Omega President Stephen Urquhart: The WatchTime Interview


Omega President Stephen Urquhart

With its marketing blitz for the 40th anniversary Moon Watch, the opening of its own boutique on New York’s fashionable Fifth Avenue, and the long-term renewal of its official Olympic timing deal, 2009 has been a big year for Swiss-watch powerhouse Omega. WatchTime recently conducted an exclusive interview with the brand’s president, Stephen Urquhart, in the New York boutique, shortly after the Olympics announcement, to discuss that and a variety of other topics of interest to watch aficionados.

WT: How and when did Omega get involved with Olympic timing?

SU: In the old days, there were several brands involved. In 1932, the IOC [International Olympic Committee] decided that Omega was a brand that could take care of the timing. Of course, it wasn’t like it is today. In the first 100-meter event, the timekeeper was standing over the course with a hand-held stopwatch. Except for a few years since then, Omega has always done it. Vancouver in 2010 will be our 24th. Omega has also participated in many of the technical developments, like the photo-finish cameras, the touch-pad and the kick-pad for swimming, a whole list of things. There’s been a long, great relationship between Omega and the IOC. And with this new arrangement, the brand is now extended as the official timekeeper and data handler until 2020.

At the Olympic timing signing ceremony: L to R Swatch Group Chairman Nicolas G. Hayek Sr., Swatch Group CEO Nick Hayek Jr., IOC President Jacques Rogge, and Omega President Stephen Urquhart.

Omega's new Olympic agreement

WT: After the failure of the city of Chicago to get the games, I think people might be interested in knowing what is involved as far as dealing with the International Olympic Committee. What did Omega present to them to get the nod as official timekeeper?

SU: We didn’t have to present anything. If we weren’t there, they would have to create a whole new structure. They’d need three, four, five other companies to time the games. It’s not like they could just find a new sponsor, like Burger King or something. They know our technique, they know our expertise; frankly, we’ve had a pretty faultless track record, thank God. That’s the most important factor. We just basically held discussions about the technical things on the one hand and the marketing plans on the other. We basically discussed the small print. I don’t think there was ever any doubt that Omega would continue in this role.

WT: Had you competed with any other companies in the past for this?

SU: In the past, yes. The Swatch Group took it back in 1996. Omega was doing it until 1988. As you know, Omega back then was going through a difficult period. It did the 1992 winter games but the ’92 summer games went to a Japanese brand. In 1996, it was actually the Swatch brand [that was chosen to be the timer]. Mr. Hayek felt that it was a big commitment, marketing-wise, and at that time Swatch was perhaps better positioned to take it over. Also, the games were in a U.S. market [Atlanta], where he felt he really needed to push Swatch. One of the first things that I pushed for when I took over Omega in ’99 was to get Omega back in that role, especially when we knew that the games were going to be in Beijing. Beijing is a very important market for Omega. Now we’re there until 2020 — from Beijing to Vancouver to London, Sochi, Rio, and then who knows?

WT: Since we’re looking forward to Vancouver now, what is involved in the timing of the games? What kind of preparations does Omega make?

SU: I would say there are two aspects. There’s the timing aspect and then there is the marketing and the hospitality aspect. With the timing aspect, it’s probably more complicated to time the winter games than the summer games because there are more venues. In the summer games you have sailing, which is complicated, and some other different sports. But in the winter games, the environment is tougher. You have different terrains, like in the mountains, where you have to lay cable, and you have to deal with the weather. Unlike in the summer, there is not one major stadium where most of the events are held. In Beijing, for example, we had the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube where a lot of the events took place, and where we had offices. In the winter, all that’s really set up is a bobsled run. The rest is all out in nature, all in a hostile environment. Some people say the winter Olympics are not as big as the summer ones; that’s true. But the importance of the timing is as big, if not bigger.

WT: So your timing devices have to be sturdier for the winter games?

SU: They have to be adapted for the environment, sure. I’m no expert, but I’ve seen a lot of them. I’m not sure if the devices are sturdier or maybe that some of the fiberoptic cable has to be protected when it’s minus 30 degrees. On the marketing side, we have two facilities, one in Vancouver and one in Whistler, where most of the skiing will take place. Omega has a strong presence in Vancouver; the Fairmont Hotel was commissioned as our headquarters. We’ll have all our hospitality events there and we’ll have a big shop — a shop as big as this one, in fact.

WT: You mentioned some of the timing innovations that the company’s come up with over the years. Have any of those made their way into Omega’s wristwatch designs in any way?

SU: To be honest, not really… Of course, in the old days, back in 1932, the watches they used to time the games were the same watches people wore in their waistcoats — mechanical pocket watches with stopwatch functions. Obviously, today, timing the Olympics is a different ballgame. The technology used for that obviously can’t be used in watches. However, we have incorporated some of the same production techniques — the machining and such — into the regular wristwatch line. So you could say that has been useful.

WT: Is Omega releasing any special limited-edition watches to coincide with the Vancouver games?

SU: Well, to be clear, making a limited-edition watch is not the primary reason Omega is timing the games. It’s more of a side project — nice to have, but its importance shouldn’t be exaggerated. The Chinese consumers were very enthusiastic about these limited editions during the Beijing games, so we thought it was important to release a big collection in China — probably even a little too big, in my opinion. But they sold very well because the Chinese wanted limited-edition watches. In Vancouver, we will have a watch, the piece that you’ve seen, and those people who want a commemorative item can get it. It is a pretty standard model, with a bezel in maple-leaf red, aimed very much at the Canadian market, which is very different than that of Europe or even the U.S.

Omega’s Limited Edition Seamaster for the Vancouver Games
Omega Seamaster Limited Edition for Vancouver

WT: What is distinct about the Canadian watch market?

SU: I think it’s a little bit more classical, a little sportier. The price factor is important. The price level in Canada is, maybe, not as high as the east or west coast of the U.S., or of Europe. Maybe I’m wrong, but we’ll see. There will be 2,010 pieces, of course.

WT: The other big event that Omega is involved in this year is the 40th anniversary of the moon landing. How’s that doing for the brand, and what is Omega’s current involvement in the space program?

SU: We’ve been heavily involved in the space program since 1969 and even before. I’d say the last few years we’re really been pushing it a lot because that link is so important to Omega. Every year we’ve found some kind of anniversary to commemorate, like the space walk, et cetera. But this year, I’ve got to admit that it was incredible to see the enthusiasm for the 40th anniversary because it wasn’t there as much for the 30th in 1999. Maybe it has something to do with the new President, the connection of Obama to Kennedy. I don’t know, but I felt that this year we put forth a tremendous effort. We made an incredible investment; Omega had never done such a big program for the Moon Watch before. The JFK television commercial was fantastic. It seemed as though every TV station had big, long programs on the moon story. I don’t remember seeing those 10 years ago. Maybe the fact that we were in the middle of a financial crisis made this a message that the American people related to… nostalgia for a better time, some good news, not some damn broker saying that the stock market will go down.

Stephen Urquhart with Buzz Aldrin celebrating the 40th anniversary of the moon landing.
omega_buzz_1sm

WT: I saw that television commercial with the JFK footage a lot in prime time; you don’t see that much from watch companies. What made you decide to use that medium?

SU: We had a fabulous message and we had a fantastic person to deliver the message, that being JFK. The Kennedy foundation was very open to our proposal to use him and I think it’s a great, great message.

Omega’s print ad featuring JFK
Omega Speedmaster ad featuring JFK

WT: What’s going on with the NASA programs now, as regards Omega?

SU: We have a good rapport with them, of course. [Apollo astronauts] Gene Cernan, Tom Stafford, and Buzz Aldrin are around the world doing events. For the moment NASA is very happy, because their needs are still met with our Speedmaster. We’ve talked with them about their needs, maybe, for going to Mars, but we don’t know when that’s going to happen. Maybe they’ll need a watch that keeps time differently, because Mars has different time than Earth — a day is not 24 hours there. That would be an interesting and fun project. But I think for the moment their priority is not the watch, but how to get there. Mars is not going to be so easy.

WT: Getting to the regular Omega line, when you launched the Hour Vision line with Caliber 8500 a few years ago, you said that the intention was to move Omega into using more in-house movements. How has that plan been progressing?

SU: We’re on schedule. We’ve introduced a ladies’ caliber, an in-house movement with our co-axial escapement. Coming up in a year or two is the chronograph version. I’ve said this many times before, but I reckon that within three years — except for the Moon Watch, which will still have it’s original movement, and a few quartz models for ladies only — that Omega will be 100 percent in-house, using our own co-axial movement.

WT: And they will all be based on Caliber 8500?

SU: Yes, and the results of that movement have been incredible. The co-axial escapement that we launched 10 years ago has been getting very good results. There were some issues with it in the beginning, as you know. Originally we integrated the co-axial into an existing movement. But Omega caliber 8500 was completely built from scratch — built around the co-axial escapement as opposed to building the escapement into the movement. We’re very confident that we now have the best technicians working on it. We have about a three-year track record in the market now, and the results have surpassed all expectations.

WT: So the next in-house movement is a chronograph movement; is that a module on the 8500 or a totally new movement?

SU: It’s a completely new movement, not a module at all. So we will have ladies, men’s and chronograph, all in a couple years’ time. We already have the chrono movement, and it’s testing nicely. I even wear one when I’m at home.

WT: What other new products and developments can we expect to see from Omega next year?

SU: We have a collection that’s very categorized — four family lines, each one with its own profile. This year we did a relaunch of the Constellation line. It was completely redone, launched recently in China and now we have it here in the U.S. It’s the same watch, but it looks completely different, with a new dial design. The new Aqua Terra is a fantastic watch; that one uses the new 8500 and 8501 movement. We have the new Seamaster Planet Ocean Liquid Metal Limited Edition; a few pieces will come out this year. That will be a first for a watch brand.

Omega’s Seamaster Planet Ocean Liquid Metal Limited Edition
Omega Seamaster Planet Ocean Liquidmetal Limited Edition

WT: Can you describe what “liquid metal” is?

SU: The press release will tell you better than I could. When I think of liquid metal I think of that guy in the Terminator film! We also have the De Ville with Hour Vision, the complications, all our technical pieces. Of course, we’re going to come out with new models. But we’re not selling to a restricted number of customers. We have a large customer base, both geographically and demographically.

WT: So, to get the big picture, as you speak about the worldwide appeal of the line, is there an overall plan on how to navigate the rough economic climate, specifically in the U.S.?

SU: There’s not really a plan. I think we just continually try, for the last few years anyway, to be consistent. The consumer, I think, appreciates and realizes that we are a brand of substance. We’re not the only one — but the few brands out there that are doing okay are the brands that have substance. They are consistent in their message, they don’t panic, they don’t start giving incredible discounts and incentives, or coupons in the mail. I won’t mention anybody. The problem we have is mainly at the retail level; retailers are in trouble because they’re short of cash, and they have too much stock of many brands, but not Omega. They can’t buy the same as they could before. This, you have to accept. Our own shop here, which we opened in April, is doing very well. The consumer is still there, but obviously a bit more cautious. We wouldn’t be investing in a shop like this if I didn’t believe that.

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