Although Graham watches are manufactured in Switzerland today, it draws its quintessentially English roots from central London. The company is named after its founder, George Graham, a master watchmaker who lived on Fleet Street — once considered the most important location for British journalism until the Dundee-based Sunday Post closed its London office last year (it was the last news institution to remain on the street, the rest having moved to other areas of the city).
George — who found excellent company in the smoky bars where tips and tales were often traded by members of the press — was a scientist, friend of astronomers and known as the Father of the Chronograph. By challenging design and technique, he invented the start and stop device of the chronograph in 1725, as well as lesser-known complications like the dead-beat and cylinder escapements and the mercury pendulum. George also built the most precise clock for the Greenwich Royal Observatory, which timed most of the naval achievements of the 18th century.
When Patric Zingg first joined Graham in 2015 as international sales and marketing director, he was fascinated by the unusual story of the brand’s founding, and would parlay its history as he crafted its master plan for the future. He was also genuinely inspired by the unique nature of Graham’s watches, especially the trigger for which it is most famous. “I love that this brand takes a stand,” he says, smiling broadly. “Independent watchmakers must have their own stream instead of going up against the larger groups, and the trigger is ours. Our dials are on trend, for sure, but the trigger on our watches is most unique,” he tells us when we meet one sunny afternoon.
He has come to Malaysia often as part of his transformative efforts for the brand since he took on the role of managing director last year. “I love the weather in KL,” he confides. “Graham does so well in this region.”
We start our conversation over coffee and some show-and-tell. He generously slides off his own watch for me to admire — the beautiful 40mm Chronofighter is so ergonomically designed that it fits my slender wrist perfectly. He has also brought some of the brand’s most interesting watches for me to see, including the breathtaking Geo-Graham Orrery Tourbillon, and the festive and cheeky Chronofighter Vintage Nose Art Ltd.
I cannot help but notice that Graham’s unconventional and bold aesthetic is perfectly matched with Zingg’s personality as well. The man is witty, charismatic and dresses for the part — I am more than impressed with his choice of chequered jacket, stylish tasselled loafers and leather bracelets. His Chronofighter, with its bold red strap, matches his ensemble perfectly.
Zingg — who is of Swiss and Italian ancestry — grew up in Bienne, a quiet town nestled in the Swiss cradle of watchmaking. “In Switzerland, you have three career options — watches, banking or Nestlé,” he quips, with a completely straight face. “It so happened that the first job I got was with the Swatch Group, so that’s where I stayed for several years, and that was how I got into the world of watchmaking.” After making his way up the ranks in various marketing departments, Zingg went on to live out his dream of working in New York by representing independent watch brand Hamilton, where he completely reversed the Pennsylvania-based brand’s fortunes and made it a huge commercial success.
It was the call of family that took him back to Switzerland, where he worked for Rado and later on, Swiss manufacturing company Sigg, before co-founding a design development studio. “They wanted me to turn the company around, make it successful, then it would be sold. It was an amazing challenge, but that’s the job that made me old and lose all my hair,” he laughs, referring to his role at Sigg, world-famous for its iconic water bottles. What he did was no laughing matter, though, as Zingg harnessed his marketing chutzpah and transformed Sigg before it was sold in 2016 to China-based Haers Vacuum Containers for an impressive CHF16.1 million (RM66.3 million).
The current owner of Graham, Eric Loth, approached him soon after with a request to develop the brand in the US — in private equity circles, everyone knew who Zingg was and the kind of transformation he was capable of. He became managing director less than a year later.
“I believe in two things: people and products. I have known Eric for years now and he’s definitely someone I respect and whose values I am aligned with. He is a creative entrepreneur and he inspires me,” Zingg says. “In terms of product — this is an English watch company with a Swiss heart that’s always been positioned as a rock and roll brand. When other brands zig, we always zag. When everyone goes yellow, we go black. This approach is something I really like.”
Visibility was one of the issues Zingg identified Graham as having — it simply wasn’t as well-known as other Swiss watch brands, even though its watches were flawless and beautifully made. The global watch industry was also not doing as well as it could — independent watchmakers like Graham are often the worst hit during slower times. The way Zingg saw it, the brand was in need of an operational overhaul — the collections needed to be re-organised, marketing efforts needed to be more targeted and there was a need to look at personnel as well, as the team was far too small.
“We were lost, and we needed to find our way. But this is normal for a lot of brands and it was not impossible to remedy,” he says, in what I was starting to recognise as his trademark positive tone. “The first thing I did — which is advice I give everyone who wants to transform a company — was to go to all of Graham’s markets and examine what the business was like. This may sound glamorous, but it’s not. I travelled all over the world for three straight months. I kept my ears to the ground … I listened to what all our staff had to say.” People were Zingg’s first focus, and second was building a team that was better aligned to the DNA of the company.
Then, he looked at developing an action plan with a strong vision. After all, Graham is a manly man’s brand selling watches that are boys’ toys and unabashedly bold, filled with a sexy brand of rock ‘n’ roll. This meant streamlining Graham’s product portfolio, resulting in a cleaner and more easily understood arsenal of timepieces. He also brought down the average price from CHF8,000 to a more affordable CHF5,000.
I travelled all over the world for three straight months. I kept my ears to the ground … I listened to what all our staff had to say
The trendsetting Chronofighter, which continues to be a key collection for the brand, features Graham’s renowned signature — the trigger on the left side of the case that guarantees the most instinctive and fastest use of the chronograph functions. The Silverstone range bears an impressive array of racing skills and adrenaline, with its fast chronographs featuring racing colours and enhanced by sophisticated functions. Finally, the brand’s entire arsenal is crowned with haute horlogerie masterpieces powered by complex mechanisms in the Geo.Graham line.
Its global presence was next. Zingg felt that Graham was present in too many markets, some of which were not performing as well as they should. He adjusted that by streamlining the number of countries that the brand was in — from 68 countries to 35 currently. “Ideally, we should be in 22 to 25 countries,” Zingg shares. “We do not have the resources to be in 68 countries — we don’t make enough watches for that, and I would rather serve one market well than 10 countries badly. When you divide a small marketing budget to several markets, everyone gets peanuts. I prefer to give individually strong markets a clear voice.”
Interestingly, Malaysia is a key market for Graham. The brand once boasted a standalone boutique in Starhill Gallery, but now sells its watches through trusted partners including Swiss Watch Gallery, Sincere Fine Watches, AWG Fine Watches, Watatime and Cortina Watch. The US region continues to be key, along with South Asia, where Graham has always done roaring business. Zingg says an intrinsic openness to design and new ideas in the latter area resonates with Graham’s bold and unconventional aesthetic.
Zingg’s carefully laid out transformation plan would take five years to complete, but he says things appear to be well ahead of schedule. “We have registered 20% growth and reduced operational costs by almost 80%. So, even if we are not in the black at the end of this year, we are at least in the pink. But certainly not red,” he quips. “I thought it would take two years but we have done it in less than that, and I must say the team has been incredible.”
Although Zingg cannot say this assignment with Graham has been his favourite, it does come at a point in his career where he has already experienced a great deal. The company is therefore the fortunate recipient of much of his expertise. “I’ve put into Graham all that I had learnt at the Swatch Group, Sigg, from [my time in] private equity and from life in general. The only thing I think I haven’t improved enough is my patience … and it’s ironic because watchmaking is anchored in being patient,” he laughs. “My professional career has moved along with my private life, and I think the way you make decisions at work is coloured by the various stages in your personal life — as you become a father, for example, or if you lose someone you love.”
This father of two girls — “My house is full of women, so Graham and its manly watches are my outlet,” he quips — is very positive about the future of the brand. “In my two years [with the brand], what’s had the biggest impact on me is being able to secure so many jobs when we hired new people to join the team. That has been wonderful, and the company would not have done so well without the people we hired,” he says, glancing surreptitiously at his watch, indicating that we are out of time. “What I love most about the brand … that it is so different, that it never shies away from being unique. And that resonates very personally with me. I don’t want to be just like anyone else, and here is a watch brand that is the same way.”
This cover story appeared in the Dec 18, 2017 issue of The Edge Malaysia. Save by subscribing to us for your print and/or digital copy.