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Mon 11 Jul 2011 02:50 PM

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The final frontier

Business development manager at Swiss watchmaker Fortis on cracking the Middle East market with its Arabic design timepiece

The final frontier
Mahesh Shahani, managing partner of Gems World and the UAE’s distributors for Fortis watches

Max Peter is a little frustrated. As we walk through the hotel lobby after our meeting in Dubai he complains about the poor timekeeping skills of some of the people he has been meeting. Timekeeping is very important for the Swiss and for Peter — who is business development manager at the Fortis watch company — it is a way of life.

The luxury Swiss watchmaker is due to celebrate its 100th anniversary next year, but it has always been ahead of its time. The firm has become renowned for its keen sense of adventure.

In 2006, Frenchman Fred North set a world record for helicopter flight when he flew at 12,954 metres. Since 2001, Russian cosmonauts at the International Space Station have studied the impact of zero gravity on timekeeping.

The equally adventurous Austrian Ernst Zinnhobler became the first European to make an extreme parachute jump over the South Pole, when in 2000, he trekked to the globe’s southern-most point, jumped from the icy height of 5,000 metres and fell at a speed of 250 km per hour.

What do these explorers all have in common? They were all wearing Fortis’ branded watches, as the Swiss watch company was the official timekeeper for their adventurous endeavours.

Peter says his dream job is to become an astronaut, but while he may not be heading into space any time soon, his Fortis watches already have. The company has had a long partnership with space exploration and aviation and has been awarded a medal of honour from the Russian Space Agency for its commitment to the development of mechanical chronographs for space travel.

Its collaboration with the Russians began in 1992 and by 1994 its watches had passed probationary tests during missions to the space station MIR. Thereafter the company’s watches became part of all Russian space crews’ official equipment.

Fortis is also currently the official timekeeper for the MARS 500 Mission, a simulated space mission that will replicate the physical and psychological conditions of a trip to the red planet. The Moscow-based initiative by the European Space Agency will see a crew of astronauts spend almost two years in a special simulation facility, experiencing the exact conditions they’d face on a mission to Mars.

The crew will experience extreme isolation and confinement, with radio contact taking 40 minutes to travel to the support team and then back to the space explorers, says Peter.

To commemorate its involvement in the Mars project, the company has designed the limited edition MARS 500 wrist watch, which was launched at the Dubai Airshow in 2009. The watch is cased in titanium, is water resistant up to 200 metres and features an incabloc shock absorbent system, which protects the clock’s internal mechanism in the event of any unexpected physical shocks.

“Certain watches in our range are renowned for their ability to withstand the rigours of fighter jet speed, space travel, the arctic tundra and the depths of the ocean. The MARS 500 has to stand up to the test of the ultra-realistic Mars simulation and we are proud to participate in this project,” says Peter.

The red planet might be in its sights, but the company has more earthly priorities weighing on its time. Namely, cracking the Middle Eastern market. The company has been operating in the Gulf region since at least the 1920s, but the recent renaissance in interest in Swiss watches has seen it make a further push into the market. “In the 20s and 30s, we were in India and in the 60s and 70s we were strong in Iran and Kuwait,” says Peter.

“Over the last 30 years the main focus has been Europe and the US and now we are really focusing on generating business in the Middle East,” adds Luke Suter, Fortis’ sales manager responsible for the Middle East region.

The region currently accounts for around ten percent of the company’s business and Suter says that “in the last five or six years it has been doubling each year and it is our fastest growing market.”

The Middle East is also proving to be a strong performer in the luxury goods market and 30 percent of the luxury boutiques that are forecast to open worldwide will be in the Gulf.

In fact, the UAE has seen a dramatic turnaround in sales of luxury Swiss watches, with sales up by nearly a quarter in the first half of last year, according to the figures from the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry (FSWI), of which Fortis is a member.

The market for Swiss watches grew by 24 percent in the first six months of 2010 in the UAE, with sales rising to CHF278.4m ($265.29m), compared to CHF224.5m ($213.92m) in the same period the year before.

This is a dramatic recovery from previous figures from the FSWI, which reported that sales in the first nine months of 2009 slumped by 34.7 percent.

In the first half of 2010, global sales of luxury Swiss watches were up 20.3 percent, with the biggest half yearly growths seen in the Czech Republic (302.7 percent), China (90.6 percent), Portugal (53.5 percent) and Singapore (49.2 percent).

“Last year in general was bad for the whole watch industry all over the world. It was first bad in countries like the USA, then southern countries like Greece and Spain… [but] others like South East Asia have managed to level it out. For the factory we didn’t feel any impact as some of the markets went down but then it levelled out,” says Peter.

Mahesh Shahani, managing partner of Gems World and the United Arab Emirates’ distributors for Fortis watches, says that last year sales of luxury watches were down by about a quarter. However, he is confident about the prospects for this year as he believes sales levels have already recovered from last year’s slump.

He is planning to increase sales further by opening “at least another five retail outlets in the UAE this year and seven or eight next year.”

Suter says that the UAE “is always a special market” and Dubai is the company’s main launching pad into the Middle East, but it is also looking to capitalise on other markets such as Oman, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Shahani has been instrumental in the growth of the Fortis brand in the Middle East as he has helped design and develop the first automatic wristwatch featuring Arabic-language numerals. Launched in May, the B-42 Al Tayar watch features full Arabic calligraphy, including date information. According to the firm, it is the only watch available off the shelf that is completely Arabic. Al Tayar means ‘The Aviator’ in Arabic and reflects Fortis’ links to the aviation and aerospace sectors.

“I was born and brought up in an Arabic culture and have always had an affinity with its traditions and language. Being involved in the watchmaking industry, I noticed that there was a lack of watches that reflected this culture and so I was always keen to try and produce one,” says Shahani.

The Al Tayar was in development for over two years and cost around £70,000 ($108,631) to bring to market. It is planned that only 200 pieces will be made, but by the end of the year it will also be available in international markets such as South East Asia, Japan and Germany, where Fortis says distributors have already expressed an interest in stocking it.

Peter says he has been surprised by how popular the watch has been with non-Arab buyers and plans to promote the watch to global collectors of exclusive timepieces. “For the Arabic people it is a great edition and we are now looking at doing similar things in other countries,” he adds.

Peter’s father was an advertising expert before he began working for Fortis and was intrigued by the company’s colourful detachable straps, which was considered unique in the pre-Swatch era. The ‘Plastic Rolex’ style watches were the fashion of the 70s and 80s and were big sellers at Harrods in London. However, the election in the US of president Ronald Reagan helped raise the popularity of the watches.

Reagan wore a watch with the three straps in the red, white and blue colours of the Republican Party to accompany his campaign slogan, which was “Set your watch to Reagan time.”

The design worked for Reagan and Peter is now hoping that his company’s Arabic designs will persuade Gulf buyers to set their watches to Fortis time.

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