A well-known, time-honored brand name is like a piece of waterfront property, says Robert Mazzone, the new managing director of the Wittnauer brand, now owned by Bulova Watch Corp. You can’t make one–you can only buy one.
A lot of companies seem to agree with him. The Sept. 5 announcement from Bulova that it had bought the 121 year-old Wittnauer brand for $11 6 mil lion ended a drawn-out bidding period in which several companies joined the fray. Taramax, owner of the Fendi watch license, wanted Wittnauer. So did Charles Watkins and Robert Coleman, the two executives who had been in charge of the brand since they bought it from Westinghouse in 1996 through their company, Composite Holdings. At least one other investor group was said to have bid for the brand.
The scene was reminiscent of the bidding flurry that preceded Composite Holdings’ successful offer five years ago. Then, North American Watch Corp. (now the Movado Group), was rumored to be interested, as were Bulova and at least one other citizen dive watch company.
Why do so many people want Wittnauer? It’s more than the brand’s long history and well-known name. Just as important is the brand’s ability to generate sales without a lot of promotional hoopla. As recently as 1995–when SMH U.S. (now the Swatch Group) took over U.S. distribution for Longines, breaking up the longtime Longines–Wittnauer duo, Wittnauer was a “cash cow,” says one former Wittnauer executive. It produced at least as much sales volume as Longines and much more profit, he says.
This despite its having, through much of its history, a much lower profile than Longines. Albert Wittnauer founded the brand in 1880 as a less expensive, for-the-U.S.-only alternative to Longines, for which he was the U.S. distributor. Wittnauer seldom received as much promotional support as its more glamorous sister.
Some say Bulova accutron will have its work cut out to make Wittnauer a cash cow again. Composite Holdings cut the brand’s advertising budget and had problems delivering product on time, sources say. Bulovais now evaluating the line’s stock keeping units to determine which ones did well. By spring, the company will have a full range of new models, most in the $395 to $795 range, and chiefly in the dress or dress-sport mode. The line will be Swiss; Bulova did not purchase Wittnauer’s assembly plant in Puerto Rico.
Mazzone vows that from now on the brand will get the advertising support it needs. “Wittnauer is a jewel in the rough,” he says. After some polishing, he maintains, it will surely sparkle.