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INTERVIEW: Richard Tibber on the growth of Zeon

Richard Tibber took his first opportunistic steps into watch wholesale in the 1970s when his LED watch caught the eye of his friends. This was a moment he steadily built on to create a company that now claims to control 13% of the UK watch market. He meets Rachael Taylor to talk about the changes at Zeon that have transformed it into a global player.

Most of the truly interesting business success stories start from humble beginnings, and Richard Tibber’s started with a holiday purchase.

In the 1970s a small revolution occurred in the watch industry with the emergence of a new product, the humble LED watch. When Tibber, who was on holiday in the US at the time, spotted an LED watch in 1979 he decided that he had to have one. Little did he know this impulse buy would spark a change of career, and fortunes.

At the time Tibber was working in retail – he spent six years working for Marks & Spencer in both its stores and head office – and had no knowledge of the watch industry, but he liked what he saw in the LED watch and when he returned home to the UK it turned out that his friends did too. One was so insistent that he bought the watch off Tibber’s wrist, and soon more requests led to a return trip to the States to pick up more watches for friends.

This soon escalated as the popularity of LED watches became apparent, and soon Tibber decided to set up in business, and Zeon was born. “I placed an ad in the Evening Standard and started selling them from there,” says Tibber. “It was something that everyone wanted. I got them from the US at first and then the Far East.”

When we meet in his north London office, Tibber is not surrounded by boxes of cheap imported LED watches, instead we sit in a plush suite that stylishly shows off a range of branded watches including lines from Vivienne Westwood, Ingersoll, Braun, Paul’s Boutique, Bench, Penguin and Ventura. Tibber is flippant in his explanation of his rise from LED watches to some of the world’s best-known brands, making what is quite a feat sound like a simple, natural progression.

After success selling through the Evening Standard Tibber decided to set up a B2B network, using his knowledge from his days at Marks & Spencer to guide him, and soon he was selling in London’s Selfridges.

“The world moved on from LED watches, LED became LCD and regular analogue was all quartz,” recalls Tibber. “In those days there were no fashion brands.” But it is fashion watch brands built from licensing agreements that Zeon has built its business on, and Tibber made the first step towards this market in 1982 when it signed its first licensing deal to create a James Bond watch, no less.

This watch was not for adults, but children and played the James Bond theme tune at the press of a button. The concept for the watch was Tibber’s, which he took to Albert Broccoli, the producer of the Bond films, who signed off on the idea.

Children’s watches is a sector that has remained fruitful for Zeon over the years and it now has a huge number of licenses for children’s watches, from classic favourites Mickey Mouse and Thomas the Tank Engine to the children’s TV shows of the moment such as Peppa Pig and the Octonauts.

This sector of Zeon’s business is known as the Character Division and also includes clocks and gadgets. It is a division that is growing, according to Tibber, and in February 2010 Zeon signed a deal to buy its largest competitor in the field, Wesco, that led to Zeon now operating an estimated 80% of the children’s watch market in the UK.

While this is a steady growth area for Zeon, it is the fashion brands that hold the most potential, according to Tibber. Zeon started taking on licenses to create watches for fashion brands in 1995, right when the sector began to emerge.

“It was a trend that was just beginning,” explains Tibber. “By licensing a well-known name we had the possibility to sell watches that people had heard of. Over the years it grew and now there are thousands of fashion watch brands.”

About the same time, Tibber made the decision to sell the business that he had nurtured from scratch to Hong Kong listed company The Herald Group.

“We had the opportunity to expand by having the infrastructure of a bigger organisation,” says Tibber of his reasons for selling to The Herald Group. “Up until that time our business was 100% in the UK but the Herald Group had a more international business so it allowed us to look globally.”

For the first 10 years of the partnership, Zeon’s business remained pretty much insular to the UK market, but in 2005 it started to pick up international clients, kickstarting a whole new era of growth and bringing with it a sharper, more critical decision-making process to selecting which brands to work with. In 2012, the UK now only accounts for about 30% of Zeon’s turnover.

“We used to look at brands for the UK but now we only look at global brands,” says Tibber. He suggests that Zeon does still carry some brands that don’t translate outside of the UK, such as Bench and Paul’s Boutique, but says that in the future any new brands coming in will have to be able to pay their way on the global market.

Before Zeon got into the world of fashion watch brands it had bought a brand in its entirety. In 1989 the company secured the rights to the Ingersoll brand for the whole world and it is now sold in 50 countries worldwide, with Germany its largest market followed by the US and Singapore.

Ingersoll has that magic element to it that nearly all Zeon brands have – worldwide appeal. “For a long time we had [distribution] licenses that were just for the UK, so what we did was set up distributors in different countries,” says Tibber, adding that it went so far as to have multiple distribution companies in single countries when its brands were not compatible to sell side by side.

A new market for Zeon is India, which it entered into with a local partner in October, and Tibber believes that the country holds great potential. “There are 1.2 billion people in India. 600 million of those are in poverty and 600 million are reasonably OK, but 5% are exceptionally wealthy, which if you think about it is 60 million people. It is the equivalent of every man, woman and child in the UK having money to spend.”

The reason that Tibber is placing his faith in well-known brands is simply that they are an easier sell. “If you have your own brand it is difficult to open accounts overseas but if you have a Vivienne Westwood or a Braun then the name is known and you don’t have to explain it to them,” he says. “We are looking for new brands with long-term potential. We don’t just want a quick in and out, we need brands with potential to grow.” Tibber adds that brands on the rise are of particular interest, more so than established ones.

Tibber believes that the future of fashion watch brands lies with the larger groups with many brands, such as the likes of Fossil, and he intends to grow Zeon’s stable of brands to match such groups. “It is very difficult to survive as a one-brand company today,” he says. “Customers are looking to source more than one brand from a company as it makes life easier.”

Two years ago Zeon added another string to its bow by becoming the majority shareholder in Swiss digital watch brand Ventura. The brand carries RRPs of between £1,000 and £4,000, making it Zeon’s most upmarket brand to date. This means that the company has both lighthearted fashion brands such as Paul’s Boutique, cutting-edge design-led brands such as Braun and now its own Swiss-made brand; a rich and diverse offering.

This is exactly the reason that Zeon has developed the watch brand suite in which we sit for this interview, and Tibber says that retailers will drop by the offices and spend a day browsing through the collections of all its brands, placing orders as they go.

While branded fashion watches are where the growth lies for Zeon, it still has a healthy business in unbranded watches, albeit created for high street chains such as Tibber’s former employer Marks & Spencer, Debenhams, Next and River Island. It also works with independent brands to help them with design and manufacture of watch collections.

The Zeon company is one that covers many products areas, and now many geographical regions. The watch company is already a major player in the UK, claiming to control 13% of the watch market here, and if its global aspirations pan out it could soon be racking up similar stats in foreign countries.

Quite clearly the plans for Zeon are ambitious, and it is no doubt vying to become a global superpower in the watch industry. Not bad for a company that started by pure coincidence on an overseas jaunt.

This article was taken from the December issue of WatchPro. To read the magazine online, click here


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