Even in the exceedingly turbulent times that the watch industry has been enduring for nearly two years, it is rare news to see major brands exchange hands – and that is why today is a notable day, as it has just been announced that Breitling has been sold to CVC Capital Partners for more than 800 million euros – that is about 873 million US dollars or 866 million Swiss francs.
Until this moment, Breitling had been one of only a handful of properly independent major brands out there – Chopard and Patek Philippe remain two other family-owned big players in the industry, with every other mammoth brand either owned by one of the big four groups (Swatch Group, LVMH, Richemont, and Kering) or some other major entity, like Rolex and Tudor with the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation. The last big news of this nature was when family-owned Frederique Constant, Alpina, and Atelier de Monaco were purchased by Citizen Watch Co. last year.
Nevertheless, previous majority owner Theodore Schneider will remain with Breitling because, as part of the CVC Capital Partners deal, he agreed to re-invest for a 20% stake in Breitling. Ironically, it was as recently as May last year that Breitling vice-president Jean-Paul Girardin told Reuters he was confident in Breitling retaining its independence despite speculation about its future following the 2015 passing of Ernest Schneider who bought the brand in 1979.
Still, soon after that interview, Bloomberg (the breaker of today’s news) had reported in late November last year that Breitling was “on the block” for sale, after having been in the hands of the Schneider family since 1979. Breitling has very much been a family-run company in the sense that Ernest Schneider had been running it from the late ’70s until the early ’90s when his son, Théodore Schneider took over. While Théodore is the (exceedingly rarer) type of the quiet watch CEO who stays out of the limelight, he’s said to be very much taking part in running the business.
Late last year, when the speculation regarding Breitling’s sale sprung, analysts expected the manufacture that employs some 900 people and produces around 150,000 watches annually to fetch between 600 and 900 million Swiss francs (CHF). As of today, we know that Breitling has been acquired for over CHF866 million – with Breitling’s annual sales of about CHF420 million, this might give the company the financial stability it needed to make it through these troubling times and, hopefully, come out stronger once it’s over.
As for CVC’s official plans with Breitling, Daniel Pindur, Senior Managing Director at CVC says: “Using our network and expertise, CVC will work to make this global, iconic brand even more renowned and help shape the future of one of Switzerland’s last independent watch manufacturers. Specifically, we see significant growth potential for Breitling in both existing and new geographies by driving the digitization of the marketing and distribution channels in the company, helping to enrich the product and customer experience.”
Breitling, who produces some of the quality movements, dials, cases, and bracelets for its watches has tremendous potential and, on a personal note, I am a bit worried to see them become part of a large financial group. Times do change from better to worse and back in the watch industry, there’s nothing new about that, but I do hope that Breitling will stay away from cheapening its brand and its products in chasing higher temporary profits. If you’ve handled a Chronomat or Navitimer lately, you’ll know that Breitling has a long way down the quality food chain, as its movements, cases, bracelets, and dials remain some of the truly solidly built ones at a time when we already see a lot of high-end brands go for cheaper designs and quality of execution.
Challenges ahead of Breitling include fixing the strong discounting and vast grey market as well as gaining more traction in established and new markets through streamlined and more powerful branding and marketing. They produce a huge variety of timepieces from the $2,000 Colt Skyracer with a COSC-certified quartz movement and carbon composite case (hands-on here) through the Bluetooth-connected black rubber straps Bentley Supersports B55 copy watches (explained here) and true Breitling classics like the Navitimer 01 (reviewed here), to the bonkers-expensive, $40,000 Superocean Heritage Chronoworks (hands-on here). All this is to say that Breitling stands on a solid foundation of versatile collections, but their awareness and global presence has to be improved – something both parties expect “the network and expertise of CVC” to assist with.
More recent news from Arabic numerials Breitling copy watches included their producing of chronograph movements for the Tudor Heritage Black Bay Chrono (hands-on here) and them sourcing a base three-hand movement from Tudor in return. This, though not confirmed, implied unused manufacturing capacities at Breitling and a break from industry-wide principle in that they chose not to invest in developing their own base manufacture caliber but rather source one with similar credentials.
The transaction between Breitling and CVC Capital Partners is expected to complete by around June 2017, subject to approval by competition authorities. How long and in what role Théodore Schneider will stay around at Breitling, we are yet to learn. The charming replica watches are worthy to try.