Founded in 1912 by Walter Vogt in Grenchen, Switzerland, Fortis is known for manufacturing rugged, functional watches with a forte for pilot and cosmonaut watches. Among the milestones in the brand’s rich history, Fortis has to be credited for its role (along with British watchmaker John Harwood) in the development of the automatic wristwatch in the early 1920s. Just a few months ago, the company was acquired by Jupp Philipp. As the confinement period comes to an end here in Switzerland, we sat down with the new Fortis owner and CEO to talk about his plans to revive this fascinating brand.
Xavier Markl, MONOCHROME – Thanks for welcoming us here in Grenchen. How did you manage the confinement period?
Jupp Philipp, Fortis – We have taken advantage of the quiet period. There is so much to do when relaunching a brand like Fortis. We worked from home 10 hours a day, planning the future of Fortis with the management team, in particular, the new collections and new design. We have defined our roadmap for the next two-three years. This has been really exciting and stimulating. We had time to focus on ourselves, on the essentials. There are so many things to do that in the end, the confinement was not so bad. We got a lot done and we’re now up to date.
What is your personal background?
I come from the food industry. We have run a family business for 100 years. I am the fourth generation of the family. We produce concentrate and colouring from fruits. I still own and manage this company together with my brother and sister, however, my focus now is 120% Fortis.
How did you get involved with Fortis and what led you to acquire the brand?
It is a long story! My elder brother is not in the fruit business. He is an aeroplane engineer, producing aluminium parts for companies such as Airbus and Pilatus. And he is a pilot. When I started to get interested in mechanical watches, especially Swiss watches, I talked about it with my brother. He happens to be a long-time Fortis fan. He always told me that real pilots wear Fortis watches. And as a pilot, he had a good selection of Fortis pilot watches. I fell in love with the Fortis Cosmonaut watches and we had numerous conversations about the brand.
After running the family fruit business for 20 years successfully, I needed a new challenge. I started to think about what I could do next… And I have two sons and one company. How do you solve this? But most importantly, I needed to do something different, to face a new challenge…
A couple of years ago, I read in the newspaper that Fortis had cash problems and said to my wife as a joke, ‘let’s buy Fortis’. She answered, ‘it is your favourite brand, why don’t you?’. I love watches but I had no idea about the watch business then. And you need to understand the business. A couple of weeks later, a friend called to talk about an investment opportunity here in Grenchen. On our way to visit that company, we happened to drive past Fortis. I had no idea that Fortis was based in Grenchen. I talked about it with this friend who knew the Fortis owner and organized a meeting. The following week I was back in Grenchen. I started to assess the company, to analyze the business. It took nearly eight months before the contract was signed in September 2018.
What have been your priorities?
You need to focus on the essentials and drive change from the inside out. You cannot just join a company and say ‘hey, I am the new owner’ and everybody will buy Fortis. You need to change things inside out to create trust. In particular, quality and service are crucial… The watch industry is slow and the future is fast. We create timeless products, you buy watches for the next 20 years, but companies need to be fast.
The first thing you have to think about is quality. Then you can talk about the price because at the end it costs what it costs but there are no shortcuts with quality. We want to be proud of our watches!
You need to define a vision for the company. One of the biggest mistakes for Fortis in the past has been that the brand tried to reach everybody. It can’t be: a company needs focus. We craft robust, no-nonsense tool watches, tough watches for daily use. If you want an extra-slim dress watch, this is not Fortis. There are very good watchmakers for this. If you want a complicated watch, go to A. Lange & Söhne, they’ll do this much better than we can.
What can we expect from Fortis?
My approach to running a company is to involve each and every one. We are a close-knit team and everybody is allowed to express their opinion. So, we talked about ‘what do we want to be?’ I have my opinion but in the end we all have to think alike. And then you can start to create watches. It has been a complete reconstruction. It takes a lot to create great quality watches.
Our direction will be straightforward. The outcome will be 100% Fortis. Some people will like it, others will not… but the idea is to create robust tool watches with no compromise on quality and with beautiful designs. I follow one rule: there is no function without design and there is no design without function. If there is a nice function but we cannot find the right design, we won’t do it. We won’t offer a design because it looks good. There needs to be a function. And in the end, it will always be about no-nonsense, functional watches. This is the red line for our creations.
We’ll be presenting our next collection of watches late summer and by the end of 2023, we will have relaunched the brand’s entire collection.
How is your manufacturing organized?
We have not changed the way we produce. It is still by hand and it will remain by hand as long as I am here in the company. It is more expensive than ‘industrial’ production that other brands have implemented: there are no helping machines and watchmakers are actually assembling watches. It requires more time but we are taking this time for the watches.
What we updated is the production facility, upgrading it to the highest industry standards, with new testing machines, new tooling, a new workshop, and even our in-house laboratory soon… Watchmakers have to feel at home and have the right tools. To produce top quality, they need to feel good.
You will be using Kenissi movements soon? How did it happen?
Kenissi will produce Manufacture movements for us. We started talking with them in 2018, right at the beginning. With the ETA story, you have to find new directions. Then you need to ask yourself, where do you want to be in 10 / 20 years. I want Fortis to be compared with Breitling, Tudor, IWC, such brands… With such a target, we started talking with Kenissi as they have this capacity of manufacturing high-performance, robust, accurate movements. We are really happy with this decision. This befits Fortis.
The watch fairs landscape has changed dramatically. What do you think of the situation?
The watch industry needs a powerful event where everybody joins. Baselworld is over now. Everybody knew it three years ago but nobody wanted to see it. For me it was clear. Now we need a new solution. We need one big fair. The industry needs to work together. It’s better to work together. It could be in Geneva and I don’t really care where it happens but we need to work together.
What are the next challenges for Fortis?
There are lots of challenges. It is a tough market. I want people to trust the brand. I want people to feel that we are an authentic and trustful brand. We do as we say, that’s the rule. This is why we open our doors. Come to visit us. There is nothing to hide here at Fortis.
With regards to distribution, we need to find the right partners and work with the best retailers. This may take years but we are here for the long run and it will happen. We are consistent and transparent. We are also selling online. This is part of the future and this is a part of our strategy. But I believe that retailers are crucial partners. Good retailers can offer a unique experience. This is luxury.
For more information, please visit www.fortis-swiss.com.