October 1 2016 (tomorrow) marks the 15th anniversary of the death of one of modern horology’s greatest personalities: Günter Blümlein. A great leader, motivator and visionary. I have had the personal pleasure of meeting and knowing this great man, and offer this article as a tribute to his philosophy, his genius, and his influence.
For as far as I know, everybody called him Blümlein. Sometimes Mr. Blümlein, often Herr Blümlein, and even occassionally Monsieur Blümlein, or just plain Blümlein. But I have never heard anyone address him as Günter. Perhaps this is German formality. But perhaps is an a hint at the character of the man. Highly respected. A towering genius. Smart beyond most of his peers. But with an incalculable sense of being proper. Upright. Sensible. That is what I would describe him. This is my tribute.
A brief biography of Günter Blümlein
Born in a small town near Nuremberg in 1943, Blümlein began his working career as an apprentice at Diehl, who manufactured armaments as well as calculating machines and clocks. On completing his apprenticeship, he was awarded a company scholarship to study mechanical engineering, specialising in precision mechanics. Watch and clock technology, of course, was part of the course. He returned to Diehl after he graduated in 1968 and proved himself not only to be a capable engineer but also a good marketeer and manager. He was an excellent communicator, speaking several languages fluently. And he soon was responsible for marketing and distribution of both Diehl and Junghans, a subsidiary of Diehl producing watches. At that point in time, Junghans was the largest watch manufacturer globally.
By the 1970s, the quartz revolution was in full swing. With their mass volume timepieces which were cheaper and more accurate. And the Japanese watchmakers were taking the world by storm. As it was a zero-sum game, the main casualties of the Japanese onslaught were Swiss watchmaking companies, many of which were subsequently forced out of business.
In 1978, the Chairman of the Board at VDO Adolf Schindling AG, Albert Keck, had thoughts of re-establishing Europe’s watchmaking industry. He wanted to break the monopoly of the Japanese watchmakers. A watchmaker by training, Keck was also to be one of the principal players in the rebirth of A. Lange & Söhne years later.
One of VDO’s early initiatives was the proposed acquisitions of three watchmaking entities – one based in Paris, a second in the Swiss Jura (Jaeger-LeCoultre) and the third in Schaffhausen (IWC).
While the plan to purchase the Parisian company fell through, VDO succeeded in its attempt to take over Jaeger-LeCoultre and IWC. With two Swiss watchmaking companies in its portfolio, VDO formed a new company called Les Manufactures Horlogères (LMH). And Keck needed a capable chief executive to resuscitate the ailing companies. Blümlein was handpicked for the task. In January 1982, Blümlein was appointed Managing Director of LMH, based in Schaffhausen.
Founded in 1868 by the American Florentine Ariosto Jones, IWC had an illustrious history making interesting watches. However, by the 1970s, it was a floundering concern no thanks to the Quartz Revolution.
The first priority on Blümlein’s agenda was to fix the ailing Schaffhausen-based watchmaking company. Having analysed the company, he capitalised on IWC’s strength in engineering and championed for innovation such as the use of titanium and ceramics in its watch cases.
In addition, Blümlein differentiated IWC from mass-produced quartz watches by emphasizing that the watches were made by hand. His strategies gained traction and it was not long before IWC turned the corner and made a good recovery.
During his reign, he propelled IWC into the stratosphere by making one of the most complicated watches for that era: The IWC Grande Complication. Using a Valjoux 7750 as a base, IWC added a perpetual calendar with a four digit year display and a minute repeater. It was an important exercise, which signified to the watchmaking world, that IWC has re-awoken and have arrived. “For people with pocket money” said the advert for the for the IWC Grande Complication, a watch which then cost some DM 240,000.
From 1978 to 1997, IWC was working with the designer Ferdinand A Porsche. Porsche had discovered titanium as a material for watch cases, and started to manufacture their Chronograph I in 1972. But commercial success only came to being when Blümlein harnessed IWC’s R&D department to develop the technology for processing titanium to make the cases profitable. The “IWC Porsche Design” watches became a tremendous success.
Blümlein made Kurt Klaus the hero of the IWC watchmaking juggernaut by calling him the Einstein from Schaffhausen. And used Klaus’s charms as the poster boy with great success. He also nurtured the young, often rebellious Richard Habring . Among the creations from Habring was the development of the Grande Complication into the IWC Il Diestriero Scafusia in 1993, by the addition of a tourbillon and split seconds chronograph. His penchant for spotting and nurturing young talent was already emerging.
Blümlein then set his sights on Jaeger-LeCoultre. While it enjoyed a strong reputation as a reliable Manufacture well-regarded for its technical and engineering expertise through the supply of robust ebauches to many Swiss watchmakers, Jaeger-LeCoultre was facing a great strain as many of its clients had succumbed to the Quartz Revolution.
To remedy the less than favourable situation, Blümlein zoomed in on the revival of the Reverso, added the Master line collection and revamped the entire marketing and communications strategy of Jaeger-LeCoultre.
The story was told of a meeting where he expressed his vision of adding complications to the Reverso line. The engineers protested, “There is not enough space. The case is too small!”. Blümlein peered through his glasses, which always sat at the tip of his nose (see photograph in his office in Schaffhausen above), and said, “Well, make it bigger.” And that was history. In 1991, JLC launched the Reverso 60eme, a reverso in a new case size, the Grande Taille or GT.
The strategic moves for Jaeger-LeCoultre worked and the brand regained credibility as a distinguished Manufacture of fine movements. Blümlein’s tactics here are basically the same as those he employed at IWC: identify your own strengths and persist in making the most of them, even though the market may be signalling other trends now and then.
And then politics occurred. In the November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, and Germany was heading for re-unification. National pride swelled within, and with his boss Keck, Blümlein set about to re-start the watchmaking industry in Germany. They found the then retired great grandson of Ferdinand Aldoph Lange – Walter. Together they set off on a great adventure to revive the grand watchmaking tradition of A. Lange & Söhne.
A. Lange & Söhne
While Blümlein was in the driver’s seat of Lange Uhren (the company which would produce A. Lange & Söhne-branded timepieces), it did not mean that his commitment and control of both IWC and Jaeger-LeCoultre were relinquished.
On the contrary, he struck a fine balance between his detailed involvement in Lange Uhren and his leadership roles in IWC and Jaeger-LeCoultre. This was an obvious example of his capability and exemplary brilliance. He often remarked that he was an outsider in the companies he led. He was a German in Schaffhausen (in German-speaking Switzerland), in French speaking Le Sentier , a West German in Glashütte. All regions known for the hard-headedness of their inhabitants. And it would only to be by showing respect for the dogged nature of his colleagues was he able to find the right approach in managing the team to great success.
By immersing himself totally in product development and brand-building of Lange, Blümlein was essentially the prime catalyst of the creative engines. Working tirelessly with Walter Lange, and the team in Glashütte, they carved out a success for Lange.
In Lange’s favour was a legacy related to the ingenious and innovative use of traditional methods in creating unique products. Ever the strategist, Blümlein was extremely particular with what to adopt with regards to traditional Lange watch styles seen more than a century ago. His objective was not only about perpetuating a characteristic Lange DNA in the new collections but to ensure that the Lange brand is launched on a trajectory that would sustain itself well into the future. The range of products arising and their success from the early days in 1994 now stand as proof of his genius and vision.
Blümlein facilitated the Richemont deal of July 2000, which saw Johann Rupert’s company pay a legendary amount for the three horological brands. Reports vary between CHF 3.02 and 3.08 billion. Perhaps it was Rupert’s vision that Blümlein would lead the Richemont Watch Division to greater heights with the injection of the LMH brands. Perhaps that was why he valued LMH with the great premium he paid. But we will never find out. Blümlein died in 1 October 2001, after a short illness.
Fifteen years on, we remember the man, and his legacy.
As we went about this tribute, we thought it appropriate to quote some of the people whose lives he touched and inspired. Here is a small selection of tributes to the great man.
Walter Lange, A. Lange & Söhne
(co-Managing Director and partner to rebuild A. Lange & Söhne 1989 – 2001)
“He was a universal genius. There have been two luminary experts in the Swiss watchmaking industry (of the modern age): one was Nicolas G. Hayek (Founder of the Swatch Group), and the other was Günther Blümlein.
“Blümlein was an exceptional manager. He was a man full of ideas, a highly qualified technician and a perfectionist, a hard worker and additionally an extraordinary marketing genius. ”
Max Büsser, CEO and Founder of MB&F
(Jaeger LeCoultre 1991-1998.)
It was circa 1995. Max Büsser was Product Development Manager at Jaeger LeCoultre. It was during one of the product development sessions when the young Max, then a youthful 28 years old, pushed on with his ideas, even when it was clear that Blümlein had already dismissed it.
Max, recounted to me later, “I knew I was pushing it, a young manager then, pressing on when Blümlein could already see through the folly of the idea and had moved on.” Eventually, he peered through his glasses, and said in French, “créativité est pas un processus démocratique” (“Creativity is not a democratic process.”).” And Max was promptly over-ruled and silenced.
Max goes on, “And that is one of the most important lessons I learnt in my life. And still use that principle to this day in making decisions on MB&F.”
Our Special Correspondent Dr. Frank Müller, CEO A Bridge to Luxury
(IWC and Lange 1998-2001)
“Well, why not? The watch industry may need a doctor“, he said, laughing.
“There I was, sitting in front of Günther Blümlein in my job interview. The year was 1998, and at that time, I was already 32 years old with an interest in collecting watches, but was a greenhorn who had just left university after completing my Ph.D. in Marketing. No experience. No real world business skills. Just potential and perhaps raw talent, which he saw through and through. And with that, I was hired.
“I began almost immediately, and joined IWC as a Project Manager. Twelve months later Blümlein had executed his vision he had during the interview session and I was promoted to Managing Director of Finance and International Sales at Lange Uhren GmbH.
“Having worked with a number of industry captains, owners and brand CEOs in corporate functions as well as a consultant, I have never met a person as capable, yet as complex as Günther Blümlein. He was able to combine his multiple talents on astonishing high levels to create long-lasting success: strategic wisdom, branding creativity, detailed horological knowledge, commercial aggressiveness, managerial skill, business fairness.
“But perhaps his greatest talent was his was able to recognize, and trust in young talent. Working with him was a stressful experience. He was almost always several steps ahead. And can be brutal in expressing his views. But for those who wanted to learn and to work hard, he was capable of nurturing the talent, inspire and coax the best from it. And when he judged suitable, was willing to delegate responsibility.
“I owe Günther Blümlein valuable insights that continue to guide me through my professional life and I consider it an exceptional privilege to have served this man – and I will always do.”