"New management doesn't mean new vision"
Replacing a big personality in a high-profile job is never easy, but it was something that Montblanc's new CEO, Nicolas Baretzki, was tasked with doing when, in November 2016, Jerome Lambert stepped down from the hotseat of the Germany luxury brand.
Having worked with Richemont brands for more than 20 years, Baretzki joined Montblanc in 2013 as executive VP of sales. Esquire Middle East sat down with the new CEO to discuss what big plans (if any) there are for the brand:
ESQUIRE: You may be the new CEO but you are not new to the company, are you?
Nicolas Baretzki: Not at all. I have been at Richemont for 23 years, including four years at Montblanc and 15 years working with Jérôme Lambert [the departing CEO who has taken up a corporate role with Richemont]. So I’ve been prepared for this day for a while. But I guess it’s only when you start that you realise what is really happening.
You’ve recently celebrated the renewal of your ongoing partnership with Unicef…
We started with them 13 years ago, so it’s a deep partnership. Every three or four years there has been a renewal, but the goal is still the same — helping to ensure that more children have access to education, and lowering the dropout rate from school. Currently 60 million children still don’t have access to education and 90 million leave school before the age of nine or 10. And so, as a maison with a culture of writing, we value the importance of reading and writing.
How will you track the results of your work?
By picking very concrete operations to donate to, we will be able to see results. We have programmes in specific countries — Brazil, Djibouti and China — and if we can help five million kids it will be a small part of the overall number, but it will make a little bit of a difference.
Going back to your new role, what was your pitch to the board before you got the job?
It wasn’t like a traditional job interview. There was already a clear vision and a succession plan, so it is more of a natural evolution. I have been close to Jérôme for the past 15 years and learned a lot from him. And at the end you don’t need to do a presentation, you just need to do your job, show what you have been doing and be convincing. I am committed, I want to make it happen and I want to continue what has been done.
It’s a tough market for luxury retail. Are you having to work harder to get the same results?
Well, we’ve been working so hard already. But the thing about Montblanc is that we are very relevant to local customers. That’s the big difference between us and other maisons. In every country our primary customer is the local guy.
What gives you that relevance?
I think it’s the history. We’ve been entering markets with different product categories for a long time, with our writing instruments, watches, leather goods, and so we have created a global brand that is very important to customers. And we have entered many markets as an early brand. In India we were the first maison to officially import luxury goods, and we’ve been there for almost 25 years. We have also announced a partnership with [South African cricketer] AB de Villiers. And even though he is not Indian he has a big following in India. Initiatives such as this create a relevancy for our customers. And then, to use an example with our watches, you have the World Timer that we have made more local, working with an expression of Arabic or Chinese or Roman numerals.
With your promotion, and also the appointment last year of Davide Cerrato as managing director of the new watch division, it does it feel like a new phase…
I think it’s more about evolution. Talking specifically about watches, I think it’s easier to work where you are already strong and where you are already known, and then make it better. So coming back to the new Timewalker and 4810 collections, and the influence of Davide, this is the strategy and vision of the maison that was already happening for the past three years.
Your job is to tie together the watches, leather goods and writing instruments. How do you do that?
You need consistency throughout the categories, while staying true to each one. It’s one maison and one theme, and every category helps achieve that vision.
Where do you want the brand to be in five years’ time?
Being new to the job, my first priority is making sure that our very active programme for this year is implemented with excellence and continues to inspire our customers. We have so much going on. Two weeks ago I was in London for the launch of our Summit smartwatch. Today I am in New York. So my first priority is to make sure this all runs correctly. And next time we meet I will be delighted to elaborate on what could be my vision! But new management doesn’t have to mean a new vision. I was part of the team that created, validated and believed in the vision of the maison, so our goal is quite clear. And now it is how we achieve that vision and what we can bring to that journey.
What do you want people to know about Montblanc that they don’t already know?
What is often interesting with Montblanc is that people have the opportunity to enter into our maison through a lot of different doors.
I think there are some common values that are very obvious. We are very European, using the best craftsmanship in every category, always having an innovative approach, and this is what I would like to emphasise. An example is the recent Summit launch. This is a way to bridge digital and analogue but keep our values, using a Swiss fine watchmaking case, a sapphire glass and the inspiring 1858 dial, and then also be relevant to a younger market by bridging the culture and background to make it functional to this customer.
Which other brands inspire you to do this?
In the tech industry there are some very interesting examples of how to really create innovation. They have managed to make products that have become so important to the customer, even though they didn’t even exist the day before. And I find this very inspiring because Montblanc is about using history and heritage to produce something new and sometimes edgy. This can be the material used to aid functionality, or from a very high-end luxury statement with the latest writing instrument collection that we just launched.
What are your personal favourites from the 2017 collections?
[Points to his watch, the 1858 Chronograph Tachymeter Limited Edition] I must say that I didn’t pick this watch by coincidence. Sometimes I wish I could wear it the other way round because the movement is so amazing. And then the bronze case is a living material. Already after three months of wearing it I see a change and I think that is very interesting.
But what is interesting is this consistency. We have the Villeret movement but also the automatic bronze version that keeps the codes and elements but at a very interesting price. And they work together, so depending on what you can afford and what you are interested in you can make a choice. I think this is the uniqueness of Montblanc, the ability to play in the very high end and the more accessible field and remain true to our values.