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.
Joining TAG Heuer
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.
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.
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.
As 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:
“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
In 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:
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
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.
We 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.