A trained engineer, Antonio Calce cut his teeth at Richemont in increasingly senior positions for Piaget and Panerai before joining CORUM as Vice President of Operations in 2005. In February 2007 he was named CEO and over the past six years has guided the independent La Chaux-de-Fonds-based watchmaker through the death of beloved owner Severin Wunderman and the financial crisis. On the eve of Baselworld 2013 it was announced China Haidian (owner of two leading Chinese watch brands) had purchased 100 percent of the company. Calce is slated to also manage Eterna and Porsche Design, owned by China Haidian. Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief Douglas Gollan caught up with the dynamic boss to retrace the last half-decade and find out what’s next.
Elite Traveler: What were your goals when you first came to the company?
Antonio Calce: When I started in this company in 2005 I had a goal to put CORUM in the right place in the industry. In 2005 there wasn’t a clear strategy. At the time, they were following fashion, but CORUM isn’t a fashion brand. It’s a brand with great history and a lot of iconic product. For me it was clear that there was a legitimacy based on history.
ET: And what were the challenges?
AC: In the ‘90s the big groups with the high-end brands had started to invest in distribution, identity, brand building and manufacturing with huge investments. For CORUM it was totally the opposite, so the challenge was incredible because we started 10 years after the competition.
ET: How did the death of Mr. Wunderman impact what you did?
AC: I was convinced because of the strong iconic properties and incredible history that there was a place for CORUM. Before Severin passed away it was great. In June 2008 he passed away. Without him it was difficult to keep investing because the goal of the foundation (that owned CORUM after his death) was not to invest money for the long-term in the watch industry. In October 2008 the big crisis for the watch industry started and all 2009 it was difficult for the entire industry. Even with this, every year we didn’t change our strategy, brand development or product research. It was important that CORUM had credibility. But we needed a real long-term partner to survive and invest.
ET: Are there strategic benefits having a Chinese owner?
AC: I am really happy with (Chairman) Mr. Hon (Kwok Lung). He is fantastic. He is not only a financial partner, but a strategic partner who has connections in China and Hong Kong giving CORUM the chance to be with the best retailers. Without a strong presence in China and Hong Kong, it impacts your business in other countries. For example, in Switzerland some retailers have 90 percent Chinese customers.
ET: How do you react to some of the negative press about an iconic Swiss company being sold to a Chinese company?
AC: I don’t like when people said, ‘why did you sell Corum to the Chinese?’ Richemont is South African. LVMH is French. My goal is to maintain this brand at the top of the watch industry. In four years we have doubled employment in La Chaux-de-Fonds. China Haidiian provides the financial resources we need. Private equity doesn’t work for the watch industry because the return is 10 or 15 years, not three years. I am not trying to push sales in two years. The quality of development of the brand is the key.
ET: So what changes are we likely to see in the next year or two?
AC: There will be no big changes. It is first to explore all the opportunities with the new owner. I will continue the same strategy and direction. It’s not our strategy to open 100 points of sale in China. We have a long-term strategy we are executing. (The strategy was presented to the new owner) before the acquisition it was very clear, and now the goal is to follow the plan.
ET: After the last five or six years of hard work surviving the crisis, did you consider taking a break?
AC: I had no choice. Mr. Hon said, ‘I didn’t buy the company.’ He said, ‘I bought Antonio Calce and his management team.’ He met the owner of the Foundation, he said, ‘if you give me the company free I won’t take it unless the management team comes.’ (China Haidian) understand in the watch industry is takes specific skills to develop brands. There are some synergies with Eterna, particularly in research, development, distribution and movements, and today in the watch industry these synergy is very important.”
ET: Some of the big competitors are opening lots of boutiques. You are opening in Miami. Is this a sign of the future?
AC: My strategy is opposite. We don’t want to open boutiques to compete against the retailers. Our goal is to build brand awareness and value for retailers.
ET: How is the chemistry with your new owner?
AC: Mr. Hon is comparable to other rich (watch company) owners (in wealth but) he is very entrepreneurial. My personality is I am not a typical corporate manager. I compare him to Mr. Wunderman. He is a very rich guy, but go directly to him. He isn’t surrounded by lots analysts and financial people. With Mr. Wunderman, he was a guy who said, ‘let’s make a decision, boom, boom, boom and off we go.’ Mr. Hon is the same.
ET: The late legendary Nicolas Hayek when he was a turnaround consultant, said, the most difficult thing was to find managers in companies who were entrepreneurs.
AC: I fully agree. I am not for a culture where you take three months to explain why you are making a decision. I take responsibility for decisions. It is the only way to succeed. Three years ago I decided to be a partner with America’s Cup, and I made the decision in one hour. Later I was in Greece on vacation with my family, and I got a call from the chairman of the foundation. He wanted to know, ‘How much does this cost?’ I knew visibility was important, and it was the right decision. I manage the P+L. I don’t have committees for approvals. I talk to my people. I know my business. I get their input. At CORUM, we have a dream team, but I make the final decisions. You have to be fast to succeed in business today.