Craig Leach has been working for Raymond Weil for 21 years — man and boy as they say in his home city of Manchester. After two decades operating from the offices of the watchmaker’s former distributor Swico, Mr Leach has relocated Raymond Weil UK to his beloved manor, and will be overseeing a territory that stretches from Russia to Rotherham from his new Northern Powerhouse. WatchPro’s Rob Corder paid a visit to his penthouse office and found Mr Leach purring at the view over Manchester’s historic city centre.
Raymond Weil has been operating as a wholly-owned subsidiary of its Swiss parent company since 2013 when it took control from its long term distributor Swico. For the next five years, Craig Leach, the watchmaker’s UK brand director, continued to work out of Swico’s premises in the small Surrey town of Haslemere while quietly planning a clean break and a move north to Manchester.
That move took place this summer, and Raymond Weil now operates from a stylish suite of offices that occupy the entire top floor of a tower in the heart of Manchester city centre. The Mancunian Mr Leach could not be happier, giving WatchPro a tour of the premises that has views in all directions, taking in the domed roof of the historic Central Library on St Peter’s Square and the equally venerable Midland Hotel.
The office is also a stone’s throw from the St Anne’s Square area where the city’s prestige watch and jewellery retailers are clustered, and less than a mile from Manchester Arena, where Raymond Weil is the Official Timing Partner and has its own music-themed private bar for corporate entertainment.
The move to Manchester is far from a personal indulgence for Mr Leach, it is part of a mission to connect with Raymond Weil’s retail partners in a uniquely personal way. The new office is big enough for a team of 25, where the executive team will be joined by qualified watchmakers, ecommerce experts and the sales, marketing and merchandising team. Its enormous boardroom with its panoramic views will be used for training and presentations of products and merchandising.
Seen from Switzerland, Manchester might seem more distant and detached from the epicentre of the British watch business in London than Swico is in the Home Counties, but the Swiss would be wrong on two counts. Haslemere may be only 45 miles from Central London, but it can take almost two hours to get there by road or rail. That made it a major headache to persuade retailers to come out for meetings and there is very little to keep them there. Manchester is 2 hours from London Euston by train, and is Britain’s second most vibrant city when it comes to culture, hospitality and entertainment. It is harder asking Raymond Weil partners to leave than it is getting them to visit.
The Swiss are poor at understanding Britain has at least four key destination cities for prestige watch shopping: London, Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow. Manchester is easy to reach from all of them. “Manchester is only 2 hours from London on the train, and we are 10 minutes from the train station. Same thing from Glasgow. We have great hotels at reasonable prices. We have entertainment like the Manchester Arena, where Raymond Weil is the Official Timing Partner and where we have our own bar where we can entertain customers,” Mr Leach pitches. “We can give them a whole experience in Manchester: come and do the training, see the collections, enjoy the city and take in a show. I have said to all our customers and journalists that they should come up and see us. Our door is always open and we are happy for people to come up to Manchester and use our facilities while they are in town. I want this place to be busy,” he adds.
Along with acting as one of Manchester’s finest tour guides, Mr Leach also makes a strong business case for the move to Manchester. “As we have grown as a brand over the past five years, we have needed to establish our own home so that we can bring in customers. Training is one of the key things we do more and more of, and we can demonstrate the watches better here, talk about the marketing, show the merchandising. Eventually we will have watchmaking here, so customer can see what goes into making and servicing the watches. Customers will be able to appreciate all the time and effort that goes in,” he explains.
The Raymond Weil team will also share its expertise in digital marketing and ecommerce so that retailers can improve the online side of their operations. “We are cutting edge compared to some of our retail partners that are only now starting to develop their own websites, and we can help them in all sort of ways like understanding Google ad words, social media, etc. Our job is to hold their hands through the process and give them the tools to succeed,” Mr Leach promises.
One of the first new hires in Manchester is Katie Hudghton, who joins as marketing manager with responsibility for helping retailers grow their Raymond Weil sales. The watchmaker’s own website is fully transactional, but is not there to compete for sales with retail partners, she insists. “The website gives customers so much information about the brand, so they are better informed before they go into a store. Ultimately we want to build demand for Raymond Weil and then direct customers to the retailers they trust. We are also working more with retailers to help them improve their online offering. We provide the imagery, the information, videos and exclusive promotions,” she describes.
Retailers are sensitive to competition from the watchmakers they work with, and the development of Raymond Weil’s ecommerce platform has not been without its critics. But Mr Leach says that the website is there to grow the brand awareness of Raymond Weil to the benefit of its entire network. “75% of our customers were doing their research online as part of their purchasing journey. The representation we had online with our retailers was not fantastic before. You could not see the entire collection; you could not find out the prices. We felt the need to do all of that on our site, mainly as a communications tool. We have a click through button to our retailers, and 35% of the customers on the Raymond Weil website click through to a retail partner to buy. We are very happy about that,” he says.
Only 35% clicking to partner sites might sound like two-thirds of potential sales being hoovered up by Raymond Weil directly, but Mr Leach objects. “We are not doing two-thirds of the sales, I am just talking about the way customers use the website. The website is not there to compete with our retailers. It is not even a profit centre for us. Any profit the website makes is invested directly back into the business. It goes into digital advertising that raises the profile of the brand, which benefits our retailers,” he insists. “At the end of the day, the goal is to support retailers. We need to help them more than ever because it is tough out there,” he adds.
The infrastructure of the new office is all geared towards better support for retailers. Another example is the way watches will be serviced. “I want to get to a three day turnaround for batteries and a five day turnaround for servicing. I do not want anybody to be without their watch for more than a week,” Mr Leach promises. “Retailers will also have access to a trade portal where they can get all the details of our service centre including prices for parts. This will allow them to talk to the customer and give an accurate estimate on what a repair or service will cost, how long it will take, and ask whether they want to go ahead with it. That is great for the retailer and the customer.”
The job for a comparatively small independent brand like Raymond Weil is to improve its performance relative to its competitors in every element of business. To put it in the language of the all-conquering British Cycling team that is based at the Manchester Velodrome, the business has to make marginal gains in every department.
Helping retailers with sell-through and minimising the amount of stock they hold are two key aims of the new office. “Retailers are a lot more demanding. They do not want to be sat on stock so we need just in time delivery. We have to generate sales for the retailers, which we are happy to do because it works for both of us. We want them to know which are the top 10 bestsellers so they know which lines to keep in stock. If we don’t get the stock rotation, everybody is stuffed. I am happy to supply watches in ones or twos because it means retailers always have the right stock in,” Mr Leach says.
Another marginal gain is in the product line up, which Mr Leach insists delivers more value at its price point than any competitor. “Because we are not the biggest brand out there in terms of recognition, we have to over-deliver in terms of our product. If you look at what we provide, and our price point, I do not think there is anybody out there that can touch us in terms of price to quality ratio. And it is backed up with a three year guarantee,” he adds.
Raymond Weil knows it will be doing will to grow at all this year, and expects sales to be flat on 2017. That would be some achievement as there are significant headwinds for every brand bar Rolex and Patek Philippe. Independent high street jewellers are battling for survival and the multiples are focusing their efforts into larger shopping mall and destination city centre stores stocking fewer brands.
Competition is also heating up in the affordable luxury space where Raymond Weil operates, most notably from Frederique Constant, which now has the scale and arm-twisting power of Citizen Watch Company behind it. That is on top of the perennial fight to keep Longines and Tissot from crowding it out. “It is difficult. We always find ourselves fighting against Swatch Group, for example, coming in with five or six brands and asking for the whole top shelf. That does create problems,” Mr Leach admits.
The beauty of Raymond Weil, and why it continues to hold its own against the corporate giants, is the personal touch of a family-owned business. Mr Leach personifies that approach, and with the pulling power of Manchester behind him, the new head office looks set for success. The first year is mainly about consolidation, putting down roots and layering on the charm. “I want feedback from customers that they love working with us,” Mr Leach describes when asked to qualify what a successful first year would look like. “I have to do want monetary increases, but this is a year of transition from being with Swico to being completely independent. I want my customers to come here and say they are delighted with the new setup and the way we are working,” he concludes.