Mike France, co-founder of the controversial and online-only luxury watch brand Christopher Ward talks industry truths and being the sector’s ‘dark horse’, exclusively with Luxury Society.
Bursting onto the scene in June of 2005, British watchmaker Christopher Ward shook the industry by creating the world’s first online only luxury watch retailer, selling timepieces direct to the consumer.
Helmed by entrepreneurial trio Mike France, Chris Ward, and Peter Ellis, the brand has consistently pushed the boundaries of the watchmaking sector and challenged the traditional concept of luxury as a disruptor, propagating the ideals of quality and transparency over pure image and ‘gloss’, to ‘early adopters’.
“ The bold brand made waves with the revelation that it would be manufacturing its own British-owned watch movement ”
Years later, just shy of the company’s 10-year milestone in business, the bold brand again made waves with the revelation that it would be manufacturing its own British-owned watch movement, breaking away from its Swiss rivals, and cutting out the ‘middle-man’ to strike out solo.
Announced on 2 July 2014, the merger between Christopher Ward and its Swiss production partner Synergies Horlogères solidified a long-standing relationship between the two companies and created a new, shared company titled Christopher Ward London Holdings.
More importantly, the formal union elevated Christopher Ward to the status of “truly vertical watch brand”, allowing the brand to become “masters of its own destiny”, and positioning the online-only business as the David in a world of Swiss watchmaking Goliaths, backed by centuries of heritage and sturdy financial footing.
“ The company seems to be somewhat of a ‘dark horse’ in the Swiss world of watchmaking ”
The company seems to be somewhat of a ‘dark horse’ in the Swiss world of watchmaking and one in sync with the new-age wave of self-sufficient businesses, led by fellow disruptors such as Airbnb and Uber, where disintermediation is power – and mould-breaking surprises are around every corner.
True to form, the start of 2016 has seen Christopher Ward push the limits again with the launch of the brand’s thinnest-ever mechanical model, the C5 Malvern Slimline Square — adding a new streamlined style to its growing suite.
Here, Mike France – one third of the team which created Christopher Ward and kept the watchmaking industry enthralled with its audaciousness – opens up exclusively to Luxury Society about the method in the madness, the importance of transparency in smart business, and the changing concept of luxury which is steadfastly winning over the millennial millieu.
Christopher Ward, C5 Malvern Automatic
The Christopher Ward business is an interesting one, particularly because it seems to have ruffled some feathers in the Swiss watchmaking world. So just to start off – how did the concept for the company emerge and how has it grown since then?
Well, the start-up phase of the business was developed with my business partner, Peter Ellis. We had just sold out a business in the UK called the ‘Early Learning Center’, which was a fairly large national chain of educational toys for children.
So we had sold it, and what little we had got in gains were in the bank, just sitting there, not doing anything, and I suppose I, particularly, was quite bored and basically looking to carry on doing something.
So there we were one day on Chris’s boat on the River Thames. I knew Chris from working with him 20 years earlier, and we had always wanted to work together again at some point. So at this point, as he was in the process of selling the business, we decided we wanted to do something together.
“ We were given what was considered unusual access to some very interesting information in the sector ”
I really wanted it to be an online business and something that could traverse the world quite easily, so selling sofas was definitely out. So we then looked at what our interests were. And we had a real passion for watches, although at that time we knew absolutely nothing about a watch industry.
But, I suppose from there we decided that we would investigate and we were very lucky. And, in my opinion, luck always plays a huge role, in all of these sorts of innovative business ventures.
We were lucky enough to know some pretty intellectual people in the watch industry from our previous lives, if you will. And so we were given what was, and would probably still be, considered very unusual access to some very interesting information in the watchmaking sector.
“ We were unbelievably staggered by some of the multi-costs that they were charging their customers ”
I’m intrigued. What sort of information did you uncover?
Well, for instance, we were taken into watchmaking factories, behind-the-scenes, and we were shown, first costs, so in other words, the actual cost price of watches. And I’m talking here about some very, very famous luxury watch brands.
So at that point, we were staggered by two things, which really spawned the idea for what Chris Ward then became.
We were staggered, firstly, by the fact that it seemed quite possible to access many of the components that these watch brands who’d been around for many years and would use, still is. You could access exactly the same components as they were able to access because most of what they were selling was proprietary. In other words, it wasn’t developed by them, so we were kind of intrigued by that, because that’s very unusual, compared to the industries we’d been in before.
The second thing was we were unbelievably staggered by some of the multi-costs of the cost price that they were charging their customers. Or example, the biggest one we found was 34 times the cost price.
And while everybody understands there is a shifty premium for the value on the kudos and the halos that the brand has worked very hard to develop in terms of image, frankly in our minds some of the premiums that were being charged by some of these brands, gave us the idea for a revolutionary business model.
So basically, with our business radar on high alert it was clear, or it seemed clear to us at the time that there was an opportunity here to disrupt this industry potentially.
“ Becoming the first online luxury watch brand, meant that we could have a much lower overhead base ”
By becoming the first online luxury watch brand, meant that we could have a much lower overhead base and simultaneously avoid using the wholesale model that the entire industry was using.
We didn’t intend to be greedy. But we could actually – using pretty much the same componentry and design – sell watches directly to the consumer at prices that, at the time, were unheard of. So we decided that’s what we would do!
It all seemed very simple. But, of course then ensued a period of learning how to design watches, working with people and finding the right factories, sorting those components, and setting up the work site, the usual stuff.
“ There we were, getting global orders, not really understanding why it was all happening ”
So what was the initial reaction and results, once the business was set up?
Well, we did it and we launched with two watches, and things were ticking off. Feel free to get the pun. And we did reasonably well, but it was not a record breaking circuit to start, as we were in our first month.
This was back in 2005, and before certainly Christmas came around that year, we started getting sales from across the world. And I wish I could tell you I knew why.. but we didn’t. We had no inkling as to why this was happening at all.
What we knew is we’d taken some ad space out in newspapers like the Independent, The Telegraph UK, etc – but we didn’t think we’d reach – for example — Korea, with the Independent, you know?! Or Australia, for that matter.
Timezone.com watch forum
But there we were, getting global orders and shipping these watches out, not really understanding why it was all happening. Then on the 8th of December we got a telephone call. This was the next piece of good fortune for us, really, that that occurred.
It was from a Dutchman by the name of Hans, and he was calling because he wanted to know if we would have any objection to him launching an online forum devoted to our watches.
My initial reaction was: “Well, why, why on earth would you want to do that?” And he simply replied: “Well, I just love what you guys are doing.” He said: "You must be aware of the storm that is going on in the online world with your brand .. And it turned out that he was a member of the world’s largest watch forum at the time, called Timezone.com, which had several hundred thousand members at the time. It was the world’s largest watch forum, based in the United States, moderated by a guy called Michael Sandler at the time.
“ Instead of his plan of posting a detrimental account of our brand, he posted an amazing account of his experience ”
So what we found out is that this buzz had all started because someone, actually – a lecturer at the University of Tasmania at the time – had somehow seen the advert that we had placed in The Independent, where we were promoting our most mechanical watch, which was the C5 Malvern at the time. And in the ad we had listed the components, including an atom282642 movement, which is a well-known movement.
Because we were selling it at a price that he’d never seen before, he was sure that we must be charlatans and lying to the public. And as one of the major posters on Timezone, he had decided to purchase one of our watches online, with intention of the sale was to strip the watch down, expose us as false-ters, and post a warning to the world that we were conning the public, selling watches under false pretenses.
But after we shipped it and when he received the watch, he found that it was genuine, and was pleasantly surprised – obviously, to our credit and to good fortune. So instead of his plan of posting a detrimental account of our brand, he posted the most amazing account of his experience, which contained things like: “I have discovered the best value luxury watch the world has ever known”, that sort of thing.
“ That forum he started nine years later has become this amazing receptacle of dialogue between us & our customers ”
All that time, we didn’t even know this Timezone forum existed. But what happened next is that this created a huge amount of interest. People posting, re-posting, and of course several buying our watches, and then posting. This is about five months after launch, because we launched in June of 2005, and we were being talked about more than Rolex on the world’s biggest watch forum.
So the person in charge of the form had actually started banning people who, in many cases, have been members of his forum for a long time, accusing them of being in our pay, because he assumed they were being paid to write favourable things about us. But we had no idea any of this was going on of course.
One of those people, turns out, was Hans, who had been a member of Timezone for many years, who had also bought one of our watches, and posted that the Tasmanian professor was quite right, and that he had also found our C5 Malvern to be the best watch in the world. He was promptly banned from the site, and he had therefore decided that if he couldn’t use Timezone to tell the world about this brand, he was going to ring the brand directly and ask if he could set up a forum.
Christopher Ward Calibre SH21
So that forum he started nine years later has many thousands of members, and has become this amazing receptacle of dialogue between us and our customers. These people get involved in design. They give us feedback. Often the best feedback, of course, is the negative stuff.
In those cases, we fix things quickly. But it’s basically it’s a huge generator of information both ways, but emerged from pure luck really.
Well it certainly is a testament to how social media can influence the destiny of a business. What role does social media now play in your company and its growth?
Well, these days, we all live in the world of social media these days and we kind of become entangled with it in our lives.
And, this was about 10 years ago, and back then, the bloggers hadn’t really emerged as the key opinion leaders they have become now. It was only the beginning then. But, of course, what we discovered as a result of that as a world that, certainly for watches, had great for potential for reaching customers across the world and opening up a different sort of dialogue with those customers.
“ The way web is changing, it’s not about just having sites anymore – and I think we’re in the next vanguard ”
Therefore, it became a very important part of our business model from the very start of our brand, and that’s the way it’s continued really.
There’s no question that our brand couldn’t have have grown, and couldn’t have existed in the way it does today, 20 years ago.
But certainly the internet is also still in its infancy in many ways. I mean we just have no idea where it’s all going to end. And when we think about the the way web is changing, it’s not about just having sites anymore. It has to be much more organic than that – and I think we’re in the next vanguard. The vanguard of the next set of change, which is something that we’re beginning to take up to the next phase of what is just a remarkable period in history. So it’s all very exciting living in these times.
“ Luxury should be, in my view, about the absolute integrity of the product ”
They are also challenging times for many brands though, and while was quite an organic transition for your brand, one of of your strengths and what really drew attention on social media was your unique pricing model.
Well yes. For a lot of people, luxury, and the concept of luxury is tied to the price – with the price reflective of how luxury an actual item is.
But I think there is a growing constituency of people who are not persuaded necessarily by that and just the brand name, but rather by products that are known to be of a certain standard.
On one level, luxury should be, in my view, about the absolute integrity of the product. That is the way it should be – but it isn’t always the case.
But integrity to the quality of the product is where we fit in as a luxury brand.
We know that our product has the integrity of a luxury product in its quality, and its manufacturing, everything about it — and that’s central to everything we do.
There are many, known value items, but there is this growing constituency of people who people are able to judge and understand what constitutes quality. So, in clothing, for example – where I passed a lot of my career – I could be buying a polo shirt from the same factory that Ralph Lauren was buying his shirts from and paying pretty much the same price as he was, and it’s exactly the same quality shirt, but if his has his logo, and because his brand has a certain ‘halo’ which I can understand, nobody would know the quality of my polo shirt was just as as good as his because people don’t look at … There isn’t much to look at in terms of understanding what constitutes the make up of that garment.
“ People knew that we could buy the same products from the same place as IWC, or Tag Heuer ”
In watches though, it’s slightly different. There are these known value items, increasingly known because the internet, which is something that is a great democratiser of information.
And because of that, people who are interested in watches knew that we could buy the same products from the same place as IWC, or Tag Heuer, or Heath, or Breitling, because we were all buying the same base product, and in the world of watch-making that was known. So, those interested in watches back the constituency and the growing constituent know then that our watches constitute the same quality or integrity of product as watches of many, many times higher price.
So, we’re helped by the fact that we’re in an industry where you can assess a products integrity much more carefully and closely than perhaps any other industry.
“ There are certainly more people are working in businesses, that are in the process of disintermediating ”
Beyond that, I do feel as well that there is again a growing constituency of people that subject to then accepting and understanding that the integrity of the product is of the highest order. There are more and more people beginning to discover the work of disintermediating.
That seems to be becoming a trend in this ‘new world’ so to speak – that being, the removal of intermediaries in a supply chain, or ‘cutting out the middlemen’.
Yes, there are certainly more and more people are working in businesses, that are in the process of disintermediating, where the middle men are falling away all the time.
Whether you’re Uber, you know, disrupting taxis across the world, or you’re Christopher Ward trying to disrupt the watch industry.
And that’s because people know much more about the make up, and the cost product, and the margins of brands now, and therefore there’s this growing constituency of people doing this, accepting this new way of doing business. But this is a 35 billion pound world market, therefore we don’t need to have 100% of it. It’d be very nice but it’s probably not likely in my life time, but there are a growing number of people who have now accepted our understanding of integrity of the product, and are prepared and want to have a brand that may not have the same historical view of some others.
Sure, it does not charge the same price, but actually is more attractive to this group of early adopters, because in some way it’s nothing the old luxury and it’s all about this new concept of luxury. And I can only see it going one way. I think it’s going to get bigger and bigger.
So you see yourselves as on the brink of a new wave of luxury then?
Well, I think luxury is a concept. Of course, I know some people who will never, ever, ever want to have a Christopher Ward watch, and we have to accept that because we don’t have that aura of a Patek Philippe for example. We’re a different apple that has come from a different tree.
But increasingly, as we have grown and we have also, in a way, ‘sophisticated’ ourselves. For example, last year, we brought out our own movement.
And there is a very well-know chief executive of a very well-known luxury watch brand, which said when he saw our movement: “What gives you the right to do that?”
“ We have the greatest respect for heritage watchmakers, but there are also so many people who hide behind the old gloss of luxury ”
And that seemed to really epitomize I think the level of independence which we are driving, which is a luxury in itself. I mean, we give ourselves the right to do that.
We’re not supposed to be able to, um, create these things. And we have the greatest respect for heritage watchmakers in this industry, but there are also so many people who hide behind the old gloss of luxury. But when you scrape that film of veneer away, then sometimes they don’t have anything like the sort of credentials we have watchmaking.
So, we are increasingly, attracting people who are interested in understanding and being part of this kind of disrupter, because they know that we’re doing things that are truly challenging the world of horology.
“ We’re not the people who want to play that sort of game. We are, by nature, disruptive. ”
There’s the route of just having high prices and calling yourself a luxury brand, but that isn’t the road we’re going down. It’s not the route that we think is solid for us because we’re just not that sort of brand and we’re not the people who want to play that sort of game. We are, by nature, disruptive.
And what is becoming clearer every day is that there are enough people now and a growing number of people who know that some of these industries are right to be disrupted. And we really think the watch industries is one of those – and I’ve seen nothing we’ve seen in the 10 years we’ve been in business that persuades me that we’re not right.
Would you say a far percentage of those ‘people’ who admire the disruptors are ‘millennials’ – seeing as they too, are disruptors, in that they are forcing brands to rethink their strategies and increasing also, their traditional marketing mixes?
Yes, I think you’re right, I think with the millennials – their view of what constitutes quality and luxury is different to the previous generation.
So I’ve no doubt, that their expectation of luxury brands will be different and the expect transparency as a minimum. And one of the pillars of Christopher Ward is that we set off to be completely transparent.
And I can honestly say that while we sometimes get things wrong, we don’t con people. We’re completely open. We tell people where everything comes from and that’s getting noticed in the industry.
To be completely honest, on that note – I’m telling you that there are many, many, many brands, luxury brands in the watch industry today who, if they told the truth, their customer base would be appalled. And the reason they have things to hide is because they’re not transparent from the start.
“ Lots of luxury brands simply can not afford to be truthful. ”
So, it all goes back to integrity. Back to proverbs. Back to the things that people can now can check up on, which 20 years ago you couldn’t, but now, with internet and this new savvy generation, you can.
Therefore lots of luxury brands – not just in the watch industry – but lots of luxury brands, simply can not afford to be truthful.
You know, the message is often managed. It’s like politics. And sometimes, for some brands, that’s right – but it also it leaves this kind of blandness. But I think the world is definitely beginning to change. I really hope it’s going to change, and we’re a force of reckoning in that way.
“ Red tape in bigger companies sometimes tends to degrade creative freedom ”
Is that how you felt when you sealed the merger in 2014 that made you a truly vertical watch brand? The news coverage suggests that it was quite a shock to many. How does this operating structure make your business different from the bigger companies?
Well, red tape in bigger companies sometimes tends to degrade creative freedom. In some ways.
We’re very, very lucky to have a remarkable German watch-maker on our side, so that helps us stay creative. He’s quite a bit young. He’s in his early thirties, and he’s a remarkable young watch-maker who, really got to sink his teeth in working with brands in haute horologerie early on. So in his twenties he was building watches that were retailing at such 5,000 pounds, 100,000 pounds, and he’s just a remarkable talent, and he’s our watch-maker.
The reason he chooses to work with us – because he could literally have his choice, to work for anybody – is partly because he doesn’t want people buying watches to put into a safe! he wants to see watches on the wrists of as many people as possible, rather than people buying them and but because the price they paid, terrified to wear them. Because that’s what happens with very expensive watches.
But we have a different we have a business model – we’re doing what we love – although, of course, we work out, what the overhead is, what profit margin we want to take, etc – because we’ve all got to make money also, so we can keep the factory in business, right?
You know, I don’t see any barriers to where we can go horologically speaking. We have creative freedom. And that’s very exciting. Some of the things we are working on, I wouldn’t have thought possible five years ago.
The story of Chris Ward is still at 10, so we’ve got ways left to go. But look from where we’ve come. It’s all about those challenges, and who knows whether we succeed or not, um, but trying them is going to be exciting!
“ There’s not that much interest for me in extending the reach of the brand into other sectors ”
On that note – growth through category expansion has proven a successful strategy for many luxury brands, so for Christopher Ward, can you see a future where you diversify into another category?
To me, focus is very core, and we want to become increasingly brilliant at what we do – and what we do, what we create, are watches.
There’s not that much interest for me in extending the reach of the brand into other sectors like jewellery, because there’s so much to go at in watches. It would just deflect.
But on the expansion note, do I think at some point we may well end up having our own retail outlet? Now, that’s something that I wouldn’t be surprised at.
“ We believe there is an opportunity for us to move to the physical world of retailing – at the right time ”
Would we do them in the traditional way? No.
We already have a showroom, and it’s by appointment only, and that’s been phenomenally successful. Therefore we believe there is an opportunity for us to move to the physical world of retailing – at the right time.
That’s something that’s actually on our mind at the moment, but we’ve got to think of a slightly different way to so it, to the traditional retail model. Because we’re so virtual, we would own that space it wouldn’t be able to be ‘third-party’. It would have to fit in with our independent the business model potential.
Christopher Ward showroom, by appointment only
What about the price range you currently offer? Do you see that changing in tandem with the development of new; perhaps more complicated, watches by the brand?
Well, yes, because as I said, we haven’t reached the barrier in terms of what we can do and what watches we can offer.
We will always have ranges that are there to bring people into the brand at the entry level, but we’re in the process of developing a new master collection, which will have our most complicated watches to date, which will be priced at several thousand pounds. They may be five or six thousand pounds. These are not cheap watches, these are expensive watches. They’re just two or three times cheaper than anything else you’ll find of the equivalent value.
So, what we will always do is have this sort of ‘access point’ for people, and then over time what we hope to do, as they develop their collections and they get more interested in watches and maybe become wealthier themselves, as that happens, we will grow with them and they will move up our line of watches – which is something we’re seeing already.
“ We always aim to grow, between 20 and 35% each year ”
Because many of our customers start at entry level and progressively move through, the chance of increasing younger consumers that we want to be with for the rest of their lives, essentially, also increases.
All these things take time, but there’s a lot of potential in them.
How many watches is Christopher Ward producing each year? And will that increase?
We ship out around about 20,000 watches a year, and we always aim to grow, between 20 and 35% each year.
We’ve been able to achieve that, so far, but in terms of markets where that growth is coming from – we see the US market potentially being much bigger than the UK market within the next three to four years.
So there’s a big focus on the US the years looking forward.
“ We see the US market potentially being much bigger than the UK market within the next three to four years ”
Are there any other markets, geographically, that you are hoping to tap in the near future?
Not at this stage, but the biggest uptake is in the English-speaking market, so main targets are Australia, North America including Canada, and then places like Hong Kong and Singapore where English is widely spoken.
We were seeing growth in Russia before, and we’re beginning to see some interest grow in the Middle East. But Mainland China, for example, is not something that we have focused on yet.
In any case, I think the world is littered with examples of brands charging into China and not succeeding.
One of the realities of playing in the Chinese market as big as that is, is that you need to have a physical presence there. It’s very difficult to crack the Chinese market when you’re purely online.
Adding to that, we’re a luxury brand in general now and several watch brands are beginning to suffer because of the decline there.
So how do you reach your targets – what is your marketing mix?
Well, we have a pretty big virtual presence and we’re connected with most of, if not all of the significant watch bloggers and forums across the world, and we’re pretty successful there. So we’re on all the usual things you’d expect digitally.
The two other main areas of our marketing expense are, firstly: Tapping into our consumer via a quarterly magazine, which has become an incredibly important part of our marketing mix.
That goes out to our entire database and the magazine doesn’t just cover watches, rather it has an array of articles and it keeps our customers engaged in the brand and keeps the relationship alive, by communicating in a way that adds some value into their lives in a sense. It’s a very soft marketing technique but actually has proved to be incredibly powerful for us and one important element of continuing to engage our customer base.
“ Although we operate at a different price level than the other brands, we show ourselves in exactly the same places ”
The other highly important strategy has more to do with trip advertisement. We have identified about four or five different types of people that are particularly relevant to our customer base and they live in cities within the city of London.
So, we’ve taken space in several magazines that touch the city. What I call Posh-London, which are places like Notting Hill, Kensington, or Mayfair itself, residencies and hotels.
We then hit the travel market, so if you’re travelling you’ll see a Christopher Ward advert. If you’re travelling from or through the airport, you’ll see an advert and in that way we go after ‘hobbyists’. So motor sports, for example, is a big, big draw. People who like driving cars and are also interested in watches.
And then there are the watch magazines of course, and they welcome us along side all of the top brands. In a way, one of the things we decided early on is that although we operate at a different price level than the other brands, we will show ourselves in exactly the same places that they show themselves, and so over time that encouraged an increasing number of people to see us in that frame. That’s worked really for us.
Of course, once they order and receive the package and are impressed by the quality, then that makes the biggest impact.
“ We’re at a tipping point, where we know enough to grow the brand exponentially over the next five years ”
So, ultimately then, how do you measure success at Christopher Ward?
Well, there are the obvious markers, such as financial, but for us the ultimate measurement is tied in with customer response. It really is.
Because we’re so connected to them, if we are lacking something the whole organization feels it.
The brand itself was taken to new heights of success from customer satisfaction, so it makes sense that that would continue to be a marker.
Christopher Ward C60 Trident
What is your overall vision for the business going forward? And what do you see as the biggest challenge ahead?
We think we’re at a tipping point, and by that I mean that we think with what’s in place now, we know enough to grow the brand exponentially over the next five years.
So, we have very, very aggressive, exciting but terrifying plans in place to grow the business and the brand over the next five to seven years.
The biggest challenge is to a deliver that, but also deliver it whilst retaining this polite contact that we have, or try to have, with our customers. And retain that sort of personal relationship that of our customers feel they have with the brand.
Brand growth though will also require us to bring in more people and manage that expansion and change, so I don’t underestimate how difficult that’s going to be but we think its worth the effort.
For more in our series of conversations with Luxury Leaders, please see our most recent editions as follows: