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TimeZone Exclusive Interview with Dr. Frank Müller [12/2/03]
On January 5, 2004
Engaging and bright, and a staunch friend of watch collectors throughout the world, in a few short years Dr. Frank Müller has left his mark on the watch industry. Formerly head of A. Lange & Söhn in Glashütte, Germany, last year he joined the Swatch Group and has recently become CEO of Glashütte Original. In this exclusive TimeZone interview, he tells us about the future of German watchmaking and his perceptions of the strengths of Glashütte Original.
FM: Frank Müller, Glashütte Original
TZ: Peter Chong & Michael Friedberg
TZ: Frank, we understand you have been fascinated by mechanical watches for a long time. Please tell us how your interest started.
FM: Indeed, my interest for mechanical watches dates back to my youth. However, then and for a long time to follow I was so impressed about the mysterious ways of how a mechanical timepiece actually works that I did not dare to approach the subject – except for some alarm clocks ruined under my hands. Only when I lived in Switzerland for some years my anxiousness disappeared. In this country you simply cannot escape from that cultural institution called watch. Since then a small love affair became a deep compassion and finally ended in a wonderful full-time job.
TZ: We’ve heard that you have quite a collection of pocket watches. Could you describe it for us?
FM: Well, I wouldn’t call it big at all – unfortunately! So far, simply a few time pieces belong to my rather modest collection. One for instance is a beautiful Swiss rose gold Savonette of the 19th century and another a silver observation watch of Glashütte origin being manufactured in the mid 30′s.
TZ: You have a Ph.D.; in what field did you specialize in?
FM: Yes, you are right, I am holding a Ph.D. in marketing. The research work focused on external company magazines. My interest was to find out if and how for instance in-flight magazines, newsletters of IT corporations or journals of car manufactures succeed from a company’s and the readers’ viewpoint.
TZ: Aren’t Ph.D.’s unusual in the watchmaking industry?
FM: To be honest, I have no idea. In our industry you will presumably find many more engineers carrying a Ph.D. than marketing specialists. To my personal experience the field of subject is less important anyway. I simply have enjoyed research work as it generally helps to sharpen one’s mind, to structure thoughts better and to improve the mental discipline. However, we need not to forget that in private and business life we are interacting with people, with humans beings. Thus intellectual skills are just one competency one would need to run successfully a challenge like the manufactory Glashütte Original. The mechanical watch is an highly emotional phenomena, and so are the people touching it: the watch makers, the retailers, and of course the lovers of fine timepieces throughout the world.
TZ: When you began your university education, did you know you were going to work in the watchmaking industry?
FM: No, only at the end of my research work I thought it would be nice to link one of my favorite hobbies with my professional life. And I have not regretted that decision at any moment.
TZ: How and when did you join the industry? What did you do?
FM: In 1998 I sent a job application to Mr. Günter Blümlein, who was heading the LMH group, the former mother company of IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Lange. I had written him that I would know the difference between a chronograph and chronometer but not much more, yet, that my interest in watches was so deep that I wanted to join his ranks. As a man of humor, I suppose, he liked the approach.
TZ: Mr. Blümlein was well-known as a great leader. How was he as a teacher and a boss?
FM: Günter Blümlein was a man a great complexity. In a very impressive way he combined as an engineer a deep technical knowledge about the watch mechanics with a rich experience of many professional years within the industry. He had an incredible feeling for the customers’ dreams and above all showed a great deal of personal integrity. To work with him was quite demanding, but always extraordinarily inspiring.
TZ: What important lessons did you learn in the years with him that you could share with us?
FM: Well again, his personality set a very stimulating example to all who have had the privilege to work with him – and although he has unfortunately passed away in 2001 – I think he still does post mortem. Besides, he was a very hard working man thus not relying on his multiple talents alone.
TZ: After some time working at LMH headquarters you then joined Lange Uhren. What were your responsibilities?
FM: As Lange was a fast growing company my duty as managing director was to take care of all sales and financial related issues. The task for a dedicated team and myself was to develop further the international distribution net of watch retailers and to define internally structures and procedures to manage growth sense fully.
TZ: When did you move to the Swatch Group?
FM: That was in 2002.
TZ: What have been your responsibilities at Glashütte Original?
FM: At the beginning of my assignment my first priority has been to get to know the people working in the manufactory Glashütte Original and to make myself acquainted with their striking ways of producing such wonderful timepieces. Hence, I have not carried any particular responsibility else then to observe and to learn. Nevertheless, since joining Glashütte Original the process of decision making has gradually been passed from the hands of Mr. Heinz W. Pfeifer onto me. Having very successfully developed Glashütte Original in the last decade, Mr. Pfeifer wanted to move on to new responsibilities at our mother company the Swatch Group. I am grateful to him that we have found the time of a soft ten months long period of transition of powers.
TZ: Could you elaborate on why you decided to join Glashütte Original?
FM: During a sabbatical year that followed my assignment at Lange, I simply could not resist the trusting offer of Mr. Pfeifer that was kindly accepted by Mr. Hayek Sr.. and Mr. Hayek Jr. of the Swatch Group to become the CEO of Glashütte Original. I am very thankful for their confidence. Glashütte Original is a fascinating brand with a bright future. Directing one of the top jewels of the watch industry is without doubt a great and exciting challenge.
TZ: What are your thoughts on the future of German watchmaking? Is it heading for
FM: The future of watchmaking of fine mechanical timepieces in general and the German one in particular are certainly bound to be prosperous – under the condition that the watch enthusiast finds good reason to remain devoted to the artifacts of our workshops.
And I believe there are indeed many arguments for a long-term optimism regardless of usual, sometimes descending economic cycles. The causes are twofold: First, in a more and more complex world, that is to say in a complicated environment changing rapidly, there is a deep social need for reassurance. Here, fine mechanical watches with their intrinsic traditional values give orientation in being a bridge to the past. Mechanical watches will continue to fascinate us. Second, in recent years many manufactories have undertaken strong investments into r&d, production facilities, and customer service. The credibility of various brands has further increased since. To my humble opinion, the watch lovers will carry on to look for beautiful timepieces – and they will find them.
As far as the city of Glashütte is concerned a miraculous development has taken place during the last decade. Today, brands like Lange, Mühle, Nomos, Union, and Glashütte Original are established and highly esteemed addresses in their respective markets. Their visions are fresh, the infrastructures new and modern, the people on average very young. If we build our ideas – and I am saying this with all modesty required – upon this solid basis I am strongly convinced that Glashütte shall continue to enchant the watch enthusiasts all over the world. And if there is need for proof of the commitment and dedication of the “Glashütter” look at the speed in which they have overcome the disastrous flood of last year. Early September for instance Glashütte Original is inaugurating its completely renovated factory of more than 10.000 square meters. We invite all interested watch fans to visit us in one of the most modern ateliers for inventing, producing, assembling, and finishing fine and complicated timepieces.
TZ: As Glashütte Original is part of the Swatch Group, what is the relationship between the two? Do you see yourself as an extension of the Swiss watchmaking giant or as an independent German manufacture funded by a large corporation?
FM: Glashütte Original today is privileged. As you are indicating, on the one side we enjoy a huge liberty in defining our visions and strategies. On the other side we draw many advantages from the enormous resources of our mother company the Swatch Group. I have just mentioned our new factory which without the tremendous support of the Swatch Group would not have been realized. Yet, in a true partnership it is natural that we wish to contribute our share in working successfully for our shareholders and in offering our particular knowledge and experience as a German watch manufactory.
TZ: Where do you see innovation coming from? From big conglomerates like SMH and Richemont, or small, individual watchmakers like Dufour, Halter, and others?
FM: I hope and believe from both. Competition keeps all of us in motion. As long as the watch industry as a whole continues to introduce exciting complications, beautiful watches, freaky timepieces the customer will be ready to give it his share of attention. And competition will motivate the watch manufacturers to do their utmost to come up with exactly those exciting complications, beautiful watches, freaky timepieces.
If you look at the novelties of the past years, many marvels have came up from the Académie but at the same degree also from the fine brands of what you call with a slight pejorative connotation the “conglomerates”. You see, the source of innovation is the same in both “camps”: the highly creative human inventor.
Independent, group belonging, small, or big – the question is irrelevant as long as the watch enthusiast, the collector is satisfied. But what makes him or her satisfied? Where is the individual line of preferences that all watchmakers need to understand to convince? Is it the dial and case design, is it horological innovation, is it the finishing of the movement, the exclusivity of a brand, the social status attached to it, the factory’s place of origin and its’ tradition, the watch’s price, a tangible or intangible potential “return on investment “of a limited piece? For me, these questions are the important ones.
TZ: What about Glashütte Original – how does innovation fit within this company?
FM: In the perception of our customers and friends we wish to be considered as a very, very important German brand for traditional, yet not old fashioned, highly qualitative and exclusive watches. It is obvious as Glashütte Original offers top end mechanical timepieces that we have to be on the edge of the technical innovation. And pieces like the PanoRetroGraph, the first watch ever incorporating a regular and a down counting chronograph, underline our ambition. All our movements are in-house movements, developed by our own team of in-house engineers. As our movements are exclusive Glashütte Original they are in a way already innovative by nature.
TZ: What do you perceive to be Glashütte Original’s strengths?
FM: Oh, what a tricky question!
Well, our strength is first of all our people: dedicated, talented, and hardworking watchmakers, engineers, goldsmiths, tool makers, managers. It is them who build the success of Glashütte Original every day. What strikes me as a newcomer is their experience. Glashütte Original looks back onto a long history. And it has saved the horological site Glashütte also in very difficult times preserving a knowledge about mechanical watch making that others could build on later. I believe that without this special continuous existence of Glashütte Original the renaissance of the top end watches “Made in Germany” would not have been possible after the Berlin Wall came down.
Then, we are privileged to co-operate with excellent partners: the finest watch retailers and jewelers in the world. With the Swatch Group – we have already spoken about it – our mother company gives us a big support.
Now, for the watches of Glashütte Original, I would answer that our ultimate strength is exclusiveness. What do I mean by that?
First, Glashütte Original is one of the very few remaining – how should I put it? – traditional, complete, or true manufactories as we are mastering the whole process of watch making. Glashütte Original is inventing, prototyping, producing, assembling, and finishing its movements internally. Our watches are original in the pure sense of the word as you will find them nowhere else. Additionally, our particular approach way of watch making takes place under one single roof. All ateliers and workshops are ones of the most integrated in the world.
Second, in terms of the amount of watches manufactured every year we are certainly very exclusive. We offer only a very small number of finely handcrafted timepieces in line with the Glashütte’s long and rich tradition of watch making.
Thirdly, we think that the collection itself is striking. Glashütte Original’s timepieces are bridging the past, the present and add a sensation of future, too.
TZ: What are the areas where you, as the new CEO, would work to improve?
FM: By principle there is no area where things cannot be improved. Yet, I hope to be free of that particular vanity that somebody new has to prove himself by changing everything. To the contrary: The entrepreneur Heinz W. Pfeifer and his teams have accomplished astonishing things in the last decade. Having won many prices such as “Watch of the Year” in various countries, it cannot be that wrong what has been done so far. Thus, our task is to build up further our reputation as one of the finest addresses in the watch universe. Here, the measure will be the satisfaction of the watch community throughout the world. For the time being my motto is: evolution instead of revolution.
TZ: Can you tell us any specific plans?
FM: We wish to invest further into the development of our collection, into the degree of innovation, the quality, into the after-sale-service, into the shared activities with our retailers – all things that are of direct advantage to our final customers. For this we will work internally on our structures and procedures and externally enforce the internationalization of Glashütte Original.
TZ: Where do you see Glashütte Original in five years? Is there a long-term plan for products and sales?
FM: Up and yes.
TZ: Relative to your role, will you exercise full control over all aspects of the company, from design, prototyping, manufacture, marketing, to sales?
FM: Yes and no. My role as Glashütte Original’s CEO is to represent the company as a whole with all its activities to the retailers, the final customers, the media, our shareholder the Swatch Group. However, this does not rule out that within the board of directors there is a system of precise job sharing. Naturally, a CEO will always have a special and close look onto product development and communication.
TZ: Glashütte Original seems to have a wide range of models, from limited edition tourbillons to steel sports watches. How do you view this diversity? Is it a strength?
FM: Definitely yes. Being able to cover this wider range gives us a lot of credibility. As long as we have an umbrella being put up by the values of innovation, quality, exclusiveness, tradition above each single model whether it is the tourbillon Julius Assmann 3, the PanoReserve, the automatic Senator Perpetual Calendar, the manual winding Karree, or the Sport Chronograph I see no obstacle in diversity.
TZ: Some models of Glashütte Original have been praised for their innovation, such as the PanoRetroGraph. Will special models be a mainstay of the product line in the future?
FM: Yes, indeed. And the PanoRetroGraph is a very good example.
TZ: Other models have been criticized as having styling that might be derivative of competing manufacturers –for example, the emphasis on oversized dates and eccentric hour/minute chapters. How would you answer these critics?
FM: I know these remarks and would like to give you a general answer first. Is there something wrong to have an automobile industry today because all cars that came after Carl Benz’ first model of 1886 have been derivates since? Same goes for Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in 1928 and any kind of break-through innovation. Imagine nobody had taken on the revolutionary visions of those two gentlemen for reason of being considered a copyist? The leaping progress is always more thrilling than the creeping one. But which one is better?
The point is, and here I will be more precise in my answer, that one ought to be free to work on an existing idea as long as you intend to improve it or to realize it in a new, captivating way. Let’s take your example of the oversized date. Glashütte Original’s Panoramadate is unlike other solutions as the two discs carrying the date numbers are fixed on one level. Thus the date window does not need a bridge in the middle to conceal two dials of different height. In consequence the Panoramadate improves the indication’s visibility – a customer benefit.
Yet I wish to add one aspect to your date example: Did somebody really give gracious credit to the old Vénus factory who actually thought about and introduced first a big date in a wrist watch long before it came into fashion in the 90′s again when it was improved, patented, and finally re-introduced?
Glashütte Original’s ambition is to launch break-throughs like the PanoRetroGraph, but also to develop concepts further such as the oversize date indication or the regulating system with the Duplex-Swanneck fine adjustment as long as they add to the collectors’ satisfaction.
TZ: All Glashütte Original models have in-house movements, which is a relative rarity within the industry. Do you consider that essential?
FM: Yes, this is very essential. Actually, our product and production policy is founded one three pillars: First, we incorporate only exclusive in-house movements into our watches. Second, workshops and ateliers are fully integrated under one roof. Third, we do not only produce prototypes of screws, wheels, pinions, balances and almost all movement components ourselves but the total number of needed quantities for all our timepieces.
Our goal is to master the whole process of the so called value-chain in making a watch for reason of functionality, quality, and authenticity of our collection. The word Original in our brand is a true and very seriously taken obligation for us. We want to be very credible in the view of the watch enthusiast as he is ready to commit himself to a highly exclusive timepiece.
TZ: Do you have a favorite model? Or one that you consider representative of the entire Glashütte Original line?
FM: Even if I had, would I tell you? They all have their particular merits and charms, haven’t they?
TZ: One last question, if we may, that we always ask. What watch are you wearing today?
FM: Today the Senator perpetual calendar in rose gold. Yet, as I we have more than just one model in our collection I am happy that the week counts seven days and the month at least 28!
TZ: Thank you!
Peter Chong and Michael Friedberg
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