Founder and Member of the Board
The British Masters SA
Eric Loth may have grown up within yodeling distance of The British Masters’ headquarters in La Chaux-de-Fonds, but the hometown boy has grown to local hero by taking the spirit of George Graham, inventor of the chronograph, and starting a namesake watch company that has become a cult favorite. Having worked for some of the watch world’s legends and seen the Swiss watch industry through its darkest moments, he has now put his company back on tracking and is ramping up for success. Recently Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief traveled to the heart of watchmaking country to spend an afternoon with the energetic entrepreneur.
ET: Tell us a bit about your background?
Eric Loth: I’m 53 so it starts to be a long one. I was born in Bien and grew up in Le Locle. My father was an engineering professor at the university in Le Locle. This is my region.
ET: Growing up in the heart of watchmaking how did the quartz crisis effect you?
Eric Loth: I was going to university at the time, so the only impact was there were no jobs to be had in the summer. But there were tens of thousands that were laid off.
ET: What about when you graduated?
Eric Loth: I studied to be an engineer and I studied metallurgy. In the beginning of the 1980s, nobody wanted engineers. But my father had connections and he got a job for me at (industrial giant) ABB where I was engineer number 225 in a line of 250 working on turbines. It was not very exciting, and in fact I hated it.
ET: How did you get into the watch industry?
Eric Loth: Rado was looking for an engineer. All of their designers were resigning to the fact that they had a very strong willed technical team. Everything the designers would come up with, the technical team would say was not possible. So they wanted a trained engineer who could be an advocate for the designers in dealing with the technical team. It was very exciting. We had the innovation of using ceramic. At the time, most ceramic was produced in Japan, so I was off to Japan negotiating. I spent 13 years in the group, which is now the Swatch Group. Working for (Swatch founder) Nicolas Hayek was a learning experience. He was a master of financial management, manufacturing and brand vision. At 27 I was a Managing Director. All of a sudden I had over 700 employees working for me. It was an interesting time in the watch industry. We were restructuring Omega, Tissot and Longines. We were sitting in meetings discussing whether there would be a mechanical watch industry or if everything would be quartz. There were some very smart people in those meetings who really thought mechanical watches were done. But as you get to be a big company, it becomes 60 percent politics, so in 1992 I left.
ET: What did you do next?
Eric Loth: I met Gianni Bulgari. For me, this is where I learned what luxury means. We were traveling once a month to Rome. I got exposure to culture and wealthy people. It was great, but I was smoking too much and, if I was honest with myself, I always wanted my own business. It was in my brain and soul. I didn’t need my name on the building, but I knew I was an entreprreneur.
ET: How was it going from being a top executive in a bigger company to being out on your own?
Eric Loth: There were three partners, but I must be the difficult one because I am the only one left. In 1995 when we started it wasn’t clear exactly what we were going to do. The only thing that was really clear is that we had no money and we were using our pensions, credit cards, money we borrowed from family and friends. Since I grew up here I knew suppliers, and so I was able to find suppliers who were tolerant about when they were going to get paid. I also kept consulting, doing work for Rolex and Audemars Piguet.
ET: And how did British Masters come about?
Eric Loth: We were looking around and we finally came upon several dormant brands that were very interesting. The one that became the most successful was of course Graham. Quite honestly we kept trying things and showing them to collectors, and we started to sell because they liked what we were doing and we just started to gain momentum.
ET: How have you faired with the recent downturn?
Eric Loth: Like others, we had things going so good, and then we got a big smash. It’s not the first crisis I’ve been through, but I wanted to keep the company. Once you sell control you lose the company. I saw our inventory grow and our orders shrink. Our product line had become complicated. I had to let go people who were doing a good job fighting for the company, and that was hard. So 2011 was a transition, and now we are growing again. During Basel we had two watches that each generated over 1,000 orders. That said we are staying lean.
ET: Besides staying lean, are there any other lessons learned?
Eric Loth: As an independent I have to make a profit and we must be cautious. It sounds straight forward, but many companies overinvest and then all of a sudden one day the bills come due and you end up with only 10 percent of your company. I’m not a seller and for me, financially, I don’t need more, so I am focused on making a profit.
ET: Your role changed over the past couple years?
Eric Loth: During the changes with my partners, I had to remove myself from day to day oversight as the CEO for over a year. Sometimes when you’re the steering wheel, you don’t see the road. You get caught up in the micro problems. My major strength is I can criticize myself, and say, I made a mistake. As a niche brand we are free. We don’t have to be positioned a certain way because we are part of a group.
ET: Any advice for those who are at the beginning of their entrepreneurial careers?
Eric Loth: You have to be a perpetual learner and stay modest. You need to keep your energy up. The mountains are big, so in the good times don’t get too euphoric and you need the passion. It’s the passion that feeds you.
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