The Watches of Switzerland Group and Bucherer are both making major inroads into the United States, Richemont, Swatch Group, LVMH, Rolex, AP and Patek dominate sales. But the most exciting, entrepreneurial and influential people in the American and European watch markets are still families who own and operate their prized stores.
This is a long-held belief, but I was given a timely reminder of why I feel so strongly about the role of family businesses during two days with London Jewelers on Long Island, New York, last week.
Mark and Candy (pictured top), Randi, Scott and Zachary Udell need no introduction to the majority of high end watch executives in the United States. As one of America’s finest retailers of the world’s biggest brands, they move easily among the top brass of the premier watchmakers. They also give their time to industry associations where they aim to help fellow retailers on issues like security.
They are the American equivalents of the Pragnells, the Laings, the Wainwrights and others in this country.
The Udells have a powerful competitive spirit, but appreciate that the health of the American watch and jewellery industry requires hundreds of rival businesses to be successful.
The most powerful instinct in the Udells is a limitless urge to delight their customers, and they dedicate every hour of every day to this pursuit.
A casual passerby of London Jewelers’ Manhasset showroom will assume the store has a gilded existence. How could you fail with a shopfront promoting Rolex, Patek Philippe, Van Cleef & Arpels, Cartier and, very soon, Audemars Piguet?
The question overlooks the more pertinent issue of what the Udells had to get right over several decades to attract and keep these brands (click here for clues), and herein lies the more important answer.
Over two days I spent with the family, I never once saw the slightest deviation from the cause of delighting customers and, by extension, delivering the sort of success that the biggest brands all want to be a part of.
It is the details that build up the full picture like pixels on a screen.
Friday saw eight London Jewelers customers — doctors, dentists, directors; that sort of hardworking professional — invited to a mobile classroom to make their own mechanical watches.
The training was provided by the American Watchmakers & Clockmakers Institute (AWCI) and cost $1,200 per person. With eight people in the class, that’s almost $10,000 invested by London Jewelers in getting its customers excited about the mechanics of a fine Swiss watch.
The only reward they are looking for is that, when these customers think about their next watch purchase, they come to Manhasset for the full London Jewelers experience, and never feel the pull of a rival jeweler or ecommerce player.
At the end of a busy Friday, when most people flop in front of the TV after a busy week, Mark and Candy were still working for the business; in this case taking the AWCI team out for a tremendous steak dinner (I know, because I tagged along).
You would have thought they would have needed an early night or lie-in on Saturday morning, but the following day was the London Jewelers Watch Fair, an annual event held at a time when all the new watches launched in Switzerland in the first quarter are feeling into the store. The family, and the rest of the London Jewelers team, needed to be ready.
So Candy was up at the crack of dawn baking cakes for the event. She has four ovens, apparently, because her home is an extension of the showroom. Food is love, and the cakes are made and shared with customers and a slew of executives from the watch brands who crowded into the company’s meeting room for a lavish buffet lunch.
Downstairs the showroom was packed, despite it being a glorious Fall day and an Oyster Festival was taking place 20 minutes up the road in Oyster Bay. A cigar specialist was rolling fresh Cubans for customers, a fine Scotch Whiskey maker was handing out samples, there were revitalizing smoothies on offer along with trays of dainty canapes.
Major watch collectors mixed with members of the public getting their first induction into the world of fine timepieces; each treated to time and respect.
Imagine the adrenaline rush of watching 500 or more customers in your store where six-figure watches are sold alongside seven-figure fine jewelry pieces; where people were pleading for elusive Royal Oaks, Daytonas and Nautiluses; where multi-millionaire customers need to be made as comfortable as young families dropping because they are curious.
You would think that after a day like that, it would be time to collapse into bed, but Mark Udell was not done yet. He had a long-standing customer in the city celebrating his birthday so he jumped in his car and drove into Manhattan to attend his dinner.
As I say, these are details, brush strokes that paint the picture of why family-run independents will never be replaced. Because, while the Udells are certainly exceptional, they are far from unique. There are hundreds of families doing their own version of the London Jewelers experience all over the country, and the Swiss watchmaking conglomerates need them more than ever.