FOR entrepreneur Christopher Ward time really is money – his fledgling watch company has grown into a profitable multi-million pound business that takes on the might of the Swiss giants.
From humble beginnings in a small Soho workshop, the company’s timepieces are now designed and made in Switzerland, which has given the brand the cachet pitching it against big hitters like Breitling.
Ward has come a long way since regular visits to a watch museum in his home city of Liverpool, where he marvelled at the workmanship of early watchmakers.
After a career in clothing retail with Littlewoods, Reebok and Mizuno, Ward, by then in his late forties, was looking for a new business opportunity and fortuitously made the contacts who could bankroll his entrepreneurial ambitions and love of watches.
“I hooked up with a friend of mine Mike France who I knew from my Littlewoods days and Peter Ellis on my boat on the Thames. We came up with the idea of making and selling quality, affordable watches because there seemed to be a gap in the market.”
France and Ellis – who had just sold the Early Learning Centre chain – pumped in £25,000 each to get the business rolling.
The trio started by studying companies already advertising in newspapers with mail order watches – and then embarked on their own research exercise. Ward placed three advertisements for identical watches in national newspapers – one for £99, one for £179 and the other for £849.
“We sold some at £99, but not many as people thought there would be a catch because what we were offering was too good to be true. At £849 we sold a couple. But interestingly we sold the most at £179 because people thought that was a fair price.
“We learned a lot about the price model from that exercise.”
The company started in 2005 with two watches designed by Ward himself in Soho and assembled in China with Swiss parts. They were displayed on a rudimentary website, a far cry from the company’s high spec site today.
The business went from strength to strength and then Swatch – which makes the majority of Swiss movements – refused to supply the Far East market because they were being used in Rolex counterfeits.
“It was big decision and we decided to move to Switzerland, enabling us to put Swiss Made on our watches.”
The fact that the watches are made in the Jura region of Switzerland has taken Christopher Ward to another level in the watch industry. However, the price tag on the watches is well below the likes of Swiss giants, which have similar movements and materials.
“The middle men take so much money from big watch companies that the price spirals. We now sell online, so don’t have to pay middle men or deal with retailers who have huge costs.
“Also, we don’t pay the likes of Brad Pitt to advertise our watches, like the big brands, who rely on celebrities.”
The Christopher Ward website now has scores of models and sells across the world, with a strong following in the US.
Ward, who is based in Maidenhead with the customer service team led by his wife Wera, said: “We are causing a stir and working hard. We are not greedy and so are able to have low costs.”
The brand works on word of mouth – or “Ward of mouth” – as he refers to it, to get the message across.
On tips for other entrepreneurs he says that top customer service is vital.
“We value our customers and pride ourselves on our service. Our customers usually buy more than one watch from us which is amazing.
“Although we sell quality watches for less than other companies a few hundred quid is still a lot of money, especially in these times.”
Perhaps harking back to that day on the Thames when the business was born and the way in which he is working a business model which defies conventional wisdom, he says tellingly: “I love swimming against the tide.”
CV CHRISTOPHER WARD
Company: Christopher Ward
Turnover: £3.5m (forecast this year)
Number of staff: 10
Lives: Cookham, Berkshire
Studied: MBA, Open University (while working)
Reading: British history and the back page of the Liverpool Echo (Liverpool fan)
Talents: Breaking bones in sporting activities
Favourite business book: Just Do It: The Nike Spirit in the Corporate World, Donald Katz
Motto: “Always do the right thing: you sleep better at night for it.”
First ambition: Marry a foreigner (succeeded)