Timex's chief, who has five watches to match who he's meeting, wants to create luxury stores here with an Indian look - not the pale imitations of the West he constantly sees.
When I meet him, Hans-Kristian Hoejsgaard, Chairman and CEO of the Timex Group BV, one of the world's largest designers, manufacturers, marketers and distributors of watches, is wearing, but naturally, a Timex watch. It’s a new chronograph, “practical”, he says, and shows me, gleefully, in the middle of the day, how the dial lights up. By way of conversation starters, we talk of how the last three American presidents (Bush senior, Clinton and Bush junior) have all been “Timex presidents” and Hoejsgaard hopes Obama will follow suit. He may. It is, he says, after all, the people’s watch in America (quite like your association with the brand in India), synonymous with the sporty look and, for those who follow history, the “watch that made the dollar famous”. But don’t go by that image. The group is today focusing on its luxury business — “that’s where the maximum growth lies,” as Hoejsgaard points out. In India too, even in these troubled times, writes Anoothi Vishal.
If I had met Hoejsgaard a little later, it is quite possible that I may have found him wearing a different watch: A Versace or a Ferragamo, or any of the 12 brands in the company’s portfolio (spanning mid-market to luxury). What about a Vincent Bérard? I ask. Well, “I can’t afford that,” Hoejsgaard grins, talking about the watch that, at its price tag of ¤75,000 upwards, is a serious collector’s item and not just because of the money involved. Each of the watch’s 224 components are decorated by hand, Hoejsgaard says, and there is a mechanism by which you can even flip open the back to see them. Only 200-odd pieces are produced the world over every year, and from this year onwards, one or two may finally come to India. “It’s like buying art,” he says and then regales me with a story about a collector in Singapore with 700 watches, a senior gent, who employs one person solely responsible for making him change his watches three to four times in a day. “He wants to be sure that he is enjoying luxury.”
We are sitting at the Oberoi’s new, luxe patisserie. Hoejsgaard has ordered a double espresso, I haven’t been able to resist the superb hot chocolate (with orange and cinnamon and a real chocolate spoon) and am beginning to figure out that while this particular CEO may not be a collector himself, his job obviously has its perks. “Choosing which watch to wear every day requires serious consideration in the morning,” he smiles after I’ve suitably admired the Timex on his wrist, “It’s not like choosing this tie,” he points to the pink one he’s wearing. Hoejsgaard’s briefcase, he says, contains four other watches this very moment — to be worn depending on who he’s meeting. (The Timex has been for a meeting with the Timex India board of which he is chairman).
Hoejsgaard likes the fact that he is in a “happy business” — people, after all, primarily buy luxury watches or jewellery or similar stuff as gifts — but with the recession, his work is cut out. While Timex is a well-established brand, the luxury arm of the company needs to take off in India. Like other players in the business he likens the situation in India to that in China a decade ago, and is not at all disheartened by the slowing growth rate. “You’ll, at least, have 6-7 per cent in 2009 — we’d be very happy to have that,” he exclaims while we talk about the pitfalls and perceptions of the Indian market for luxury.
One of the challenges in India is, of course, high duties and taxes on imported luxury goods. “That means that products such as ours are 20-25 per cent higher here than elsewhere. Obviously people who buy them also travel,” he says, adding that companies like his have already cut margins for the Indian market or “prices would have been 40-45 per cent higher.” The other problem is retail space.
One of my reasons for choosing the venue of this Coffee with BS has been to take Hoejsgaard on a walk through the hotel’s shopping arcade that drips labels and is certainly amongst one of the most successful, high-end retail environments around. We talk of the “failure” of the luxury malls — the DLF Emporio in New Delhi or UB City in Bangalore — but Hoejsgaard is convinced that they’ll take off, “it’s just bad timing,” he says. Even in China, the first luxury spaces available were within hotels but “having specialised malls is the way to go. I like the fact that Emporio has Indian designers too.” And he does know at least some Indian designers — Tarun Tahiliani, for one.
The group’s retail model for their luxury watches involves placing them in parent stores. They do watches for Nautica, Guess, Marc Ecko, Opex Paris, TX and Versus; the luxury portfolio includes the likes of Versace, Valentino, and Ferragamo, and at the apex is the Swiss-made, handcrafted Vincent Bérard that we mentioned earlier. The company has manufacturing and distribution arrangements with these brands and owns Vincent Bérard, having acquired it in 2006. In India — where Timex India is a listed company — they have also come out with their retail store concept called ‘The Time Factory’ for mid-priced and premium watches.
So what is the first thing that strikes him when he sees all the big stores we’ve walked past? “It is a little bit of a pity that they look the same… a shopper can close his eyes and not know whether he is in New York or Paris or New Delhi.” Hoejsgaard talks of more creative formats that are now being experimented with — he mentions a Louis Vuitton store in Japan and a Prada one in Beverly Hills — and hopes that there will be an opportunity to do the same with the vibrant Indian culture. The emphasis should be on creating a “wow” retail experience for a customer of luxury.
“…But you haven’t eaten any of the chocolate spoon,” observes Hoejsgaard, described elsewhere as a “brand equity specialist… with expertise in Asia”. Of his 25 years spent in high-end consumer retail, including in the luxury business — Hoejsgaard headed Georg Jensen, the Danish jewellery and watchmaking company before this, marketed perfumes for Guerlain in Asia-Pacific both before and after its acquisition by Louis Vuitton Moet Hennesy, and has marketed amongst other things Chivas Regal and Martell Cognac in Asia — 10 have been spent in Asia. Certainly, his ease with the continent and its people comes across in his informality.
We’ve moved on to talking about cross-cultural encounters and Hoejsgaard tells me that in the US headquarters, HR is often perplexed by some of the queries it receives from first-time Indian employees: “One of the common questions is ‘how do you ask someone out to a date’.” In India, at Timex’s new factory in Baddi, Himachal Pradesh, staff from local villages are taught, amongst other things, table etiquette! But this is no condescending “westerner” here. Having lived equally in Asia, Europe and now America, Hoejsgaard says he has always felt that the perfect product should incorporate “American informality, European formality and Asian practicality.”
Practicality? I question, “You people are not overawed,” he says. The biggest learning he did in India was to understand that “people who you do business with are friends and that the friendship comes first.” That’s not what every European understands. Coffee over, we chat about his passion for cooking — he has taken classes in Provence-style cooking, recently attempted Thai and promises to do some Indian too. And we chat about his wine cellar with 800 bottles of Bordeaux from Pouillac. It’s a fabulous collection. So what if it isn’t watches?