’s tough, production is closed and a large part of the company is not working or are working part-time. I’m here every other day as I need to support the people who are here or who need to be here. 

The Oris Factory at Hoelstein.

As the CEO, you’re going to try to predict or plan for the various scenarios that will happen depending when the Coronavirus situation goes away. So tell me what your thoughts are.

It’s an unprecedented situation that we are having now. I guess that only next year we can start to move into a somewhat more normal way of doing things because this whole year will be pretty bad. Even if things restart again to some extent in late summer it will be a difficult situation because everything would have been closed for so long.

What will change though is what the crisis will do to the perception of luxury with consumers. Personally I think that this has been happening over the last two years, a slow and gradual move away from exclusive luxury, which is a luxury that is mostly about brand names and about making other people jealous. 

Instead, luxury will become inclusive, such that we will want to share emotions about objects, that we want to own objects that are well-made and have substance.

Oris Rolf Studer, Co-CEO wears the Oris Big Crown ProPilot Calibre 115.

Well, I think that that’s an interesting idea of luxury being inclusive – obviously that plays well into your market positioning at Oris.

Of course it does, but not only for that reason. I personally believe that now we are in a situation where people are living completely different lives from before. That aspect of speed that was so nicely described in “The Futuristic Manifesto” from 1909, that’s completely gone now. 

In our current situation with everything shut down, there is a chance for people to become more human again, to reflect on their lives, what it is that they really need and what’s truly important. I believe that this is going to have an influence on how people consume luxury and perceive luxury goods and services going forward. I definitely believe that there will be a post Coronavirus perception that will be very different from the one before. 

 

What do you mean by exclusive luxury? 

Exclusive luxury is that kind of luxury that is hedonistic and is mostly about making other people feel jealous or inadequate. The word “exclusive”, at its core, is a very negative word. It comes from the latin “excludere”,meaning to lock somebody out.  

Whereas it was cool ten years ago to get all dressed up, and cheer a few glasses of champagne, now the emotion of the moment, not only since the crisis now but before, is to hang with your friends, have a locally made beer where you know where it comes from, relax, and not be too formal, and just be human.

I think there will be an acceleration of the movement towards inclusive luxury now because of the whole Coronavirus situation.

 

Do you think there will be casualties in the watch industry? Are there brands that are not as well prepared, not as well capitalised as some of the bigger players?

2019 was an interesting year because it was decent but not as good as everybody expected. Many brands and many retailers ended up with more stock than they wanted to, and so when we moved into 2020, which started very well, there were expectations for things to pick up, and then came the Coronavirus outbreak. 

It came at a moment that was not ideal, because not only were a lot of players exposed, it was a completely unprecedented situation in which things have come to a complete standstill. And that in a situation when cashflow is still running. Yes, I do think that there will be casualties, especially among smaller independent brands. 

 

What is the plan for Oris – are you well prepared?

Yes, we are well prepared. We are very stable from a financial point of view. We have solid fundamentals. There is no doubt that we are going to survive this crisis, thanks to people like our Chairman Ulrich (W.Herzog), who has managed this company in a very conservative way over the last 40 years. We are very well prepared for situations like this. 

Following the management buy-out of Oris in 1982, Dr. Rolf Portmann (right), chairman, and Ulrich W. Herzog, CEO, are in charge of the company.

Yes, I have heard that Oris is famous for not having taken on any debt. 

We’re fiercely independent, and that doesn’t just mean only being independent by not being part of a group, it also means that we are financially independent by not depending on a bank loan. We think independently, act independently, and take responsibility for what we do. 

 

This year Baselworld was “postponed”. How will you introduce your watches this year? Of course I do know that plans might change, but what is the plan now

In fact, we have adjusted our plan several times already. Things change on a weekly basis and in launching a new product, you need to have a few things – retailers that will stock it, and consumers that are able to go to retailers to buy it. If a large percentage of our distribution is closed, then it doesn’t really make much sense to release novelties. On the other hand, we have a huge share of voice now, so it’s about finding a bit of a balance. 

We have one piece of big news from a technical perspective this year, and to launch that, you need more than just retailers and consumers, you also need the money to push it. So far this year hasn’t really generated the funds that would be necessary to do that in a healthy way. 

So there are so many factors influencing how you launch a product. You certainly don’t just postpone every launch to next year, I think that’s a lazy approach, but we are introducing select watches over the next few weeks. With our big launch, we have now postponed it to the end of August which was planned originally for Baselworld, and we will wait to see if that is realistic or if we need to push it back a little further. We are dropping select pieces from our range of novelties this year however, and it’s about finding the right balance in the situation we are in now. 

The Golden Goose (Baselworld) is finally dead

There are basically only three brands that will not launch anything this year – Rolex, Tudor and Patek Philippe. 

For these brands, if they lose a year, they won’t care. If a brand really has the means, and the time to do it, I say why not. It’s an elegant, but lazy solution I think. Elegance and laziness as you know often come together.

 

Now that the big brands of Rolex and friends have pulled out, along with the LVMH Group one day later, what is your view on the whole situation? 

Baselworld as we knew it, is history. I regret that Baselworld was not able to find a way into the future with their key exhibitors. I am not sure if there is a future for a show for jewellery and stones alone – for the watches part, Baselworld  would have to reinvent itself with a totally different concept, directed at different stakeholders such as collectors or consumers, but this is going to be difficult without the support of the key brands.

 

I know that Oris has been a faithful attendee of Baselworld and you know that they have been trying to change things recently. Why do you think Baselworld has ended up where it is currently?

Have they changed to the extent that they should have? I don’t think so. Personally I think that there is absolutely a need for a yearly get together for stakeholders in this industry and I do think it should be at Basel. I don’t appreciate it when other fairs happen in other countries, like the one in Dubai this year. Since it is a fair about the Swiss watch industry, it should be in Switzerland. 

But it can’t just be for press and retailers, it must respect how things are today and address all stakeholders involved, collectors, bloggers, enthusiasts, opinion leaders. It’s really not that difficult right? If you have been to a Redbar event, or Shanghai Watch Gang meeting, or any of these gatherings you know exactly what to do. And I find it a pity that Baselworld didn’t develop the energy and the drive to change the few things that are really needed to make a difference. If you’re in the industry, you know what you have to do.

 

I can hear the exasperation in your voice. There are many people in this watch industry that are very smart, that are very global in their outlook and they know exactly what to do, but Baselworld refused to change. Do you have any insight into why the management was slow to respond? 

I think it’s two things, and both are not the fault of the current management. One, I think that they were so occupied in trying to keep the whole thing alive that they didn’t have time and energy to innovate the way they should have. The second is that the players who keep the fair alive, they don’t want to innovate. 

Baselworld had moved themselves into a position where they can’t manage their own brand anymore, but they were just the executioner of the will of the big three or four brands. I said to the previous Managing Director of Baselworld, (Sylvie) Ritter at the time, “What you need to do is to develop your brand again. It’s a strong brand and people around the world know Baselworld. How can you not develop that brand around the world so that it stands for something?”

The management was just happy with the way things were and when they had their backs against the wall having upset Rolex, which has always been the rock in the whole situation, it became very dangerous. 

 

Oris is the one of the last few brands left standing in Hall 1 now. Will you also pull out of Baselworld? Any plans on what you will do? Maybe move to Geneva as well in April next year?

We are analysing the situation now. We don’t yet know the concept of Geneva. For the past few years everybody has been asking for a change from the Baselworld way of doing things, so I don’t think that it makes sense to use the same concept, with the only difference being the location, in Geneva. Also, I am not sure if a trade and press only approach makes sense these days. As soon as we know more we can make a decision.

 

Oris “Honouring our Heroes”.

You have a new campaign called “Honour our Heroes”. Tell me about that. 

In these difficult times, we were thinking about how we can honour people, keep in touch with our community, and how we can do the right thing. We activated the Oris bear, our mascot for this campaign. A teddy bear is always a comforting figure, a symbol or joy and hope and with the Oris Bear, we wanted to tell uplifting stories in these difficult times. 

Now is not the time to sell watches, instead it’s a time to come together, look after your loved ones, look after your community, and that’s what we are trying to do. We asked the community to nominate their local heroes, people who have made a difference, tell us their stories and then we give them a watch. We initially wanted to give out 10 watches, but the reactions we have gotten have so far been amazing. They have been many touching, overwhelming stories of just normal people going out there to make a difference. So we decided instead to give 10 watches per week, over 5 weeks, making 50 watches. 

That’s an interesting campaign.

In these tough times, it is amazing to see people who are going beyond themselves and are heroes in a true sense. It’s contrary to that exclusive champagne exclusive existence I was talking about. Instead, it’s all about being there and doing the right thing. 

By honouring these people, we give them a platform, we give them recognition. You can check out the Instagram feed of Oris Bear – @orisbear to find all of the stories of the heroes we have honoured. 

 

What watches can they receive?

They get a chance to select from a range of Oris watches. Anything from the Aquis, Big Crown pointer Date or Atelier collections – whatever they want

The Oris Aquis Date, one of the watches that can be chosen as part of the “Honouring our Heroes” campaign.

It’s nice to see the Oris bear come out again. 

You have to be very careful with the Oris Bear and not to overdo it because the bear stands for the emotional side of our brand. In the end, we are still a serious mechanical Swiss watch company, so we want to have the bear as a twinkle in the eye. We are not a teddy bear company, we are a watch company.

 

Any final words?

There will be a time when we look back to this difficult situation and we’ll judge ourselves by what we are doing now. It’s much more important to do the right thing all the time, and not just when things are normal and steady. Now that we can make a difference, and if we do things the right way, not only will it help us get out of this situation quickly, but also that we will remember and know that we did the right thing during this time. That’s our moral and business guidance here at Oris.