When you first took over the company five years ago, what was the vision?
I [was] very lucky, because the company has a vision which has been defined by [founder] Ferdinand Adolph Lange. The vision is to [make] the best watches. We have a very clear strategy and we have very good plans, but we are also flexible in accepting that the environment might have changed.
Was there a traditional approach in dealing with a 200-year-old brand?
I do respect the tradition, but I'm not a very traditional man. I think that "tradition" is a heavily-abused word. That's why my feelings towards the word are quite ambiguous. For me, brand values are more important. I'd love to understand history - it's important to understand history - but 99 per cent of my energy goes into what's here today, and for the next three to five years.
The luxury market took quite a beating last year. How has this changed your targets?
It hasn't changed our targets, it has changed the plan. Our vision is the same, the targets are the same. But we have to collect information from the markets and feed it back to the manufacturer, [and] back to the markets. The quicker you manage this flow of information, the better you adjust the location of your products. We could not just follow strictly with the delivery plan that we may have agreed upon with our retail partners early on the year. We had to say: "We're terribly sorry, this year you can't have Lange watches because we have to relocate to another market, where demands are much stronger." That's the only significant change that we had to do throughout the year.
How difficult is it for you as the boss to want to overrule decisions, especially in the design of your products?
I never do that, unless I think it goes completely wrong. And if it becomes very detrimental for the brand, I would pull the plug, but only then. Otherwise, I believe that in this complex world, there's no chance that one big brand will or can have the answers to all the questions. I'm pretty sure that the only way to deal with that complexity is to have a team with a solid and strong team spirit that works for the same targets.
Who or where do you get inspiration from?
I actually get inspiration out of many things - it's not always the business world. I was deeply impressed this morning as I followed the practice of a choir and orchestra. I thought to myself: everybody is an expert in his own right and discipline. They never worked together, and there is a conductor who manages to synchronise all these different talents to the one main goal - to give guests the perfect musical experience. That sounds very much like management, doesn't it? I saw the conductor - how differently he was dealing with the very young ones, those who were older but still children, and the professionals. I was in a management lesson and got it free of charge by observing.
Did you have a five-year or 10-year plan?
Actually, I had a target. I had a good idea of where I wanted to be in five years’ time. We were pursuing elements that I thought would help elevate the company to the next level. It means pushing boundaries but staying true to yourself at the same time – making things new, but making the A Lange & Söhne branding clearly recognisable.
You’ve mentioned Lange will always be a niche brand. How have you managed to balance that kind of exclusivity and prestige in a very unstable market?
Is it really unstable? I would challenge that. I mean, there’s a lot of chaos, obviously. The year has been very hectic. Whenever we thought, good, we're now back in a more normal business environment, the next big [challenge] came. [For example,] three days before SIHH, the Central Bank decided to unpeg the Swiss franc. Then, we had the big refugee discussion and then the terrorist attacks in Paris. You can lose a lot of time working on things that you can't influence. What we can influence is products, services, customers and people – and that's what we focus on. Our target groups [are] watch collectors or people who want to buy fine men's watches, and a few ladies, because that's really the niche within the niche.
How will the expanded manufacture in Glashütte help to achieve this?
Oh, it will! Because again, we live in the world of communication. Of course it's much easier to [initiate] change if you have one building than if you operate in four or five different buildings. Our working environment is so much better today than it was a year ago. It's also more sustainable; we don't use as much energy as we used to. I do believe that we live in the age of flexibility. The only way to deal with that is to stay within your interest and work hard on that.
What has been the greatest challenge in your first five years?
There have been quite a few: we had to up-speed and upgrade the [entire] product development process. We opened quite a significant [number of] boutiques, which are important for the presence of the brand across the globe. I just think that if I compare our amount of new products that we launch every year to what we have launched seven, eight or nine years ago, it's cheese and chalk. Today, we bring at least two to three movements every year – we've [introduced] eight to 12 new models every year. But we still are very disciplined with our collection. It will never be a crowded collection because if we [introduce] a watch, we also stop producing a watch. With that, we'll keep the discipline; we will keep the sharp and distinguished brand profile.
What were the lessons learnt?
There's a fundamental difference between working for big global corporate and working for a small manufacture. It is small in the context of the big, long players. From the first day I went through the manufacture, I could feel the enormous pride of the brand, the company. Everybody that enters our company senses [or] experiences something which you have to be part of or you'd better move on.
Looking back at the five years with Lange, was there a decision that you are most satisfied with?
A good or bad decision can change from time to time. What I know is once you make a decision, stick to it. Don't question it every five minutes – unless the world really[ turns] upside down. Go through it and give that confidence to your people. When we decided to invest heavily in the new building, nobody said it would be a success story. But I think it was the right decision at that time. I would do exactly the same again.
How hands-on are you with the design of the watches and everything right now?
It sort of all starts and finishes with a little team, including myself and Tino Bobe, the head of design. The rule is pretty clear – no one can overrule the others. So far, it has worked out very well. If you put a fleet together, and you're sure that nobody can overpower the others, you will end up with a decent product development process.
What would you say are the essential elements that Lange needs to build its brand?
Assuredly, consistency. You cannot be a very detailed product guy, but then you organise an event and it looks like there are loose ends everywhere. So, that's a philosophy. I think we are always extremely good in products and in production, but there was a lack of professionalism within certain other areas. Our big target is to align all of that. So regardless of what you touch, experience, to whom you communicate, or where you see us, there are always the same elements that are represented strongly in our products, and you are always experiencing these elements wherever you meet or contact us.