A Conversation with Shinji Hattori, President & CEO of Seiko

A conversation in March 2014 by Jessica

During Baselworld 2014, TimeZone met with Shinji Hattori, President & CEO of Seiko Watch Corporation (Seiko). Mr. Hattori is the great-grandson of Kintaro Hattori, who founded Seiko in 1881. From an early age, Mr. Hattori’s commitment focused exclusively on Seiko. This is different from the typical Fortune 500 CEO whose average tenure at a company is a few years. Mr. Hattori’s steady and continuous commitment to Seiko is certainly reflected in its success. Today, one-third of the world’s watches use Seiko components and demand for high-grade Seiko watches continues to increase worldwide with sales seeing double-digit growth.

Mr. Hattori shares his personal values and insight into how Japan’s oldest watch and clock manufacturer continues to stay one step ahead of the competition. He discusses his involvement in developing the Astron GPS, the significance of the Grand Seiko Historical Collection, the first US Seiko Boutique that opens in August, as well as the the company’s long-term plans to expand its US service center.

Shinji Hattori, Seiko Baselworld 2014, CEO Seiko, Hattori Seiko, President CEO Seiko Watch Corporation
Shinji Hattori, President & CEO of Seiko

TimeZone (TZ): Were you involved in the development and design of the Astron GPS?

Shinji Hattori (SH): Yes. Astron is a project that is very close to my heart and I was involved in every aspect of its development.

TZ: How did you conceive of the Astron GPS?

SH: We’re now experiencing rapid globalisation and I felt we needed to develop watches that were also borderless. I had been thinking for a while that a watch that adjusted to the exact time anywhere on Earth could be very convenient and popular. In 2005, we began a brainstorming project to envision our future watches. Everyone agreed our biggest dream was making a watch with a GPS function. The GPS watch provides exact local time anywhere, even in the middle of the Pacific Ocean or on top of Mt. Everest.

TZ: From 2005 until 2012, that’s seven years from the time the Astron GPS was conceived until it came to market. That seems like a long-term commitment to the project?

SH: Our engineers are given a lot of freedom to pursue whatever they think is innovative, and they’re given the time and resources to do it.

TZ: It seems like Seiko’s commitment paid off.

SH: The first technical revolution was the first quartz watch [the original Seiko Astron of 1969]. We introduced the new Astron in 2012 as the second technical revolution. The new Astron will be as important as the first quartz watch in terms of its impact on the watch industry. Many tens of thousands of customers are now wearing the new Astron. We expect that with the addition of the new Caliber 8X82, the growth will extend into 2014.

As for the long-term, please think of this. Astron is not just a watch. It is a platform on which the future of Seiko’s watch business will be built. That means that the Astron may be the de facto standard in the watch industry.

TZ: Can you describe the typical Astron customer?

SH: Private customers for Astron are young people, successful people, the international business community and the world business traveller. These people want watches that are distinctive, and they want a watch that shows the world that they have a strong sense of style. So we were careful to make Astron’s design different and to reflect in the design the functions of the watch.

TZ: This year, the Astron GPS Chronograph has a smaller case dimension and is thinner.

SH: Yes, the new Astron is 30% smaller than the existing one. It’s also lighter and the operation is easier and more intuitive.

TZ: The original Astron GPS seems more sporty. It seems with the new Astron GPS Chronograph, the design has taken a turn towards elegance?

SH: Yes, we are adding 11 new models this year for a total of over 20 models with two calibers. We’re making more design variations for wider appeal. For example, we’ll have a luxury version.

For example, and this is just an idea, but if a very wealthy person like a King or Sheikh commissions 100 million Japanese Yen [~$1 million], we could organise a unique jewellery version.

TZ: A high jewellery Astron GPS?

SH: That’s just an example of an idea we’re considering. [Earlier,] I explained about one new model with a resort concept. We have existing models that are appropriate for the office. Now we have a new version that anyone can wear, including ladies, to the resort.

Astron GPS Solar Chronograph Resort, Seiko Astron GPS luxury
Astron GPS Chronograph is 30% smaller, thinner & lighter with more styles, including a “resort” concept

TZ: I really liked last year’s Kintaro Hattori Astron. In a very subtle way, the design details communicate so much about the Seiko brand as a whole. In particular, the case back is engraved, “One Step Ahead of the Rest”. Can you explain the meaning of this ideal?

SH: Kintaro always said, ‘With no hurry or rest, always stay one step ahead of the rest. Not two or three steps. Taking too many steps ahead would distance you from the public. One step ahead is important.’

TZ: So, today, how does Seiko stay one step ahead of the competition?

SH: Seiko is famous for its cutting edge technology. Seiko has always sought advanced technologies. In our 100-year history of wristwatches, we have made so many of the world’s firsts. At the same time, we also have a long history of fine craftsmanship in making mechanical watches. So I think our strength is that we have both. Astron is the symbol of hi-tech. Grand Seiko is the symbol of Seiko’s craftsmanship.

Until five or six years ago, Grand Seiko was kept within Japan and it was popular within Asia. Then, ever since we announced Grand Seiko as an international brand, it’s been growing in popularity in Europe and, of course, it’s growing in popularity in the USA. I’m sure in the future, Grand Seiko will be recognised as an international luxury brand.

TZ: Last year, we saw the Grand Seiko 44GS Tribute as the first introduction in the Historical Collection. This year, we see the Grand Seiko Self-Dater Tribute as the second addition to the Historical Collection. Is the Historical Collection a permanent collection and are there plans to reissue other historical Grand Seiko models?

SH: Yes. The answer is yes. We will always bring to market models that show the new international audience that Grand Seiko is a brand with a long history and rich heritage.

Grand Seiko combines innovation with a sense of our history. That is why the new caliber hi-beat GMT [Caliber 9S86] and our most advanced caliber, the Spring Drive, are reserved exclusively for Grand Seiko.

Today, you see a wider Grand Seiko collection than you have ever seen before. But Grand Seiko is not a nostalgia brand. Grand Seiko will always look to the future more than it looks to the past.

Grand Seiko Hi-Beat GMT, Hi-Beat GMT, Seiko Caliber 9S86
Grand Seiko will always look to the future more than it looks to the past – Shinji Hattori

TZ: Is Seiko planning to open its first US boutique on Madison Avenue?

SH: Yes, the new Seiko Boutique opening party will be held on August 19, 2014. Also, at the opening will be the announcement of a new Astron.

TZ: Will the new US boutique be managed by Seiko?

SH: Yes, it’s managed by Seiko USA.

TZ: Are there future plans to service Grand Seiko in the US?

SH: Yes, in the future we have plans to service Grand Seiko in the USA. For now, most of the Grand Seiko servicing is done in Japan. Some parts, like the bracelet or case parts, can be serviced now in the USA. But with the growth of Grand Seiko, we plan to be able to service Grand Seiko entirely in the United States.

TZ: Is Credor going to be available in the US?

SH: At the present moment, we do not have plans for Credor in the USA. In the future, it may be possible. But for now, we’re sticking with Astron and Grand Seiko as the most important international brands.

TZ: Then, another big announcement this year is that PROSPEX is going international. Seiko’s sports segment seems to be growing, along with the increasing number of athlete sponsorships?

SH: Yes, Seiko served as official timekeeper to the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. The Olympics made Seiko famous in sports. Today, the [selection of] Seiko sports watches is getting bigger and wider.

In Europe, we sponsored FC Barcelona, 49er Yachting and [Russian professional long jumper] Darya Klishina . We also sponsor Hope Solo and Landon Donovan, who help promote our strength in sports, official timing activities and athletics. This year, we announced that we sponsor Novak Djokovik. He will also help promote PROSPEX, our elite collection of professional sports watches that is opening to the international market. You will see a new and very different campaign for PROSPEX with Novak Djokovik.

TZ: How relevant do you consider the Internet to Seiko?

SH: Yes. The Internet is relevant in terms of marketing, sales and then PR in the most major way.

When you think about Grand Seiko, it’s been a secret for 50 years. What changed is the Internet. The Internet, TimeZone and many others, have put the reputation of Grand Seiko out there and we had to internationalise Grand Seiko. And now, the reputation of Grand Seiko is growing primarily because of the Internet. If we look at the coverage in the media of Grand Seiko, it’s disproportionate to its sales or its retail distribution. The power of the Internet is best expressed by Grand Seiko.

It’s strange that a traditional watch would be so susceptible to the most modern of communication media. In large part, in the USA especially, thanks to TimeZone.

TZ: Mr. Hattori, thank you very much for your time and this rare opportunity to speak with you. In following a tradition on TimeZone, may I ask what timepiece are you wearing?

SH: Yes, thank you very much. I’m wearing the Astron GPS Solar Chronograph Limited Edition.

Shinji Hattori, CEO Seiko, Hattori Seiko, President CEO Seiko Watch Corporation, Astron GPS Solar Chronograph SSE001 Limited Edition
Shinji Hattori wearing the new Astron GPS Solar Chronograph LE

Shinji Hattori, CEO Seiko, Hattori Seiko, President CEO Seiko Watch Corporation, Astron GPS Solar Chronograph SSE001 Limited Edition
Astron GPS Solar Chronograph LE, SSE001

See also Seiko Forum Basel 2014: A Look at the Seiko Novelties
See also Seiko Forum A Conversation with Shinji Hattori, President & CEO of Seiko

Photos: Paul Boutros
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