Breitling Is Said to Poach Richemont's Watch Chief as CEO

  • Kern previously led IWC, was seen as Richemont CEO candidate
  • He’ll bring Breitling marketing savvy, aviation watch know-how

Swiss watchmaker Breitling has hired a top manager from rival Richemont as chief executive officer, infusing the aviation-themed brand with fresh thinking under its new private equity owner, according to a person familiar with the situation.

Georges Kern, the 52-year-old head of Richemont’s watchmaking business who was once seen as a candidate to become CEO of the entire company, quit less than four months after being promoted in a management reorganization. He’s giving up a portfolio that ranges from Vacheron Constantin to A. Lange & Sohne to join Breitling, which CVC Capital Partners agreed to buy in April.

“He would certainly be a good catch for Breitling,” said Christian Zogg, head of equity and fixed income at LLB Asset Management in Vaduz, Liechtenstein, which holds Richemont shares. “He has a very good reputation in the watch industry, and showed success with IWC.”

Kern will bring his marketing know-how to Breitling, one of the last significant Switzerland-based watch brands to remain independent until its sale to CVC in a deal said to be worth more than 800 million euros ($912 million). He’s joining the company as the Swiss watch industry tries to pull out of the longest downturn in exports on record as it faces challenges such as encroachment from Apple Inc., which has become the world’s second-bestselling watch brand.

Known for designs and advertising influenced by vintage air travel themes, Breitling has had a longtime marketing relationship with the actor John Travolta. Some Breitling ads have drawn criticism that they’re sexist. The watchmaker’s shop windows have showcased a mannequin sitting on a missile with its underwear peeking out from beneath a skirt.

IWC Schaffhausen

Previously Kern ran IWC Schaffhausen -- known for tongue-in-cheek macho sales pitches -- for 15 years. There, he built what had been a sleepy brand into one of Richemont’s largest timepiece makers. When Kern started in 2002, he was the company’s youngest brand CEO. He wheeled in a range of celebrities to promote the brand. 

At Breitling, Kern will take part in a management investment program, the person familiar with the situation said. Swiss newspaper Le Temps reported earlier that he was investing in the watchmaker. Breitling declined to comment.

Richemont said it regrets the loss and didn’t name a replacement. Richemont Chairman Johann Rupert said in May it’s time to let a new generation of executives lead the company after a 14 percent drop in fiscal-year operating profit. Its Montblanc brand began selling a smartwatch this year.

“The management structure is relatively new and I assume he didn’t feel comfortable with it,” said Jon Cox, an analyst at Kepler Cheuvreux. “Some assumed that Kern could become group CEO one day but now the group is run by a senior executive committee. Of course Johann Rupert is an ever present and I don’t see any change in strategy.”

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