It is an uncommon pleasure to begin a conversation with a watch industry executive with a few points about the watches everyone is wearing on the occasion of the meeting. It is even more uncommon that we can include anything about this kind of thing in the resulting story, because for that to happen, the watches have to all be from the appropriate brand. Unlikely as this normally is, it is what happened when we met Walter Volpers, IWC Manufacturing Director. Volpers was just promoted to this role this year, after a career at the firm in product development. Ruckdee Chotjinda and I were visiting the IWC offices and manufacturing facilities in Schaffhausen, and we both happened to be wearing IWC watches.
Volpers demonstrated his acumen, gleaned from years of working in development at IWC when he identified Ruckdee’s watch as the Portugieser Perpetual Calendar in red gold just by the tell-tale power reserve indicator. Volpers also had a neat nickname for the Aquatimer (my discontinued 2008 model), which none of us had ever heard before: the Mickey Mouse, because of the twin crowns, which remind Volpers of ears. We all exchanged watches for a bit before moving on to the conversation proper.
This exceptionally watch-nerdy opening aside, our discussion with Volpers was extremely insightful, as we hope you will agree. As a personality, he has not had the same share of the limelight as some of his colleagues, including the magnetic CEO Christoph Grainger-Herr and longtime Creative Director Christian Knoop. Volpers has his own voice, including a clear-eyed perspective on the processes behind both developing new watches and actually making them fit for wrists in the wild, so to speak. Of course, he also has special passion for the release of the moment, the Ingenieur, which he says was the most challenging watch he ever worked on. Nevertheless, he defends the decision to introduce it with a closed caseback, noting that various patent protections prevent IWC from deploying a properly anti-magnetic movement. More importantly, he notes that since the model began life with a soft iron inner case, it should appear in this form again.
Congratulations on your new position at IWC! Tell us how it has been going, and how it differs from your previous role in product development.
Thank you! So, by March 1 this year, I was promoted to the position of manufacturing director, which means that I’m leading the entirety of manufacturing, including the supply chain…that’s like the purchasing department (of raw materials and the like), if you want to put it that way. And of course it differs from my former role in product development in the sense that I used to design and develop new watches; my job was to bring a dream to the wrist. Now I need to bring finished watches to market. And I can see how well I did my old job over the last eight years, by seeing how many watches we can deliver. So now I’m feeling all the problems that I had while in the development stage that needed to be corrected at the manufacturing stage. It has been an amazing journey and I think I’ve done a great job in the past [Volpers puffs himself up parodically and winks knowingly]. Right now, we are still fighting a little bit (to deliver everything we should) but that is the standard situation (for most Swiss brands).
So you did not discover that you gave the previous boss of manufacturing a lot of problems!
You know, product management gave me the great opportunity of looking into a lot of processes within the company. This means everything from finance and quality control to sales and marketing…that gives you great insights. Of course, when you’re calculating the margin of a product, you understand a lot about production (in terms of actually making the watches for market) already. So that’s been helping me a lot in my new role to understand very quickly what is going on. For example, I knew already some of the issues we had in supply chain management with the watch industry…You know if you’re Swiss Made, you cannot purchase abroad, otherwise you’re not Swiss Made. That is a tough restriction on supply. So, I knew already a little bit on the issues that we have and now I can find synergies between the old role and the new one, to maybe try to look at the development of the products a bit differently… To try to capture the growing pains you have on any product development… So, you can say, “Hey, be careful when developing a watch like this, because you can have such and such problems when you begin manufacturing.
Your background helps you in your new role, but also your credentials from before that. What is it that you like about the processes inherent in manufacturing?
I am an industrial engineer with an MBA so for me, I’m at home with processes. In manufacturing, it is a bit like going back to my roots. I think it is amazing to have the opportunity to make the machine that makes the machine, so to speak. Manufacturing is where you have to get a lot of different technologies working together to finalise or to bring a product to life and to keep doing that continuously. Even if I understand perfectly well what needs to be done, my question is, can I enable my team to do what needs to be done? And that is actually the challenge right now: enabling my team to excel and to evolve.
Going back to the supply chain matter that is bedeviling everyone, is the solution to bring more production in- house?
Yeah, it is a good question. It depends. Of course, you need to have a strategy on how to produce, and depending on that strategy, you need to react. You’re continuously looking at double sourcing, triple sourcing even. You have to also look into innovation and it is always a balance of all these things (and between what you can do yourself and what you can source from partners). Internally, we have to figure out what (materials or expertise) might become scarce. Then we have to see what the competition is doing; are they purchasing some companies that might hurt you in the future?
Basically, it is a sort of game of probing the weaknesses and strengths of your company. If you know a vulnerability, you will be ready to react to it. Of course, the question is this: how fast would you like to react and how fast can you or are you reacting in reality? And in the watch industry, everything is very slow to my understanding! I might prefer to react tomorrow rather than three months later! But first, you need to know when to react faster… So yeah, you need to be creative and start to think differently, and this is what brings me joy in my work…finding solutions.
Give us an example please!
So, if in Switzerland there are five suppliers and two of them are the best, everybody will want to work with them. So how do you get them? And once you get them, you need to be long-term, otherwise you’ll lose them next year, and then you will not be working with the best supplier (the implication here being that one has to decide where to invest in a supplier, and where to invest in one’s own capabilities).
Actually, the question we need to ask ourselves, in our leadership positions, is what are we doing so that 150 years later, IWC is still here. If we have very big quantities to produce, well of course we can increase (our own capacity in some areas). We do have the manufacturing center, which can allow a lot more people working here than we’re having right now. But our production can go also down and demand can slow (so I go back to my earlier point). Having a resilient production system, where you can adapt quickly, or fairly quickly, to market sentiment is very important. That’s answering the question of how do we keep the company alive for the next 150 years.
Moving on to actual watches and your own background, the Ingenieur this year must speak quite personally to you, given your background as an engineer.
Well, the Ingenieur means a lot to me… That is my career; that is what I am. As a kid I was taking everything apart just to see how it was working. I would get presents and think that what I really need is a screwdriver so I can take them apart and see how they work! Already at that time, I knew how it felt to reassemble something and find a screw left over…something went wrong! I wanted to know how things worked; why things worked as they did; and why all the screws had to be used where they were used!
I already understood that I was not normal, thinking like that. I mean, as a child going to a country fair (or amusement park, or wherever you might find a roller-coaster), I wondered how it was that the roller-coaster cars did not fall when upside down; everyone else was more interested in how adrenaline- pumping the experience was. I was like, yeah, but I’m having fun just by looking at this machine, and figuring out how it is working. So I think that that was the beginning. I think that is why also the watch industry (captivates me). I mean, the mechanical watch is an amazing machine (operating) in the smallest space possible. Just the physics of it is fascinating. And then you get to wear it on your wrist. I mean, it is just cool.
The Ingenieur is certainly a cool watch!
You know the titanium piece? I am going to get that for myself as soon as it is open for employees to buy. I need to start fighting with my colleagues already! But seriously, the watch is important to me for two reasons: first, it is the last one I worked on in product development, and now the first one for me since I moved to production. Secondly, my hair went grey already before I worked on the new Ingenieur so I cannot say all of it is because of the development, but we had a lot of fights internally on this watch, to be honest. We did so many iterations, maybe 100 prototypes… We did 30 different dials to get the right one… We went back and forth between making the screws (on the bezel) functional or not, and deciding on the caseback. I mean, the bracelet alone is amazing, if you know anything about bracelets. This is like the most complicated bracelet ever, and we have it in three different finishes for the market, which is a nightmare to deliver. It is the most challenging watch I have ever worked on.
This article was first published on WOW Autumn Issue #70
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