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Patrick Bek: How Uniform Wares has raised the quartz watch sector to their level.

“The world will always try to get you to be vanilla. It wants you to look exactly like it, and the minute you do, they abandon you.” Those words, spoken recently by personal finance author, Ramit Sethi, are especially true for a modern luxury enterprise like Uniform Wares.

If co-founders Patrick Bek and Oliver Fowles, both 32, had stuck to common convention, they would’ve created quartz watches that mimicked mechanicals in aesthetic, hovered around $120, and would’ve been sold at mall countertops and retailers. And had they done that — had they behaved exactly like the quartz market says a quartz brand should behave — they would have been utterly unremarkable. Consumers would have ignored them, and they would’ve sunk straight to bottom of the market like a heavy concrete block.

We would not be writing about them today, had they stuck to that tired script. But in the last seven years, at a time when ‘high-end’ quartz watches are expected to occupy the $150 to $250 range, and at a time when the mechanical wristwatch chatter has reached an audible hum, Uniform Wares has worked tirelessly and with impressive focus in elevating the perception of the the quartz watch. The duo has been unwavering in their mission, sticking to quartz from the very beginning, and so far they’ve sidestepped the mechanical temptation.

It’s worked out rather well for them. Their watches are stocked in every boutique and store worth mentioning around the world, and they’ve inspired, for better or worse, a copycat minimalist wristwatch movement. Still, there’s always room in the market for the best, no matter what’s going on in the peripheral. Uniform Wares proves that.

This conversation with Mr. Bek took place in April 2014, and aside from a few time-based details, holds up remarkably well.


PAUL MUNFORD

You and Oliver were previously freelance product designers in furniture, homeware, and lighting. So you jumped into the watch market in 2009 as outsiders with no experience whatsoever. What were some of the challenges in manufacturing and selling a premium quartz watch back then at a price bracket that tends to aspire to mechanical and thinks of quartz in a pejorative way?

PATRICK BEK

I think it’s quite important to say that at the time we were in the middle of the recession. Whilst we had an idea for a product, when we first started out, we didn’t have an idea for a brand or a collection going forward. There was no two to five year plan, it was just, “Let’s make this watch that we know doesn’t exist in the marketplace.”

We did a bit of research into the types of products and the types of price points that tend to do well in times of recession, and we looked at something called “the Lipstick Effect”, how you’ve got these products that essentially act as a way of dressing yourself up (or your home or your car, whatever it might be). For a smaller cost than buying a new car, you buy interior accessories or new wheels or something for it. That’s the type of thinking that consumers tap into in times of recession. And then we just looked at what was on offer aesthetically in the marketplace at the time, and there was nothing that spoke to us in the price range that we were thinking, which I suppose when we started out, was a little bit lower back then, around $200-500.

There was just nothing out there that was elegant, simple, minimal, and something that was everyday, which was also really important back then. That’s really what informed that first collection of watches, the 100 series. We’re also a startup business — two guys in a studio in East London. We had to look at accessible price points to start because we had a budget in terms of what we could afford to manufacture, and what we could produce at a lower risk level. As the business has become more and more successful with subsequent models being released, we’re at a point where we can really do all of the things that perhaps were in the back of our minds right at the beginning. We’re thinking bigger in terms of what can be done within this price window that we work in, which is around $500 to $1,500 at the moment.

“We’re concentrating on being a premium quartz brand. . . . We’d like our quartz watches to be the best that they can be within the price range that we’ve identified.”

MUNFORD

You mentioned that you had a couple of initial ideas when you began that you’re now able to work on. What are some of those?

BEK

What’s happening now, basically.

MUNFORD

So expanding on the product line, essentially? I mean, from the outside looking in, things to me, over the last year and a half to two years, have seemed to become a little more sophisticated in that regard.

BEK

Yes, definitely. I mean, we’re still pretty young — we’ve turned 30 [Ed note: They’re now 32], and our audience has grown up with us. The more that we’re involved with watches, the more we see the manufacturing possibilities, the materials available to us, the types of movements, and the types of customers that are out there, as well. I think that’s important to talk about, because one thing that we’ve identified is this accessible luxury market, and people of our age range — 25 up to 40, let’s say — they’re really looking for a product that represents the best value. Ours is an informed and reassuringly expensive product. But in order to sell that, we need to communicate that better. We need to emphasize the quality and the care.

There’s also a slight difference in our supply stream. We’re able to tell the story about our manufacturers inside out later this year because we now have really close connections with each of the manufacturers that we work with be it Asia, Europe, Switzerland. And we know that our customers and the types of people that we attract within accessible luxury, are the type of customers who want to know the ins and outs of every part of that product. We work with great characters; we’d like to be able to tell their stories.

We’re also working on a new website, which will be coming online later this year, which will really communicate these things to the customer — what is it that makes our watches special? We’ve moved into a new premises as well just on the fringe of the historic watchmaking area of London, and we’re going to open a showroom space. We’ve got a workshop here, where we can assemble and prototype wristwatches, invite people in, present talks, workshops, events. There’s a huge amount, really, in the pipeline to really get our customers involved with the brand. We’d like to see a lot more brand immersion. There’s a lot more we’d like to do in the design and product development; in order to do that, we need to capture an audience that is looking for that product story.

MUNFORD

I’ve noticed also that you guys are stepping in the direction of becoming a bit more vertical.

BEK

Absolutely. I mean we have direct connections now with each one of our manufacturers for every part of the watch. When we started out, we didn’t have this. That was pretty impossible. It takes a good couple of years to gain their confidence with some manufacturers. You also weed out some manufacturers where perhaps the relationship isn’t so great, and you find better manufacturers. I think we’re at a point now where we’re incredibly happy with everyone that we’re working with and they really understand our brand and what we want to do with the product, which affords us real possibilities when it comes to the design and production of forthcoming collections. Our customers can expect to see a lot more innovation and some surprising products coming through from us in the next year or so.

“One of the key things again that sets us apart from our competitors is that we don’t use distributors. It’s not in our company policy at all. We want to be able to represent the product as best it can be represented in all the territories that we sell into.”

MUNFORD

Let’s talk about that more. You’re very quality-driven. What specifically makes your watches special in comparison to some of your competitors?

BEK

I think talking about competitors, it really goes back to that ownership again. We’re concentrating on being a premium quartz brand for the moment. That’s not to say one day we might design and produce a mechanical watch, that may happen. But right now, we’d like our quartz watches to be the best that they can be within the price range that we’ve identified.

To do that, it’s about having those very close relationships with the manufacturers and controlling every single level of production right from design here at one end in the office, to the showroom at the other end of the office, where it’s gone right through the manufacturing stream and you’re able to present that product in the most beautiful way to the customer and really tell that story. Basically, that kind of level of care and diligence we believe is rarely seen within the price point that we’re working to.

You’ve probably seen yourself, there’s a lot of the more well-known wristwatch brands out there that will have a quartz division. A lot of the times, those watches within the quartz division look like mechanical watches, they’re at a cheaper price point and they’ll put a quartz movement inside the watch to be able to sell it as an entry level product. But it’s not about that for us. For us, it’s about producing the best quartz watches on the market, and that’s with design, production, assembly, everything else that goes with it.

Customer service is hugely important to us as well. It’s really that kind of luxury thinking that you see all the time in horology and companies like Patek Philippe are incredible at that level of service, care, and diligence with their products. We don’t see why we can’t be the same with our products. It just so happens we’re not using platinum; we’re using stainless steel.

MUNFORD

And what sorts of lengths do you guys go to in order to make sure that your customers are well taken care of?

BEK

We have localized service centers. We’ve got one in the UK at the moment; we’re opening one in the States later this year. We’re also opening offices in the larger territories that we sell into, so we’re hoping to open a US office later this year in time for the autumn. That will be a sales office, a real boots on the ground employees of Uniform Wares that will be in the States and will be able to talk to and educate the re-sellers that we have accounts with in the States. We’re hoping to replicate that in Southeast Asia, perhaps in Hong Kong, and also with an office in Australia. One of the key things again that sets us apart from our competitors is that we don’t use distributors. It’s not in our company policy at all. We want to be able to represent the product as best it can be represented in all the territories that we sell into. If we hand over our product to a distributor who hasn’t been part of the Uniform Wares story from the beginning, then that business model is a little worrying for us. To deliver the best product, you need to have complete control over it.

MUNFORD

You mentioned a store. Will that be in New York?

BEK

It’s looking like L.A. One of the reasons is that Oliver loves L.A. and he loves cycling, so it’s the perfect place for him to be. But in the meantime, in terms of retail, the website is still very important for us. We’re working on a new one, where we hope to marry the digital with the physical. We think there isn’t anyone out there selling wristwatches the way they should be sold online. This new site that we’ve got coming through really looks to innovate on that. The future of all product sales are online, so there’s a lot of investment in [improving the website] at the moment.

MUNFORD

That sounds promising, but it’s a little vague. What can we expect there?

BEK

I can tell you about a couple of ideas. The way our product will be sold online, will be almost like a concierge service. If you look at the likes of Net-a-Porter, Mr. Porter, for example, within certain territories you’re able to get same day delivery — that’s something that we’re looking to work towards. We love the idea that again you get this concierge aspect where you could have a guy at your front door with two wrist watches that you deliberated over online and you’re given some time to be able to sit down with your partner, for example, and talk about those two products, keep one, and then hand one back to the driver. This is the kind of thinking that we’d like to develop for the new site. There’s a lot of fashion retailers out there that are doing it incredibly well, and there’s a huge opportunity for wristwatches to be sold in the same way.

MUNFORD

How did you guys raise the initial funding for the brand?

BEK

Beg, stealing and borrowing, basically. Yea, it was friends and family. Because it was the middle of the recession, we couldn’t get any finance from the banks. We didn’t own any property, there was nothing to set the loans against, so it was just a case of making a few groveling phone calls really.

MUNFORD

What about recently; have you guys taken on any new investments or capital since then?

BEK

Nope. We’ve been pretty fortunate so far. Again it’s about that level of ownership that I talked about with the products, with the distribution, with the marketing and PR, if we can keep it all in house for as long as possible, then we’re heading in the right direction.

MUNFORD

One of the things that I’ve also noticed about the brand is that you’re very proudly British. How critical is that association for the branding overall?

BEK

In terms of the aesthetic of the products, because we’re never too heavily concerned with the brand as a logo, that shows because we don’t have it on the dial of the watch. I think there’s a certain quiet British aesthetic that tends to have a little injection of richness or flair that’s not seen in perhaps countries where there’s a minimal aesthetic too, like Germany or Japan, where the approach seems to be a little more austere.

We’re certainly influenced by British tailoring and the fashion and design scene here and being in London is really important as well because it’s an international city and it’s incredibly exciting and certainly the area that we’re in in London, we’re surrounded by very, very interesting businesses and design studios. Above us, next to us, and across the street we’ve got architects, we’ve got hired brains, we’ve got tech startups all based around what they’re calling “Silicon Roundabout” on Old Street just around the corner. There’s just something about being here that does inform, perhaps subconsciously, what you do with the products. The speed at which you develop products, and take risks as well. More of the product that we’re about to release later this year, you’ll see a few more risks being taken. We don’t want to go the safe route and produce mundane style wristwatches. There’s a little bit of an injection of sartorial flair that you get in the UK, and also that kind of Britishness has a global reach as a brand. Great Britain is a brand. I can’t explain why it is, but it is.

MUNFORD

I know you started in the middle of a recession, but when did you start to notice an uptick in business momentum?

BEK

I’d say the beginning of 2012. I think that was really the point where we’d released our C line watches, the first time we’d produced products that were certainly unexpected by our existing market, because it had more of a watch look to it, if that makes sense, classic lugs and so on. It was a big risk for us to introduce that style of product into what was a very modernist brand. It was received incredibly well, the momentum really picked up from there. It actually really helped to expand in the States, that type of product. That was when we first started selling to Bergdorf Goodman. Barneys we’ve recently got onboard, Holt Renfrew which is in Canada, these kind of big North American players really started to stand up and take notice. They’re hugely important accounts for us. We continue to take on large department stores, and I think that was a turning point, because previously we’d been selling to the smaller boutiques like CHCM in New York, for example.

MUNFORD

How have your revenues grown from year one to year five?

BEK

We’ve seen healthy growth. Without giving away any figures, it’s been about 50% year on year growth. Things are going well.

MUNFORD

You guys started out in e-commerce first, and you’ve recently taken on a large amount of new wholesale accounts. How does that split break down at this stage in the business?

BEK

We started out e-commerce first. The emphasis, first of all, was to get through our first 1,000 pieces and the idea was to do as much of that online as possible. We probably do 50 percent of it online, and I like to think it’s through the strength of the product that we’ve seen a lot of attention online, and online press, and as a result of that we attracted a few of first accounts that are accounts that are still really key for us as a business. To be honest, at that time it was about getting the product in, being thankful that it arrived, and it was ready to sell, and let’s just get the site launched and see if we can sell anything. It was as simple as that in the beginning. For revenue the split is 50-50, exactly.

MUNFORD

That’s rare. Most of the brands I talk to have on average around a 75 percent to 90 percent split in favor of e-commerce.

BEK

We had a very strong launch online and we’ve got some really great relationships with online press and blogs that have really supported us from the beginning. They continue to do so. It means that as a result of that, our global ranking SEO is pretty high, which means we’re driving people to the site. We know that there’s massive opportunity to drive even more people to the site, and that’s one of the reasons to redesign and improve.

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