Woman to Watch

Only a day after returning from the glitz and glamour of a Las Vegas trade show, Marie Bodman is sitting in Breitling’s Wilton office on Route 7 trying to quell the staff’s growing concern over the “toilet crisis.” Construction on the roadway has destroyed the nearby sewage pipes, forcing many of her colleagues to devise emergency plans.

Such mundane problems could easily be handled by one of her lieutenants at this multimillion-dollar company, particularly since she has many strategic decisions awaiting her after that long and tiring business trip. But this petite, brown-haired, soft-spoken executive is known for taking charge, whether as a mother (her adult son now lives in London, while Marie resides in New Canaan) or as a president of a booming company.

Once Marie has handled the “crisis,” she relaxes behind her desk, which is studded with many of the company’s newest upscale timepieces. Wearing a plain brown sweater and skirt, the French-born executive looks at these watches adoringly and immediately turns into a relentless company promoter.

“I have to go see Ocean’s 13. Many of the actors are wearing Breit- ling watches. The movie’s property master fell in love with our platinum Emergency [a wristwatch with a built-in distress microtransmitter], and he bought a steel model for George Clooney. In addition to our John Travolta ad campaign [which stresses Travolta’s aeronautical prowess], we have pictures of Clooney wearing the steel Emergency.”

Breitling has been synonymous with derring-do adventure seekers since founder Leon Breitling produced wristwatches for the military during World War I. His grandson Willy introduced chronometers for aircraft- cockpit instrument panels in 1936. The company then went on to style navigational instrumentation for Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Douglas Aircraft, and after American astronaut Scott Carpenter wore the Cosmonaute chronograph during his 1962 Aurora 7 space trip, the company further solidified its popularity among airmen with its Blackbird Chronomat and B-1 Chronograph.

But in the bruising, bitterly competitive world of premium-priced mechanical watches — where esoteric, complicated chronographs and tourbillons have become $40,000 to $150,000 male fashion statements — a Right Stuff history isn’t enough to gain a sales edge. Marie is always looking for another strategic advantage.Not that the position she has held for eighteen years is by any means precarious (Breitling’s sales increased by 30 percent in the past few years). It’s simply that, being such a distinctive figure in a male-dominated, tradition-bound industry, she is perpetually driven to prove any remaining skeptics wrong.

Time for a Change
In the late 1980s, long before Ludacris, Lebron James, Emeril Lagasse and Jerry Seinfeld wore Breitlings, company owner Ernst Schneider felt America was an untapped market for his oversize watches that were popular in Europe. He heard that the French-born Marie, who headed a Swatch Group sector in the United States, was extremely well regarded for overseeing sales. Eventually, Schneider ignored tradition and hired her.

Marie modestly attributes that risk-taking move more to his visionary talents than to her sales expertise. “A woman wasn’t supposed to have such a job. She was supposed to sew, cook and take care of children. I must credit him. He sensed I wanted to sell watches. That I wanted to establish myself. We had no lists, no names [of sales prospects]. Breitling was a wonderful bowl of nothing.”

Admittedly “clueless” about how to market relatively pricey,little-known heavy watches with aeronautical-looking indicators and mechanical gizmos, she hired a secretary, a few salespeople who also sold other brands and moved into a small Stamford office. The sales group proved to be so ineffective that Marie and her associate spent the first several months merely handling requests for repairs instead of new orders.

Often going to bed crying at night, she was continually plagued by doubts about the future. But despite these insecurities, she had stamina, resolve and an unflagging love for her boldly colored chronographs that some jewelers called “clocks.”

“God, I’ll never forget Mr. Dorfman [the owner of a Boston shop], and his saying, ‘Where do you think you’re going with your clocks, little girl?’ ” sighs Marie, remembering the early days of hitting the streets in various cities with two suitcases crammed with Navitimers and Superocean dive watches. But the demure, soft-spoken Marie was determined to put Breitling on the map.

“It was definitely tense in the beginning. I’d ask myself why I left Swatch. But I still felt the watches were very attractive, so I couldn’t be put off by the Mr. Dorfmans of the world. I had that much confidence in the brand.”

Besides her unshakable conviction and a relentless work ethic that propelled her frequent trips across the country, she also had a support line with the Schneider family. Ernst and his son Teddy gave her a great deal of freedom to plot marketing strategy, and that faith ultimately led to breakthroughs in the early 1990s. No longer limited to surfers’ oceanside beach shops, the brand gained entry through such prestigious doors as New York’s Cellini Jewelers.

“Back in the brand’s early days in the United States, its distribution was just ridiculous. It was being discounted and was everywhere — in shoe stores, anywhere,” recalls Leon Adams, the president of Cellini Jewelers. “Through time Marie learned the hard way and eventually started reducing her accounts. She determined that less was more. She went luxury. That’s helped make Breitling a force.

“Marie is certainly doing something right,” Adams continues. “The line couldn’t be hotter than it is now. It’s very desirable. She’s provided the correct leadership and helped the brand grow astronomically. They are a powerhouse today. She’s really doing the job. I think in the United States, Breitling is doing in excess of $100 million a year, which, at the distribution level, is a huge amount.”

Although Marie had to educate jewelers about the complicated workings of chronographs and to accept the massive proportions of watches such as the Headwind, Blackbird and Cosmonaute, the aeronautical bent generated enough enthusiasm to spur sales andprompt growth. Along with several moves into larger Stamford offices and hiring more employees, Marie had to secure a vault instead of simply storing watches under her bed.

Eventually the company made its final move to the dark red brick, 16,000-square-foot Route 7 building in Wilton, nicknamed “Hangar 7.” Renovated and turned into a “cocoon” of open work areas, it was minimally decorated with pop-art posters celebrating the edgy exhilaration of flight.

“We wanted a unique address, our own island where we wouldn’t be dispersed and could feel like family,” emphasizes Marie, who is wearing a rather understated, bronze-dialed Superocean Heritage with a stainless steel bracelet (affordably priced at about $3,000).

“Here, unlike in New York, where everyone goes their own way for lunch and shopping, we can be very tight in a comfortable environment. That’s Wilton. It gives us our own special elan, chicness and identity.”

She has built an after-sales department of thirteen watchmakers who have set an industry standard for efficient service. These highly skilled technicians repair watches (eliminating the need to send watches back to Switzerland), provide an extra measure of quality control and, in general, add to the “personal” or “family” ethic that energizes Breitling.

Establishing close connections with employees and clients is essential to Marie’s hands-on management style. Even after eighteen years at the helm, one-on-one contact with customers in jewelry shops is still exciting.

“It’s incredible to see customers going straight to the Breitling counter and buying their fourth or fifth watch.” These patrons aren’t forgotten. As evidenced by the stack of buyer’s registration cards on her desk, she regularly reads these notations and sends Breitling enthusiasts personal thank-you letters.

Marie is equally sensitive toward her office personnel. She has an open-door policy to encourage talk about their job performance, questions of policy, even family matters. However, she is still tough and demanding, even with the Schneiders.        

“Almost every week I have to fight with them to increase deliveries and to send us more watches for the U.S. market,” she admits in a feisty tone (since many of Breitling’s higher-end watches are produced in limited amounts, divisions are restricted to certain quantities). “If I didn’t continue to have this passion, I’d leave. And I demand that same passion from my staff. Doing things right, paying attention to details, that’s what distinguishes Breitling.”

The Perfect Partner
In recent years Breitling has moved into a luxury segment that goes well beyond the brand’s aviation-geared “instruments for professionals.” The company has partnered with Bentley Motors to offer a full collection of five-and six-figure watches with elegantly knurled bezels and mother-of-pearl hour markers reflective of the carmaker’s exclusive aura (the line now accounts for 25 percent of sales).

Initiated by the once-ailing carmaker and Breitling’s Schneider family in 2003 (with input from Marie on the increasing popularity of diamond-encrusted cases in the status-conscious United States), the marriage hasn’t just revolved around precisely detailed tachometers and subdials. The marketing is all about romance and passion.

Admitting that Breitling needed an enhanced “prestige look” to connect with men fascinated by high-performance automobiles, Marie admires a newly released, gold, 47 mm. Montbrillant Legende and a rectangular-cased Flying B chronograph displayed on her desk. The Montbrillant in steel is $5,600 ($8,600 in gold), while the Flying B is $12,670 for the steel version and $48,325 in red gold.

The dials of the “winged” or Flying Bs complement colors of Bentleys — Neptune, Silver Storm, Royal Ebony, Amber and Bronze. Marie points to these artistic cases and says, “Bentley reenergized us. It gave us a whole new identity, a dream link. It was never a given that it would be a success, but there’s a creativity now, a spirit that thrusts us into a far more expensive price point.”

Once known exclusively for bulky $2,500 to $5,000 watches, Breitling needed this high-octane jump-start now that Wall Street bankers and newly minted moguls have transformed once-basic accessories into blue-chip investments. Elite brands like Chopard, Rolex, Vacheron Constantin and F. P. Journe purposely limit the production of some models (and keep them off the grey market) to heighten their value and aura of exclusivity.

Pointing to those four stellar brands (along with Patek Philippe), Bernard Bieger, a director with Antiquorum, the Geneva-based antique-watch auction house, says, “Rare, meticulously crafted watches with an array of time-keeping functions are becoming stronger and stronger investments.

“Many watches, like a stainless-steel Rolex Daytona [$12,000 in 2001], or a yellow gold Rolex Newman Daytona with its more exotic dial [$30,000 back then] have doubled in value in five years. Now that increasingly affluent Chinese, Russians and Indians are becoming collectors, there’s a certain greed and desire driving investments. Watches have become trophies, and I see no end in sight.”

In this luxury arena — where unique design characteristics and esoteric intricacies (such as escapements, tourbillons and pricey minute repeaters with melodic chimes) herald profits and undeniable status appeal — a marketing edge is essential for success.

Chopard flaunts its racy Mille Miglia chronograph and floating Happy Diamonds collection. Styling mechanical tour de force for eighteen years, F .P. Journe is already fabled for rare and highly innovative complications. Rolex is the standard- bearer at automotive rallies and other sporting events because of its time-keeping excellence; while the 1755-founded Vacheron Constantin, esteemed for its Malte and Overseas series, is synonymous with exquisitely crafted elegance.

To compete with these luxury brands, Breitling recognized the imperative to seduce connoisseurs with a limited edition available only in a select number of boutiques. These watches had to be coveted, much like those Rolex Daytonas, which are in such great demand that buyers must wait months, if not years, for delivery.

Marie, with the help of marketing director Lisa Roman, who’s worked at Breitling for six years, turned the Bentley collaboration into a marketing windfall. Magazines spotlighted the luxe pairing, and as Breitling became associated with chic automobile celebrations such as the Pebble Beach and Amelia Island Concours d’Elegances, jewelers installed stand-alone displays for the Bentley watches.

Compassion with Passion
Demanding much of herself and setting ambitious goals for employees have helped Marie make Breitling an American success story. The brand is in 325 retail stores, and in those shops, she says it’s typically the second- or third-leading seller of watches.

Lisa feels that these results are primarily because of Marie’s strong leadership, her “infectious enthusiasm,” detail-oriented management style and keen consideration for employees.

“In other companies it’s always about protocols, formalities, strict rules. But even though we have guidelines and must do things right, Marie gives us opportunities to discuss matters, to have great input. But she’s not just concerned about how we perform in the office, about sales reports. If you have personal things to talk about, like a child who’s sick or having problems in school, she’s always available for you. This is important since the majority of workers here are women. They understand the meaning of family, how important that concept is here. They can share things with her because Marie is really invested in them and their lives.”

Marie intends to increase the size of her “family,” and to help revitalize an aspect of the U.S. watch industry that’s long been moribund. Recognizing that watchmaking is a dying craft, she’s collaborating with Rolex and Audemars Piguet to establish training centers where the art of maintaining complicated mechanical timepieces will be celebrated. This is a rather unique move, certainly against the backdrop of full-throttled competition that infects the industry. Yet she is convinced that meticulous, highly efficient after-sales service distinguishes true luxury brands from the pretenders.

“It’s essential to be dynamic in America, to sponsor these new schools,” insists Marie, who has established such an extensive service center in Wilton that less than three percent of American repairs are sent back to Switzerland. “We’ve already reached out to young watchmakers from stores across the country, tutored them in Wilton, put them up in hotels and given them great expertise to work on mechanical watches. Now we’re working with these other brands to set up real schools, to give watchmaking new life.”

Breitling has certainly been given new marketing pizzazz under Marie’s stewardship. But even with those glitzy, sales increases, she’s hardly satisfied. Still the steeled, hard-driving American boss, she looks at an assortment of those glittering Montbrillants and Flying Bs on her desk and says, “It’s great to have the Schneiders trust me. To be part of their family. But I must now get back to work. I have to call them again and fight for more watches to be shipped here.”   

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