WATCHPRO FEATURE: Hungry like a Wolf

Simon Wolf, chief executive of watch winder specialist Wolf.Simon Wolf, chief executive of watch winder specialist Wolf.

The story of Wolf spans two continents, four countries, five generations and 183 years, and last year the jewellery box and watch winder business became a $20 million business. If you think that Simon Wolf, eponymous owner of watch winder specialist Wolf, has had an easy ride since taking the reins of his family’s company, then think again.

Since running the business full-time, Mr Wolf has gone about initially transforming the business to be relevant and accessible for the modern consumer/retailer, before growing it to the point where it is almost unrecognisable from the company he inherited.

From Germany to Sweden to Wales to England, the business has moved around a lot since its inception in 1834, but Wolf himself has now settled in Los Angeles, California, where the upgrade in climate and lifestyle seems like an apt metaphor for the upward curve of his business’ fortunes.

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The stats to back this up tell their own story, whether it’s here in the UK or globally. Just four years ago the brand started mailing UK retailers to advertise its product range; today it has 148 active accounts with 175 points of sale and another 60 in Europe. In the UK alone now it is now a £1m business, up 40% in 2016, despite turning over just £50,000 five years ago.

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As far as international expansion is concerned, five years ago it was trading in 10 countries, a figure that in 2016 had risen to 50. Globally the country was on track to be a $20m business in 2016.

Wolf seems particularly proud to have achieved all this phenomenal growth without being able to compete with the truly big spenders in the watch industry.

“We are a small brand and we don’t have a massive advertising budget, so getting our message out to Joe Public is a challenge because it’s expensive,” Wolf muses. “We believe we have the best product; the only thing holding us back is the awareness of this thing that you actually need if you own an automatic watch.

“It’s a little frustrating because you see brands spending inordinate amounts of money. It’s not that it’s unfair because business is business, but if you had a more level playing field and you had to rely on how good your people, customer service and product are then we would be in the top 10%.”

Without the biggest marketing budget in the world, how does Wolf explain the tremendous achievements of his company over the last few years, specifically in the UK? The answer it seems is a combination of different contributing factors.

Firstly, he has used the UK’s main buying groups shrewdly and effectively. “The Houlden Group has higher end brands and retailers and it’s been a real success for us. The CMJ is a much broader group so we probably only have product for about 20% of them [the retailers] at the very most,” divulges Wolf.

“These buying groups have been very helpful because they allow you to see a lot of retailers very quickly. Rather than getting into your car and driving all over England you’re seeing them at the buyers’ meetings and it’s been working very quickly.”

Along similar lines, Wolf is also a firm believer in trade shows, and can be seen at pretty much every major exhibition going. “ IJL at Olympia is very successful – at the last show we did twice the business we did a year ago. We spent $120k on Basel last year [2016] but we secured $250k of business.” Wolf clearly has a nose for money and will happily put his own cash where his mouth is if he finds a formula that works.

“We go from the NEC [Spring Fair] in February, to the CMJ meeting in March, then the Houlden show, IJL, and SalonQP. We’re really putting a lot of money, time and effort into doing trade shows to connect with the wholesalers and the retailers and then SalonQP to connect with consumers.”

As well as the sun, sea and sand of California, America also has a lure for Wolf because of the similarities between the US and UK markets. “The UK is the closest market to America, partly because of the language, and we’re fortunate because we have people coming to us wanting to distribute or be sales agents for us. Six months ago we had the guys from the Benelux countries come to us, three reps who handle Belgium, Netherlands and Luxemburg, and they just did a trade show that they paid for that was very successful.”

Does this make it tempting to spread the business far and wide and into as many different territories as possible while things are on the up? Wolf doesn’t think so.

“The focus and concentration is very organic, meaning it comes to us. We’ve got so much on our plates with the growth of the company, but if France [for example] becomes more of a focus and they need to do a trade show because their growth is warranting it, we’ll invest. Because we’re very busy it’s a nice organic way of growing the business.”

This organic approach to growth and expansion should in no way be misinterpreted as a lack of ambition. Be under no illusion, the Wolf brand has its sights set on the global watch winder market, it’s just that they won’t spend time or resources seeking out the next big opportunity. This more passive approach has nonetheless seen the brand make major inroads into Europe and Asia already, two continents that Wolf himself sees a lot of potential in.

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“Europe, very important; Asia also very, very important. Through a combination of sales agents and distributors in Europe we’re slowly tying each of the countries up. So Portugal and Spain is with a distributor, France is with agents, there’s a distributor in Switzerland and sales reps in Germany and then Poland and Eastern European countries are with distributors. So Europe is very important for us.”

One of the issues facing Wolf, and indeed all watch winding companies, is not just how to sell and market their individual products, but often how to actually convince retailers (let alone the end consumer) of the need for watch winders at all. It is an issue that Wolf feels passionately about.

“We’re not in competition with any of the other brands that they [a watch retailer] have in the store, so we support the sale of the watch. We’re not only a nice safe place to keep a quartz watch but an automatic watch will go into the winder and be kept wound. It’s part of the customer service that a retailer really should be doing.”

The first thing that they do when you buy a nice car is take you over to the service centre to meet the manager to develop that relationship. That level of service in that very competitive market is where I see us fulfilling a need with the retailers; we’re the support to the watch that they just sold that’s a very complicated piece of machinery and needs to be looked after. ‘Here’s a Wolf winder to help you ensure that your watch is kept in great working order and, by the way, Mr Retailer, rather than giving a discount, you give [the customer] a watch winder because you’re basically saving 50% of whatever the value is at retail because that’s the wholesale cost.”

As well as constantly working on changing attitudes among watch retailers, the Wolf brand is itself looking at its own business evolving over time. For instance, Wolf thinks that the percentage of its sales from watch winders will be going up in the next couple of years.

“We’re 60% jewellery cases and other products at the moment but I think in another couple of years that will change because, even though the jewellery case business isn’t that mature, the watch winder business is even less mature. The amount of automatic and quartz watches being made that need a watch box or a watch winder is so huge that I see it, maybe in two years, almost being the opposite numbers [percentage-wise].”

The watch industry always seems to be approaching saturation point. Most adults wear a watch and therefore the challenge for watch brands is to try and steal a bit of market share from your rival watch manufacturer. For a watch winder manufacturer like Wolf, although of course it has its own competitors, the exciting thing is the potential of the market that hasn’t been tapped into yet.

To understate it, most adults that own a watch don’t own a watch winder. It is the knowledge of this massive prospective growth in the watch winder market that keeps Simon Wolf excited and motivated. His company is bigger now than it’s ever been before and it’s wholly possible that it hasn’t even scratched the surface yet.

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