Los Angeles based Westime has developed a worldwide reputation for its offerings of haute timepieces from Switzerland. Its charasmatic owner John Simonian has built an additional business distributing some of the industry’s more unique pieces as well. A family business including his wife Barbara and now a second generation with son Greg joining, Simonian recently talked to Editor-in-Chief Douglas Gollan about business trends and other things that make his world tick.
ET: Can you tell us how you got involved in watchmaking and give us a brief overview of your career?
John Simonian: I was born in it; my father was in the watch business and his uncle, too. Very young I had to do some deliveries for him; I was only 12 when I accompanied him to the Swiss factories. So it was quite a long time ago. I guess this is genetic. My son Greg is now joining the group. Right after his last day of University in June, that same afternoon he was in Vegas to attend JCK with my team and myself. He already has spent a year in Switzerland working at two watch companies. He has always been around in the stores as well when he was a kid, even helping customers.
ET: Why are you so passionate about watches and from what age did watches interest you?
John Simonian: I have always been fascinated by the time and energy it takes to make a watch! Not only the assembly of pieces and parts, but the technology and innovation behind them. You need human involvement and dedication to make it all happen. Watchmaking is easily comparable to car manufacturing: no matter how good is your design, how good is your engine and the overall performance, if you don’t have the right people behind the scenes, it simply does not work, and there is the need to improve and innovate. I also like the fact that the watchmaking industry is a matter of human relationships, maybe more than in any other industry, as ultimately it is a small business where everyone knows everybody.
ET: You are owner of both Westime, a major watch retailer in Los Angeles, as well as a distributor of some very nice watch brands. Can you tell us about your businesses?
John Simonian: I started in the US as a retailer which was (and still is!) a great experience as I could check what was working and what was not. Actually both of my stores, besides being very successful, are laboratories that help me analyze brands, marketing and products. About eight years ago I started promoting unknown or start-up brands that nobody would touch. I decided to promote them in the stores. Having done a good job promoting them, I became in charge of the whole distribution channel. That’s how I started with brands like Richard Mille, Greubel Forsey, Urwerk, Hautlence, HD3 and now Vincent Berard. I have chosen to embrace and invest in new and innovative independent watchmakers where others prefer the “wait and see” approach.
ET: What does it take to be successful in selling high-end watches these days and how is it changing?
John Simonian: I guess it involves a lot of investments: financial obviously, mental and physical! You have to fight for what you believe will be successful and it is not always easy. There is a huge part of risk in that game! I like to take risks and I try my best to succeed!
ET: How is distributing watch brands different from retailing? Do you enjoy one area of your business more than others?
John Simonian: Being in charge of watch distribution means dealing with people (retailers) that are just like me. I know their needs, I know their fears. It is much easier for me to anticipate that business. What distribution gives you is a global picture of a market, a country (I am also in charge of the Central-South America and the Caribbean regions), and it is so much fun to promote a brand on that scale! I enjoy the retailing business as well, because there is the direct contact with end consumers that is worth a million—interesting information about trends and habits that will help me to make ultimate choices when I launch any new project.
ET: What do you look for in a new brand, either for Westime or your distribution business?
John Simonian: I would name this the 3 “C’s”: Character (strong identity). Charisma (a meaning). Competitive (should be able to take a share of the “niche” market).
ET: Many of our readers are successful entrepreneurs such as yourself. Are there any things you would have done differently and, if so, can you give us a couple of examples?
John Simonian: I don’t think I would have done something differently. Actually, I don’t even have enough time to do all the projects I have in mind for today and tomorrow, so why would I try to find out what I would have done differently on the existing ones? My existing businesses for sure gave me experience that most probably I will apply on my new ventures, even if it’s unconsciously done.
ET: Aside from work, do you have any hobbies?
John Simonian: New projects. I use my free time to find or discover worldwide new projects related to luxury. I like objects and marketing them so I am always very curious…I like to learn!
ET: Do you like to travel for pleasure, and if so tell us about two or three of your favorite places to go or activities for vacation.
John Simonian: Traveling for pleasure is not actually in my agenda since I travel so much! The exceptions are the family trips that we used to do when both my daughter and son were younger. They travel and discover on their own now…With my wife we enjoyed places such as St Barth’s, Paris is always a good idea, and how can I say no to the south of France! But I have also been to “one-time places” such as exotic countries; the list is too long to mention.
ET: Do you have any favorite hotels or resorts? For business? For pleasure?
John Simonian: Lately I was impressed by the Faena Hotel in Buenos Aires during my last trip…An amazing and charming mixture between local items and Art Déco style. Otherwise the major chains or groups are very similar.
ET: Do you ever travel by private jet and, if so, what is your impression of the experience?
John Simonian: It does happen to me when I need to do a fast tour of the Americas with some of my major suppliers. It is the best way to travel fast and safe in the world of luxury these days.
ET: Westime is a family business. How do you balance this with attracting talented employees? Are there any particular challenges?
John Simonian: Exactly that, it is a family business. We do have a lot of employees working in the group and the most important part is that they are long-time employees. They are part of the extended family. We have a very small turnover! I guess the success resides in the fact that they feel like family and we welcome them as family.
ET: Where do you see Westime and the distribution business going over the next five to 10 years?
John Simonian: As you know, a lot of brands or groups are coming with their own full-standing Boutiques, so the retail business will be considerably affected in a way that will help the newcomer in the market unable to operate their own stores. You just have to find those newcomers before others do and also get the opportunity to distribute them at the same time. There is space for everyone in this market; you just have to choose the correct one for you.
ET: If you were not in the watch industry, what would you have done as a career?
John Simonian: Pretty hard to say. I started when I was 12, so it looks like there was no escape from the watch industry. I can’t think about something else!