Roger Dubuis North America
Ronald Wolfgang, known among his friends and colleagues as Ronny, spent the most recent decade of his career in the watch industry at Jaeger-LeCoultre, where he led the venerable company to unprecedented growth and innovation in North America, both before and after Richemont took ownership of it. Had he retired last fall, it would have been an exit at the apex of his game. Instead, Swiss-born Wolfgang took on another challenge. He took over the top spot in North America for the watch brand Roger Dubuis, which Richemont has also just acquired. Four months into his new role, he sat down with Elite Traveler in New York to discuss the challenges of growing a young brand, the upside of watches in a down economy, and how a Roger Dubuis watch is special among all others.
ET: What were the highlights of your career that brought you to this position at Roger Dubuis?
Ronny Wolfgang: I spent 20 years building Ebel, from 1979 to 1999. Then, for ten years I led Jaeger-LeCoultre in America. I was actually going to go do something else entirely with my daughter. Then Richemont acquired Roger Dubuis, and asked me to re-launch it in the U.S. I started in October—my timing was not great! But it is an extraordinary manufacture, with truly great movement manufacturing. The Roger Dubuis line is young, sexy, a little bit edgy, and it appeals to the younger affluent consumer as an alternate to traditional watch brands out there.
ET: I am guessing Roger Dubuis is not often the first luxury watch a person buys?
Ronny Wolfgang: Roger Dubuis is probably the third, fourth or fifth watch they buy. They buy it for style and for quality. All Roger Dubuis watches are equipped with their Geneva Seal movements. In the U.S. some repair work needs to be done on the brand because it has gone through a few distribution models in recent years. Now, under Richemont, we have a period of re-stabilization and building confidence among retailers.
ET: What was the personal appeal to you to join the brand?
Ronny Wolfgang: Roger Dubuis brings to market a very high quality product with original styling, and I see a wide open place for it in better jewelers’ watch offerings. The look, the movement, I appreciate all of the fine work that goes into these watches.
ET: What are your first objectives for the brand?
Ronny Wolfgang: In the short term, we need to re-evaluate the distribution, and make changes in the market where they are warranted. In the long term, we’ll develop new products with exceptional movements, expand the collection’s offerings, and create excitement with aficionados of high watch-making. After 35 years in the watch industry, I know how attractive it is to have Richemont’s backing in order to re-establish a brand in the U.S. In 2001, Richemont bought Jaeger-LeCoultre. I was there for a year-and-a-half before the purchase. Jaeger had been a pretty sleepy, but extraordinary watch company that needed explanation, and for people to better understand its extraordinary history and the DNA of the brand. It was obvious that once people understood, the fine retailers of North America would embrace the brand and distribute it. Jaeger-LeCoultre had 175 years of uninterrupted history. Roger Dubuis was founded in 1995. The brand is attractive for its freshness in styling and creativity of the movement at such a high level. The manufacture is a manufacture in the true sense of the word, it makes everything in the watch, even escapements, which most other brands don’t. Roger Dubuis makes about 6,500 watches per year.
ET: How will the luxury watch industry reposition itself in a recession?
Ronny Wolfgang: The last five years or so have been explosive. In the early ‘70s, affluent Americans wore Timex watches. Then, watches were not considered status symbols here, or even accessories. Today they are status symbols, and a watch is a statement of one’s refinement and taste. There’s a saying in the industry: You can’t drive your Aston Martin into the board room, but you can wear your $200,000 watch there. A fine watch became an emblem of success to a lot of successful guys. That also made for a proliferation of watch brands, what some refer to as ‘virtual brands,’ because there was such demand for unusual, complicated watches. Now? People are going to be a lot more selective in what they buy, more price conscious, and gravitate to traditional, classical, well-established brands. I think styling will become more conservative and the market is going to shrink substantially.
ET: Is the world’s definition of luxury changing?
Ronny Wolfgang: The definition hasn’t changed. It’s defined by rarity and not be advertising or positioning. Brand equity and its protection will be a central theme for luxury products. I think the luxury industry has to re-think its distribution models to better control brand equity, because brand equity is being diluted by too broad a distribution channel, which creates a lot of discounting just for survival. It will be difficult to sell something that’s been highly discounted for the same high prices that were paid in the past. Some consumers feel foolish that they ever paid those prices. Luxury will always exist, and consumers will always desire to differentiate themselves by what they wear. There is a natural human desire to distinguish yourself by something rare, exclusive, and often expensive. Even cavemen wore different colored beads. Hermes, for example, has done a fantastic job defending its brand equity, with its Birkin bag. Every woman wants one, but they are very selective and it is hard to get one! There is a lot of illusion in luxury, and once you destroy it, it is very had to get it back quickly. There has been a tremendous effort on the part of pseudo luxury companies to create an aura of luxury around their products, because they were targeting a “reach” market. But true luxury is not a mass product. When you want to sell more than what true luxury allows, you dilute your brand equity. Then you are no longer considered luxury by those who can still afford it.
ET: What are your personal luxuries?
Ronny Wolfgang: Travel, things in my home, art and furniture.
ET: What was a recent luxury trip that left a great impression on you?
Ronny Wolfgang: I would recommend Lanai, Hawaii, and also the Puglia region of southern Italy, which is magnificent yet still somewhat remote and unknown. I grew up in Switzerland, so when I go to Geneva for work I stay in my home.
ET: Which new Roger Dubuis designs will Elite Traveler readers prefer?
Ronny Wolfgang: Now there are three main collections: Excalibur, EZ Diver sport line, and the King Square, which we are delivering for the first time this year. King Square is a large square with a faceted crystal. It is fashionable, with interesting dial treatments, and chrono or basic movements. With three lines we have a limited number of items to promote and can display them in a way that is understandable to the consumer. This is an era of ‘less is more,’ and it’s only common business sense to do that in the economic conditions we live in. The strategy for luxury companies is to clean up their acts and re-focus on getting the right distribution, the right product presentation, and create a sense of rarity for their products. Human nature is to always want what we think we can’t get—the true definition of luxury.