How a family can guard a luxury brand: Lessons from Patek Philippe

How a family can guard a luxury brand: Lessons from Patek Philippe

by Joachim Schwass, Denise Kenyon-Rouvinez and Anne-Catrin Glemser | Jun 4, 2014

Patek Philippe, the Swiss luxury watchmaker,recently turned 175 years old.The company is Geneva’s oldest independent family-owned watch manufacturer, and its long-term perspective is reflected in its iconic advertising:“You never actually own a Patek Philippe, you merely look after it for the next generation”.
The brothers Charles and Jean Stern, producers of watch dials, acquired the business in 1932, almost a hundred years after it was founded in 1839.The Stern family, which has now owned and managed Patek Philippefor four generations,has a similar view of its own role in protecting and developingthe brand.
Thierry Stern, the Presidentsince 2009, says:“We are the guardian of the brand, and are looking after it for a few moments in time. We were not the founder, the brand had existed before our family acquired it, and we never tried to make it our own.”
Nevertheless, the familyhas made its mark on Patek Philippe in three distinctive ways that contain useful lessons for other family businesses.
Clear brand positioning: quality, not quantity
The Swiss watch industry is highly competitive. It includes about 600 different companies, many of which target the luxury segment where watches cost more than CHF 3,000. The Stern  family is determined to keep Patek Philippe at the very top of this luxury segment as a “meta-luxury”[i] brand, distinguished by its excellence, heritage, pricing and highly selective distribution to high net worth customers.
For some Patek Philippe models,these customers must apply to buy the watch and sometimes need to wait a couple of years before receiving it. In 2013 Patek Philippe sold about 55,000 watches, 2.5% more than in 2012, through 450 specialty dealers across 70 countries.
“We are not interested in volume but rather value growth and are limiting our annual sales,” Mr Stern says.
The number of so-called “centa-millionaires,” with more than US$100 million in assets, increased by 29% worldwide between 2006 and 2012 and is forecast to grow strongly over the coming years.[ii]But  Mr  Stern says Patek Philippe does not want to pursue faster short-term growth. Nor does he want to risk diluting the value of  the Patek Philippe brand by introducing brand extensions and licensing ventures.
Direct involvement in the business
The Stern family has always been personally involved in the business—not only as CEOs, Chairmen and board members, but also on the operating side.Mr Stern’s wife Sandrine has worked for Patek Philippe since 1996 and now leads the creation department, while his sister works at the company’s flagship store in Geneva.
Mr Stern, himself has technical watch expertise and is closely involved in developing and designing the company’s products.These are among the world’s most intricate watches; aPatek Philippe “Grande Complication” can haveup to 705 pieces as for the Sky Moon Tourbillon[iii].He carefully defines which materials to use, where to be innovative and when to draw a line and protect the brand from introducing what he considers to be “gadgets”. And, like his father Philippe Stern, the former President of Patek Philippe who decided to reintroduce the minute repeater[iv]in 1989, Mr Stern personally approves every single Minute Repeater before it leaves the workshops of the company’s“manufacture” in Plan-les-Ouates in thecanton of Geneva.
Family members build the brand by meeting frequently with customers, retailers and employees, and going to company events and trade shows.Mr Stern has appeared with his father in advertisements and image campaigns for the brand. And the Sterns invested in the Patek Philippe Museum, which opened in 2001in Geneva with the goal of showcasing the brand, its heritageand the history of watchmaking.
“You can only lead if you know the business and can walk the talk. You have to really live it, not just pretend to do so,”Mr Stern says.
Not rushing the next generation
Besides playing a highly public and visible role in the business, the Stern family occasionally ventures into the media. Recently there was a dispute with the Geneva tax authorities, when the company threatened to move out of the canton because of its “stifling” wealth tax policies.[v]
All this has implications for the family’s privacy.The Stern family has historically passed its watchmaking traditiondown through the generations bycombining entrepreneurial storytelling with the transmission of technical skills.But Mr Stern, who has children aged 10 and 11, does not want to expose the next generation to the business too early.
He wants his sons and their cousins to embrace his own passion for the watchmaking business before deciding on their future role in guarding the Patek Philippe brand.
“My role as a father is to teach them the right values, but it needs to be their decision to get involved,” he says.
Perhaps you never own a family business after all. You merely look after it for the next generation.
Joachim Schwass is Professor of Family Business at IMD and Denise Kenyon-Rouvinez is The Wild Group Professor of Family Business at IMD. Together, they co-direct the IMD Global Family Business Center.
Anne-Catrin Glemser is Family Business Research and Development Manager at IMD.

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Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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