Georges Kern is CEO of internationally renowned watch brand IWC Schaffhausen. The role, which he took back in 2002 at the age of 36, made him the youngest CEO within the Richemont Group of exclusive luxury brands. Prior to that, he had studied Political Science in Strasbourg, France, and obtained a degree in Business Administration from the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland.
And, alongside his corporate objectives, he is also strongly committed to charitable causes, for example, through his position on the Board of Trustees of the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, which helps young people to overcome their social problems through sport. Plus, Georges Kern is a patron of the Fondation Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Fondation Antoine de Saint-Exupéry pour la Jeunesse, which supports disadvantaged young people on their path to adulthood. And he counts active climate protection among his corporate responsibilities. For example, upon his initiative, IWC was certified as a carbon neutral company.
That’s -in a nutshell- what he does.
But who is he? Probably the most brilliant Big Pilot of the Haute Horlogerie universe. Always sharply dressed and silver tongued, this gentleman has created one of the strongest brands of Richemont Group. Very intuitive, with a strong will and an even stronger character, he may well intimidate you at first. But after a few minutes, you cannot help but surrender to his sharp sense of humour and bold ways of thinking – usually way ahead of his time. This is a man who simply knows exactly what he wants and how to get it, knowing that nothing, absolutely nothing, is impossible.
While in Goodwood for the incomparable 74th Members Meeting, I’ve had the immense honour and pleasure of getting to know him better, over brunch and dinner, before, during and after the presentation of the newest IWC Ingenieur models and races.
What was the biggest lesson Günter Blümlein, the legendary founder and director of the LMH Group, taught you, while responsible for integrating the sales operations of the three brands (IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre, and A. Lange & Söhne), back in 2002, after you joined the Richemont group? And what was the very first thing you simply had to change?
Unfortunately, I had only little time wth him, before he passed away. The most fundamental element he taught me, was to safeguard the independent identity of the brand towards the Group. To work without interference. And at first we had, to be honest, various operational issues to deal with, to to integrate the brand into a functioning, aligned group. It was quite an intense period, a shock really, because we had to also align cultures. Of course we had many conflicts, but when I look back, I believe we did a good job after all. Everything went as smoothly as it could.
Do you base most of your decisions on instinct?
You always have a stomach feeling, your gut. It’s impossible to analyse everything on an Excel sheet. Especially not luxury goods. Honestly, 80-90% of what IWC is today, is not what I originally had in mind, when I started. It’s an evolving process. And you do make mistakes in between. So, although nothing is based to chance, your instincts do play a huge role. It’s the moments that count: it can be that you hear something, or talk to somebody, and something in that triggers an idea in your mind, and you simply have to go for it.
You once stated, during an interview that “IWC was like a Porsche that had always been driven in first gear”, after the acquisition. Would you say you’ve reached the fifth or even sixth gear now?
We have definitely switched, I’d say, to 3rd or 4th. But the brand still has huge potential. We have made progress, the car is moving a lot faster now. And we can even increase speed. But with high speeds, you’d better be an excellent driver. Mistakes are harder to fix, and are therefore inexcusable.
You support the Cousteau Society, David de Rothschild’s “adventure ecology” organization and the LaureusSport Awards, which donates to children’s charities. Business should set an example, yes. But we live in a world fixated on the transactional power of the image. So when it comes to communications, which are the real priorities in terms of gaining a competitive edge?
You can combine both. We do contribute, yes, but at the same time we play by the marketing rules. One does definitely not exclude the other. The opposite, really. If you can associate doing well in doing some good, then you’ve got the best of both worlds. For instance, by supporting the Cousteau Society, we clearly promote the Aquatimer collection of watches. The priority is the combination itself.
If a man or a woman could only invest in one timepiece, in their lifetime, which one would it have to be, according to you?
Normally, I’d say Portuguese. Because these are the classics. And they have a clear DNA of mythical proportions. But the Pilots, as well as the Portofino are also gaining ground in becoming classics.
Every time I read the phrase “Engineered for men”, I automatically think of “heroes”, the archetypal word describing a man’s virtues really.
Totally agree. The very idea of separating men’s to women’s watches is nowadays irrelevant – if not strange. Especially, since 50% of all, say Portuguese models, are sold to women – who want to avoid any “girly characteristics” and prefer a more sophisticated, or even masculine watch with a clear, strong identity. See, heroes can be men or women. What they have in common, regardless of their sexes, is a strong ethics and an even stronger character and will. They are rule breakers, standing out by what they accomplish.
If I asked you to describe IWC, using only 3 words, which three would they be?
A couple of years back, I would have answered this question with: men, bulky, technical. But a lot has changed. So my answer will be different today. I’d say: sophisticated, beautiful, technical. It’s like having a child. And after a certain point, measured in quite a few years, the child finally reaches a more mature phase. And, it’s not even a child anymore.
ABOUT GEORGES KERN
Name your very first watch.
It was an IWC Ingenieur, given to me by my father. I was 24 or 25… Still have it, still love it.
How big was the influence of your father, René Kern, as a very important jeweller, to you and what you have become?
His excellent taste had a great impact on me. He introduced me to the sophisticated world of arts and design, not just jewellery. And when you get raised in this environment, you integrate all elements into your own DNA automatically.
What was the biggest lesson your own son taught you?
To let him be. To let him live.
How many IWC watches do you own today? And which one is your absolute favorite?
Countless, naturally. Having full access to all pieces and collections is priceless. Which makes it even more difficult to have an absolute favourite. I could never decide. Just like I stick to a specific song that I keep listening to frenetically, for a certain period of time, say a week… Well, this is very similar with me and my IWC watches. Each love affair lasts for a few days or weeks. Right now I’m going through my Big Pilot days. Previously, it was a certain Portugieser.
Favorite car of all times.
I’m a huge Aston Martin fan, but I would love to buy myself a Ferrari Dino at some point.
Favorite F1 pilot of all times.
Definitely Ayrton Senna.
Name the 3 things you definitely could not live without – in terms of personal style.
Beautiful watches, obviously. Beautiful shoes. And cashmere jackets.
Favorite travel destination // Favourite business destination.
I’m not a complicated person, when it comes to travel destinations. A good combination of sun, sea, good food and the ability to cycle, would work fine for me. Which is why I visit often Greece.
When it comes to business travel, I love London, Paris, Hong Kong, New York.
How do you cool off from a hectic business day?
By playing drums. Every hard hit sets me free, releases all tension.
Favorite sin to indulge into?
Chocolate and chocolate.
Favorite dish you can not only prepare, but master like a pro?
None! I don’t cook. I did once, in order to win my wife’s heart. I came, I cooked, I conquered her, and then left the kitchen forever.
Favorite signature cocktail?
Oh, I don’t drink alcohol.
What is the new luxury, according to you?
Seasons have changed, society has changed, time passes by faster than it used to. Making all true, deep rooted values of the past (like stability and tradition) almost fade away. There’s nothing more rare than honesty nowadays. And time (especially offline), yes.
You are a rule breaker. Is there anything labeled as “impossible” to you?
No, nothing. Literally nothing is impossible.
If you were to host one exquisitely private dinner tonight and you could only invite 4 special guests, who would they be, if I told you resurrection would be no technical issue for just that one night?
Napoléon Bonaparte, Steve McQueen, Leonardo da Vinci, George Washington.
Where would you ideally be and what would you ideally do in, say, 20 years from now?
Movies and entertainment. I’ve always admired and loved that field. And to think I have so many friends in that sector, directors, actors… If I could start all over again, today, I’d become a movie director, yes.