“How many brands have three founders from completely different fields who had a shared idea and then worked to bring that idea into reality. Honestly, it’s almost a miracle that this company even started. That spirit has never changed at Montblanc even after a hundred and thirteen years. That is why, I think, when we set out to disrupt the market place, it did not feel like a big challenge from our point of view. It feels like we are doing what our founders did.” – Nicolas Baretzki, the CEO of Montblanc told Signe in an exclusive interview during a recent visit to Dubai.
The three founders referred to by Baretzki – Wilhelm Dziambor, Christian Lausen and later Claus Johannes Voss – took over from the original founding pair of Alfred Nehemias, a Hamburg banker, and August Eberstein, a Berlin engineer. The trio is credited with laying the foundations of what was to become today’s Montblanc – manufacturers of high-class writing instruments as well as watches, jewellery, eyewear, and leather goods.
The company began life as ‘Simplo Filler Pen Co,’ the manufacturers of Simplicissimus pens which had a new ‘simple’ pen design and included a built-in ink-well. In 1909, the ‘Rouge et Noir’ model was launched and given the nickname ‘Montblanc’ for being ‘the pinnacle of writing instruments.’ These two characteristics, functionality and high-quality, would become the hallmark of all Montblanc products.
There is something else at the heart of Montblanc’s success according to Baretzki: “The Maison has grown to what it is today because throughout its history a lot of people decided to take the risk to go beyond whatever the current positioning was at the time. They took the risk to go from writing to leather, from leather to watches, from wholesale to retail, going to markets where there were no luxury retailers. We are, for example, the first Maison to officially import luxury goods in India.”
“So, being bold is very much the spirit of Montblanc. We are bolder because we believe in what we do.”Nicolas Baretzki – CEO of Montblanc
Here’s the rest of the interview.
What does it take to be the CEO of a company that is known for being bold?
Montblanc is a complex Maison to work for because there are so many different categories and territories. I feel like I’m taking a million decisions per day and they cannot all be good decisions. But because we are Montblanc and because we were built on innovation, it is legitimate to try. Sometimes you fail, sometimes you succeed.
In the last few years, we have many examples of some disruptive, and some not that disruptive decisions that have been taken but they were all quite extreme. For example, in 2015 we decided that we would have full competence in watchmaking by creating a whole department with a large atelier. Three years later, we have achieved full integration [between Montblanc’s watchmaking division in Le Locle and the Institut Minerva de Recherche en Haute Horlogerie in Villeret], and now everything starts from the Minerva story; in terms of inspiration, aesthetic and exceptional finishing. Today it’s obvious that the decision has been a success, but at the very beginning, it was a very bold decision.
How do these ‘bold’ and innovative idea come to life, and how is it evaluated?
Quite often, it is the result of natural evolution as there is a need to change something to take a product to the next level. Two and a half years ago, we found in our inventory some big diamonds, nearly 12-carat, with the Montblanc cut. They were from 12 years ago when we tried to do high-Jewellery, which was not very successful.
Coming from a jewellery background, I said these are amazing stones, we can really showcase our exceptional craftsmanship in stones which no one would expect on a writing instrument. For once, it was my idea that led to a completely new collection called High Artistry where the beautiful diamond piece sat on top of the pen. It was so well appreciated by our collectors that it encouraged us to come up with subsequent offerings such as the Ibn Sina or the more recent Emperor Kangxi Limited Editions. So, a Montblanc product is not just about the precision of its functionalities but also about its design, its story, and its scarcity.
The examples you have mentioned seem relatively easy decisions when compared to Montblanc’s smartwatch. Could you elaborate on how that came about?
The Montblanc digital watch was more than a disruption. It was the result of a bet that the world was changing, and things would become more digital. That connectivity would become so essential that, in the end, there would be no reason why people would want to wear something ugly, and that there would be a clear luxury segment. This is about to become a reality.
I remember the very first time we ventured into the digital world with the e-strap. It was quite thick and not a pleasant way of displaying time. When you attached it to an exceptional watch, you lacked the link between the two because they were from two different worlds. At that time, it was quite new and elaborate but it never really found a client base. We developed the Screenwriter, to write on the tablet. It was quite amazing, but again, who would carry a writing instrument just to use on a surface that is very reactive to your finger.
Even though they were failures, they were the first step in the right direction. We were just not clear on how to go about it. By then we had also realised that the digital market was so much bigger with tremendous potential. So, we started to think about the smartwatch which led to a big tussle because we had to convince our group that it was the right way to go.
Then we had to hire the right people; who knew how to talk to Google and such or know how to enter a digital heart into a watch. We put together a very small department, like a start-up within the company, hired new people with the right skill sets, and also began a collaboration with Qualcomm. This resulted in the development of new technologies and eventually the first Summit which was quite successful.
From the very beginning, we did not want to make a watch; we wanted to make a smart connected device while keeping what we know, which is creating beautiful objects using the Swiss watchmaking codes. We never pretended that they were the same. So it was very disruptive in the way that we approached it. Some brands approach differently; you can buy one type, and later on, transform it into the other type. At Montblanc, if we do something, we believe in it, we go for it fully.
In fact, today, three years later, we have a proper department for all our tech devices with a small team of engineers and digitally savvy guys. We even have a marketing person coming from a tech company. On top of all this, we bring luxury, design and our own codes. Maybe that is the recipe for success.
How do you see the relationship between the Smartwatch and the traditional watch?
I truly believe that digital and analogue don’t oppose each other but are complementary. The two can be used in different moments by the same customer without compromising between the two. For example, if you are going for a jog, you’re not going to wear your high-end watch on your wrist, but a digital watch makes a lot more sense.
I’ll give you another example. The world is definitely becoming more and more digital. Students today use laptops and tablets instead of writing. At the same time, we have never sold as many fountain pens as we do today; a lot of them to young customers. Why? Because they want to experience traditional fine writing mode which is with the fountain pen.
Also, if you see the success of vintage watches today, time is definitely not the main purpose of these watches because my phone is more precise than my watch at telling time. So, it is more about the heritage, the engine, the manufacturer, the stories, the craftsmanship and so on. It doesn’t mean that the people who buy these watches are out of touch with today’s world. So you see, the two segments can exist parallelly.
Do you think that some of your earlier digital innovations were ahead of their time?
I think so. Sometimes it’s ahead of the time, or the idea is good, but the execution is bad, or because it’s still in the development when launched, and so on. In the case of the Screenwriter, our thinking was that since we dominate the high-end writing instruments world, we should also occupy the high-end of the digital writing devices market.
I do believe that when we launched the Screenwriter, it was ‘cool’ but not big enough or bold enough, nor did the appropriate technology exist at that time to make it an interesting offer. In the future, I would only consider such a project if it is disruptive and meaningful enough. So, I do believe that there is a need for a digital writing instrument and that is definitely something I would like to work on.
Other than the digital space, where else can we expect to see Montblanc’s bold and disruptive presence?
I think Montblanc is very much a Maison that can play a big role in travel. Today’s traveller takes with him his luggage, semi-clutch, headphone, iPhone and so on. I want Montblanc to be the first Maison that people think about when they travel. In the coming years, that is what I want the Maison to be able to go into, which is why we had the big launch of our luggage collection last year. We definitely wanted it to be a real alternative in that word with a proper collection. So, it was not just a one year plan. It was part of a broader strategy on how to conquer the travel segment. We have plans to create more disruptions later this year.