Le Locle-based Ulysse Nardin may have been founded in 1846, but the last 12 years have seen a five-fold growth in its production, no small feat with price points that often extend into six figures. Leading the charge is watch industry veteran Patrik Hoffmann, who has been guiding the company for nearly two years after the passing of its beloved owner and CEO, Rolf Schnyder. Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief, Doug Gollan, caught up with the boss on opening day at the company’s boutique in Geneva.
ET: Can you tell us about Ulysse Nardin’s background?
Patrik Hoffmann: We have long history, and another important element is that we always produced watches. For the last 12 years we have worked on producing everything that is movement related but what really sets us apart from the rest of the world’s watchmakers are two words: innovation and independence. For me, these concepts go hand-in-hand. We are able to be innovative because we are independent, and when it comes to new materials we have been innovative, developing silicium over the past ten years. I am proud to say that Ulysse Nardin was the first company to introduce the “Freak” and, in the year 2000, to begin using silicium. Now you see a lot of reputable brands using silicium, and for us this is a compliment. We never really made a marketing campaign out of it because we feel silicium is the material of the future for certain elements of watch-movement. So we said, we will stick to silicium because if the consumer benefits from it then it is the truly the material of the future and, if it is the future then we can’t hold it back. We have to bring it to the marketplace, because at the end of the day we believe our consumers will benefit.”
ET: In a crowded watch market, how would you describe Ulysse Nardin watches to a consumer who may not be familiar with its products?
Patrik Hoffmann: Again, I would have to say innovative. This comes from inside the company; we are very much a product-driven company. Our independence sets us apart because we can think outside the box. That said, we are also a very traditional watch company but I will give you an example of our experimentation: we came up with the “Freak”. If we couldn’t think outside the box we would have never called it the “Freak”. We created a watch between $80,000 and $150,000 and we called it the Freak. You have to have some guts to do that.
ET: Most people don’t get to go Le Locle, so tell us about your manufacturing process and watchmakers.
Patrik Hoffmann: We have three manufacturing plants over there. People would be surprised, because there is a misconception about watch making. Consumers see a catalog, pictures in magazines and a watchmaker putting a watch together but there’s more than that. We have a lot of artisans, those who produce our enamel dials and more, who are not watchmakers but artisans. We have toolmakers, we have silicium machine technicians, escapement manufacturers, whereas the actual watchmaker only puts the watch together. It is surprising how many professions, how many different kinds of artisans are involved. It is fascinating.
ET: Ulysse Nardin is considered a hot brand in the industry. How has the company been doing?
Patrik Hoffmann: Over the last ten years we have invested over $88 million into the production of movements, while many other brands have put that same money into marketing. What sets us apart is the fact there are only five family-owned luxury watch makers in the industry today, and we are one of them. We are a rare breed, which means we have to stay innovative and we have to continue to cater to a niche. In terms of development, 12 years ago Ulysse Nardin consisted of 35 employees, today we have 330 employees in Le Locle alone, and about 450 worldwide. This is enormous growth, also seen in our production numbers, which in the last twelve years have gone from 4,000-5,000 pieces a year to 25,000. It’s still a niche, but when you see what we do and the independent manner in which we do it, it becomes a great achievement.
ET: You have just opened your Geneva boutique. Tell us about the growth of Ulysse Nardin’s boutiques.
Patrik Hoffmann: We now have 18, including two in Florida and an important new one in Moscow. We have many in new markets as well, such as two in China and a new one in Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic. The boutique here in Geneva is a new step because it is located in the heart of Europe, as well as being our first in Switzerland. We are also opening a Paris boutique in two months. There’s been development, but it doesn’t mean we are going to become a massive brand. We believe in independent retailers as an important part of the brand experience.
ET: Can you tell us about your personal history?
Patrik Hoffmann: I’m aging every year like everyone else! I have been with Ulysse Nardin for 13 years but I have been in the watch industry all my life. My background is finance, and I am a trained CPA with degree in accounting, but I switched to marketing and management when I went to the US in 1989. Then I moved to Malaysia and worked for the watch industry there for five years. After that I moved to Florida and lived there for 12 years. I worked for a distributor in Malaysia that distributed Ulysse Nardin watches. In 1999, Rolf Schnyder, who was at that point my neighbor in Malaysia, convinced me to work for him. I told him that I could never work for him because Le Locle is at the end of the world, they all speak French, and it’s too cold. Then he came and asked if I would work in Florida, and that’s how it started. Now I’ve been CEO for a year and a half, though for about four years I was traveling between the United States and Switzerland. However, when Rolf passed away, however, I had to move over here, to Switzerland.
ET: When Rolf passed away it was obviously a traumatic event. From a business standpoint, how did Ulysse Nardin manage to maintain their continuity and momentum through such trying times?
Patrik Hoffmann: We were in a lucky position. Often when a company brings in a new CEO they have to completely turn the wheel. We didn’t have to do that because the company was there, the management was there, I was there, and so the continuity was relatively easy. If you take over a healthy company which already has a direction, then everything is already there. We had movement productions and developments for movements that wouldn’t be out for another five, six, seven years. These were things that were already on the drawing board, and although we put new things forward, they were only adjustments. It was evolution; we didn’t have to completely turn around.
ET: Although you’re working all the time, what are the passions and hobbies you pursue in your free time?
Patrik Hoffmann: At the moment it’s skiing in the winter and motorcycling in the summer. I own three motorcycles, a Japanese model, a BMW R1200RT, and the third one—which is a cool bike—is a Triumph. It’s the biggest commercial bike out there, the Triumph Rocket III, which has a 2,300 cc engine. That one is still in United States.
ET: What’s a good motorcycle itinerary in Switzerland?
Patrik Hoffmann: That’s easy; you have all the mountains here. You have tons of passes that you can ride to avoid the highways. I can’t even narrow it down.
ET: Any closing thoughts?
Patrik Hoffmann: Again, I want to stress innovation, independence, and our new launches. Our new ladies’ watch has an in-house movement designed specifically for women, because ladies always have a hard time setting the time and date on account of their manicures. The line is called “Jade”, because the top model has jade elements, but instead of pulling the crown you press a button and wind it; press again and it stops. It’s an automatic in-house movement with all the silicium technology, but at the same time it’s very feminine. It’s a new direction for us but it still represents our innovation and independence in being a fully in-house movement. Another piece we are excited about is a new minute repeater, the Carnival of Venice. We recently acquired Donzé Cadrans which helps us to produce watches likes this, featuring an in-house dial and two different animations. It’s our traditional minute repeater with a very artistic personality, representing the work of Ulysse Nardin’s finest artisans. It is already on the market and retails for about $300,000.