The CEO Of A. Lange & Söhne Watches, Wilhelm Schmid, Is A Massive Classic Car Fan
Photography by Ben Gierig and Maxence Massaro
I’ve been a watch guy for just about as long as I’ve been a car guy. To me, they’ve always gone hand in er… wrist? Their tiny little engines powered by the motion of your body, what better analogy could you make for the mechanical ballet of a vintage car? Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Mr. Wilhelm Schmid, and can honestly say that he lives and breaths that analogy every day.
An accomplished collector himself, Wilhelm has been the driving force behind A. Lange & Söhne’s growth, and their increasing support of automotive history at Villa d’Este and beyond. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Wilhelm to get a sense of what’s in his collection, how he fell in love with cars, and what is on the horizon for one of the most intriguing watch manufacturers on the market today.
Ted Gushue: What was the first car that you ever drove?
Wilhelm Schmid: The first? I was pretty young. You know I’m a son of a car dealer? I think I was 13 or so. We had a petrol station and of course, in summer, the man that usually ran the petrol station for us went on an annual vacation and it was our job to keep the thing going. And to keep the thing going meant you had to fuel up cars, you had to wash cars and clean them and so on, and so forth. And of course because there was nobody available, you had to drive them too. I had driven hundreds of cars before I was legally allowed to drive on public roads. Because I had been driving on private property.
TG: What was the first car that you considered your own?
WS: I still have it actually, a little MGB Roadster, red with a pitch black leather interior. It was as old as me when I bought it and it was actually pretty run down when I bought it. It wasn’t running. I had to fix it and restore it.
TG: What’s it like to drive?
WS: It’s great, even today. So much fun. I’ve had it for 36 years.
TG: What else is in your garage?
WS: Quite a few cars. I have a Lancia Flaminia GT 3 C. An AC Ace Bristol, an Aston Martin DB2/4 Mark III. At our house in South Africa, I have a wonderful Land Rover Series 2 from 1960.
TG: That’s the dream collection.
WS: No, I’m still working on it [Laughs].
TG: Did you always know you were going to work in the automotive field?
WS: I started in the oil industry, actually. From ’89 to 2002, I worked for Castrol.
TG: And from Castrol you went to BMW? How long were you at BMW?
WS: About 10 years.
TG: When you made the transition from BMW to Lange & Söhne, had there been precedence for people that have left the auto world to go work in watches?
WS: I think it’s not uncommon in Germany. Maybe in Switzerland, it’s a different story because they have plenty of people that are working in the watch industry. But in Germany when you look for somebody with some international experience and a broader scope of managerial skills, it’s hard to find anyone who hasn’t worked in the car industry. The hiring pool for those that have worked in watches in Germany is shallower because the watch industry isn’t as big.
TG: Were you a watch collector before you joined Lange?
WS: Yeah, I was always into cars and watches. I’m a very privileged man in the way that I had the chance to work in the two fields of my hobbies, or more accurately my addictions. My wife always jokes that when I was working in the car industry, I spent all of my extra money on watches and now working in the watch industry, I spend all my money on cars! In a way, my spending behavior hasn’t changed, just the product.
TG: How often do people ask you about the analogy between cars and watches?
WS: I think from all the questions people ask me in this role, that’s probably the most common.
TG: What was Lange’s tie to automotive history before you arrived?
WS: The only thing we do so far, is the Villa d’Este Concorso d’Eleganza di Lago di Como. The Northern Europe market does a Motorsport Classic Car event which is called Classic Days, at Castle Duke as well. Which is quite a nice event, I have to say. It’s similar to how Goodwood was 20 years ago.
TG: From the perspective of where you want the brand to go, do you see a deeper tie to automotive history that you would like to foster?
WS: That’s an interesting question. What Villa d’Este is for us is actually a perfect partner. If you think about it, it’s a great venue, it really has a proper history. The event has always been a contest of beauty and passion. It’s a perfect complement to everything that we do; breathtaking design, timeless beauty, and a long standing history. It’s also very intimate, which allows us to have a direct relationship with a smaller group of people, compared to an event like Pebble Beach which is very large.
TG: Do you find people that collect cars are appreciative of the history of a brand like Lange?
WS: I think I would push that one even further. I think if you are a collector, you most likely will know of us. Unless you are such a specialized collector who perhaps only collects Mayan bowls, or something like that! Then of course we’re not on your radar. But there is a tremendous overlap in those who collect our pieces and those who appreciate and collect cars. I hardly have to explain who we are and what we do because most of them they already know.
TG: If you had to compare a Lange watch to a classic car, which would it be?
WS: I think many of these cars have lots of things in common because they’re all hand made. They usually purpose built and at the time were at the cutting edge of what was technically possible. There were setting so many benchmarks at the time and in that regard, there are quite a few cars that I would compare our work to. If I had to nail it down, probably something like a Gullwing Mercedes, or a 507 BMW in the way that form and function are so integral to what they are. Probably even more the Gullwing, because its design was purposeful from start to finish. I think that, if I had to choose, that’s the car I’d choose.
TG: Explain why you choose to keep Lange separate from any particular discipline. Rolex, for instance, has motorsport and much more, Breitling with aerospace, and so on.
WS: Yes, everybody does something, and some do everything, like a Rolex. I’m a strong believer that if you focus on one thing, you should stick with that one thing. Where you need a platform, look for a platform, but don’t start connecting your brand with something that isn’t your brand. We make watches and all our emphasis is to make them as perfect and as beautiful as possible. Which of course is sort of an endless endeavor. We will never finally succeed, but that’s what keeps us focused. If we start making too many things around it, we will lose this focus, as many brands do today. I was always a great fan of Porsche as they only built 911s. Today you have Macans and Panameras and so on. I’m not sure with all of that. I’m sure it’s a very solid and sound business model, but it doesn’t scream “focus” to me.
TG: Is Lange structured in a way that they do not necessarily have to create that same shareholder value?
WS: I’m a big believer that an unprofitable business is not a business. Believe you me, my great emphasis is to keep our brand profitable and it always has been profitable. But that’s not the question – I don’t think it’s a compromise to create shareholder value while keeping your brand clean and focused. You do that by keeping things tightly controlled and focused on quality.
There are many examples of brands that follow the automotive model in the watch industry. I will not mention any of them, but I always say a brand is as defined by the things it does and by the things it purposely does not do. That’s why we try to stay very clean. We don’t have random endorsements, we don’t do red carpet events. We do none of that, because we believe whoever is buying our brand is already a very important person in their own right, by the sheer fact that they understand what we are doing here. I think we’re better off spending the money on the product. You either spend it on marketing, or you spend it on the product.
My best illustration is if you look at a wonderful painting. Yes, it has a frame, but the frame is only there to support the painting, not to overshadow it. Many brands’ marketing is actually so strong, that the product itself is not that important anymore, and that’s just not our philosophy.
It all starts with the product. Yes, you may get away with excellent marketing for awhile, but eventually, these are all promises. Marketing is nothing more than an endless amount of promises, and these promises will make you so greedy, that you will go for it. If then all these promises don’t materialise in reality then there will not be a long-lasting realtionship between the customer and the brand. We are lucky that our business welcomes back 70% of our customers. We cannot afford a major marketing strategy like some others.
TG: What’s the next big development in 2017 for you guys?
WS: Plenty, but you know that we’re very good at keeping our surprises. I think we had a very good new collection last year. Next year isn’t any weaker, that I can say.There might be a few novelties. And when I say novelties I don’t mean a different material, or a different dial. I mean some really solid, new products.