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Stéphane Linder Profile & Interview

There are very few men to have sat in the CEO chair at TAG Heuer since Jack Heuer departed in 1982. Christian Viros led the company from the early days of TAG in 1986 through to the LVMH acquisition in 2000 when Jean-Christophe Babin took over. Now in 2013, with Babin on his way to the top job at Bulgari, Stéphane Linder has taken over.

But where Jean-Christophe joined TAG Heuer from the world of detergents at Henkel, Linder is a 20-year veteran at TAG Heuer, having joined the company in 1993. During that time, he has played a key role in the transformation of TAG Heuer from a brand that had forgotten how to make watches in the 1990s, to one of the most innovative watch-making companies today.

stephane_linder_2013_9Stéphane’s first day in the new role was the first of June 2013, so we were fortunate to have the early chance to talk with Stephane about his career at TAG Heuer and what he saw for the future.

Joining TAG Heuer

TAG Heuer Kirium WatchLinder is a graduate of the famous École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, having graduated as a Engineer. But watches were not what attracted him to TAG Heuer:

I arrived at TAG Heuer, not because I wanted to be in watches, but because I was into car racing- I was a fanatic of Formula 1 racing, at that time I liked watching Formula 1 Grand Prix with Ayrton Senna. So, one time I saw in the newspaper that TAG Heuer were looking for an engineer in Product Development, and I knew of TAG Heuer from this long-standing association with motor racing

Linder’s first role was as a Project Development Manager in the Engineering and R&D Department. Back in ’93, TAG Heuer was heavily reliant on sub-contractors to develop new models. TAG Heuer would make the design, but turning that design into reality was not a skill that existed in-house. His new role was part of the effort to rebuild TAG Heuer’s watchmaking skill, which had diminished during the 1980s.

Probably the best known of the projects that Stéphane worked on in those early years was the development of the Kirium, which in many ways represented a reawakening of design at TAG Heuer.

I remember that we made a patent on the bracelet, which was “anti-pinch”. The bracelet was designed to be integrated, but the problem with these bracelets is that they tend to pinch the skin, or the hair. So, we designed a system so that the links could not touch each-other, using pins, blockers and stoppers. OK, it was not so complicated, but I think it was the first Patent that TAG Heuer had made since the early 1980s- or maybe late 1970s- so not that complicated, but more a symbol that we had started to do technical innovation again.”

Diversification

Night correct mounting especially developed for the 24 Hours of MansFrom 1997, Linder’s role changed, with a move to the Marketing side of TAG Heuer. As he explained:

I wanted to get experience in thinking about the strategy- product strategy, working with the designers and the strategy of the brand. At the time, in R&D,  you just receive what you should do, but you don’t shape why this is

Things changed in 1998, when then-CEO Christian Viros first began to think about diversifying the TAG Heuer brand into products other than watches. Linder was placed in charge of the diversification project, which at that stage was a blank canvas: Pens? Leather bags? Fragrances? After an extensive study, it was decided that Eyewear was the logical first extension. But TAG Heuer wanted to do a lot more than just add its logo to someone else’s designs.

We decided to start with eyewear, but we didn’t want to do a typical license deal- we wanted to go much further. We wanted to work with our own designers, choose the strategy, the price point and to use some interesting technology. We did the marketing, the displays….and then we worked with a partner to help execute the strategy- very different to the way many brand diversification work.”

Linder worked in this role through to 2001 when Jean-Christophe Babin arrived at TAG Heuer. Babin decided early that he wanted to focus on true innovation- to bring back watchmaking to TAG Heuer. Linder would play a key role in this change, perhaps the clearest expression of which was a bold idea developed under-cover.

Monaco V4

MonacoV4_1As regular readers will know, the idea for the Monaco V4 originated from Jean-François Ruchonnet, a designer who had been working with Linder at TAG Heuer on 3D animations. But Ruchonnet had an idea for more than movies:

“Jean-François said to me that we should make a crazy movement, something unbelievable…so he came one time and said “OK, I have an idea to make a movement that works on belts, not gears”, and so you can imagine that it would allow us to design the movement in a totally different way. So we agreed that we needed a design to show this idea. He suggested making a 3D movie to present this product, because if people see it work, it will be easier to understand how beautiful it is.”

“So, I had a Marketing budget, but no product development budget..so I gave him what he needed to make the movie from the Marketing budget, so long as he didn’t speak about it! When it was done I went to Jean-Christophe and said “I have something to show you”- but I was a bit scarred…it was a hidden project. Luckily, he loved it and we went and made a prototype and that’s how it started”

 Bringing together R&D and Marketing

Monaco V4 3-WMIn 2003 Linder was given a new challenge- as Product Director. The new role brought together Marketing and R&D- not all of marketing (advertising and communication remained separate), but strategic marketing and design as a way of fostering new ideas.

The team started with the release of the first prototype Monaco V4 and then moved to develop the watches that started TAG Heuer’s reputation for innovation:

“We had developed the Monaco V4 with Guy Semon, who had joined as a consultant, then we had the Calibre 360, the Monaco Twenty-Four, Grand Carrera Pendulum…really the birth of innovation that you now see.

Once we had this, it was a highway, because we had built the structure and the team, with the right people. But it was hard! From 2003 to 2008 we had 4-5 years without real results…nothing was released, and so there was a lot of pressure- What are you guys doing? Where is the V4? So, we had a few years without results.”

In 2007, Linder was placed in charge of the remaining Marketing functions, including development of the boutiques, internet strategy, and catalogues. Given this move, TAG Heuer needed someone focused full-time on R&D, with Guy Semon the obvious choice to move to a permanent role with TAG Heuer.

Stéphane Linder then moved to the US in 2010 where he was the Vice-President of Sales for North America, a role in which he remained until winning the nod to succeed Babin in May 2013.

Interview with Stéphane Linder

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David Chalmers: Stéphane, I wanted to start with Re-editions. TAG Heuer was a leader in seeing this opportunity in 1996-97 and brought back the Carrera and Monaco and then made several other vintage-inspired models, like the Autavia, Monza and Targa Florio. But since the Silverstone in 2010, this seems to have stopped- yes, there are heritage inspired models, but no “true” re-editions. Over the last couple of years, brands like Tudor and Jaeger Le Coultre have released watches to great acclaim that are similar to Heuer designs…so why did TAG Heuer stop with the re-editions?

Stéphane Linder: Yes, this is true. And I have to say that I was very much behind the re-editions in the late 1990s- Carrera. Monaco, Targa Florio- we released what we called “Full New Designs” so it was the era that we did this, and now it’s true it’s not really “Full new Designs”, it’s taking an existing product like the Carrera or Monaco and doing a special Heuer edition.We still do Full new designs, like the Carrera Mikrograph, but its true that it’s not like we use to do.

Heuer Carrera 1964We stopped because, and this is a question of priorities, we began to come up with these new innovative ideas- Avant Garde products coming from innovation- the Microtimer quartz, Monaco 69, then the V4 and we just couldn’t do everything. And I think what happened is that we were concentrating so much on making these huge statements in innovation, which actually brought us a lot- because when you innovate, you build teams, you build knowledge and you build visibility.

  • JCO

    If I understand correctly, the Calibre 1888 will be "thinner than a normal chronograph"? If this is the case, then I may actually be in the market for a modern TAG Heuer! The biggest turn off to me of virtually all chronographs these days is the thickness – at least 15mm thick, which can be quite difficult to get under dress shirt cuffs. A thin chronograph itself would seem to be an innovation that could be marketed successfully.

  • Mark

    Well knowing some history, and from what was said in that interview my take on it is TAG Heuer are bringing out a new thinner Monaco with a in house calibre 1969 celebrating the birth of the auto crhono, calibre 11.

  • I agree that a thinner movement is a huge plus. I have a JLC Deep Sea Chrono that has a perfect height- much shallower than say a Carrera 1887.

    The JLC Calibre 758 is 6.81mm high. I understand that the Calibre 1969 is 6.5mm high…so a lot will be possible.

    Yes, Monaco 1969 would be perfect. Depending on the layout, you could easily make a 2-reg version of the Calibre 1969 by eliminating the 6 o'clock register. If this was running seconds, then you'll have a very similar look and functionality to the original Calibre 11.

    dc

  • Cyril

    Having worked with Stephane for 4 years, I am convinced we will see some great products in the future, I can so much see what he means in those lines it makes me smile.

    The tagheuerness is his moto, you will surely find it more prominent in the design but I agree that the future chrono movement slimer would make everyone happy. If you make the movement smaller and slimmer you can make more different things, you are not linked to the size of the movement that constraint you to make different design (because it’s too thick…).

    Looking forward to those new developments!

  • DM.

    the 1969 was designed to tackle two issues

    i) thickness of the 1887
    ii) time it takes to manufacture the 1887

    If I recall correctly, the 1887 is about 8ish mm so 6.5 would make it a handy 1.5ish mm thinner.

    That it is the classic 3-6-9 config is what makes me really happy though as it means, or at least should mean, that we will see future Carrera models that really do replicate the 2447 and 3647 models that are thinner than the 1887 models.

    Good God, if they make a modern 2447 SN I might just have a heart attack.

    1969 and Mocaco seems like a good fit. I'm a Carrera fan first and foremost though but I know the Monaco wears a bigger hat in the TAGHeuer catalogue so I can understand that. It'd be interesting to see how the arrival of the new movements will affect the hierarchy of the model line-up.
    I know that the anniversary year of the Carrera is going to skew the perception slightly but it feels like there is more of a push towards to the two heritage names more than the newer models.

    While the Carrera gets the El Primero and 1887 and the Monaco looks to be the first recipient of the 1969, the Link looks to be taking a back set in terms of position and what movements it gets. If the Carrera is to be taking a more prominent place, where does that put the Grand Carrera?

    I mean, there have always been internet noise about the model being discontinued but there does seem to be a lack of news about new models for the Grand Carrera.

    DM

  • Thanks for the insights Cyril- and yes, agree that the slimmer movement is good news all around…much easier to fit a slim movement to a larger case than vice-versa!

    DM, it does sound exciting. I think the Calibre 1969 will be as much a Carrera movement as a Monaco movement- and probably the Link.

    I haven't heard anything official about the Grand Carrera, but I think that the plan was to phase the series out- especially the watch versions, and maybe continue with just the Calibre 36 and 17 models. I guess the question is whether the change in management at TAG Heuer changes this outcome?

    dc

  • Phil

    I own 4 Tags and am very enthusiatic about the new CEO. I like the fact he worked his way up and has been a part of TAGs innovation and success. In a side note looking a decade out I think luxury watchmakers need to partner with technology companies for smart watches. Your watch could look good and start your car or pay for your coffee. Something to think about.

  • I agree with you Phil. Nothing ever stays still- it's tempting to think that because high-end mechanical watches are popular today, that means that it will be this way forever. No-one saw quartz coming…and very few people saw that one day mechanical watches would be back…so how can we see the next trend around the corner?

    Heuer had a wonderful heritage at the forefront of digital technology..so why not be at the front of Smartwatch technology?

    After all, there is only one brand that makes watches and smartphones…

    dc