Industry Strategy Conference 2015

Below is the report from the April edition of the Guild magazine "Time Piece". Please also click HERE to download the article by James Buttery published in the April edition of Watch Pro magazine.

For many years, members of The Guild have expressed their concerns regarding the spare parts issue for watches which has become more worrying this year with a letter from ETA to all their suppliers which is printed in the latest issue of Timepiece. There is also a feeling within the trade that training is no longer adequate to ensure its future and that we may be reaching a stage where if something is not put into place soon then the trade as we know it may cease to exist.

Whilst the Board were considering the way forward, we were approached by Steve Domb, who is well known to the Board from our association with Epping Forest Horology Centre, who have been providing training at the entry level into horology for a number of years and are an exam centre for the BHI Distance Learning Course. Steve spent eight years with EFHC, two years as Chairman. During his time as Chairman, he concentrated on raising the profile of the Centre and helping to steer them through their conversion into a Registered Charity.

The initial meeting was with myself, the Vice-chairman and the Secretary followed by discussions with the whole Board, prior to which a Situation Report written by Steve had been circulated to ourselves and a small number of other individuals he had been talking to on the matter. It was felt that the way forward would be to hold a Conference.

Having read the Report, long time Guild member and industry stalwart, Anthony Cousins kindly offered to fund the Conference, as he felt that after a lifetime spent in the trade now was the time "to put something back". Anthony told me that he had been following the parts situation with increasing concern for a number of years and had said many times that cutting supply to the independent trade, was, in his view, only the first stage in a Swiss plan to take everything in house. He felt it was only a matter of time until they also cut supply to those companies who had signed up to Agency Agreements.

As all Board members are still working and have little spare time, it was agreed Steve would, on behalf of the Guild, set up the Conference to which representatives from all areas of the trade would be invited. Titled "Developing a Co-ordinated Action Plan to Support the Growth of British Horology", on the 11th March over 70 senior figures from our trade - some having travelled a considerable distance - met at The Elton John Suite at Watford Football Club and spent a most interesting and exciting day in discussion on a number of topics, the most urgent being the spare parts issue, which as mentioned above, which will cause vast problems to independent watchmakers at the end of 2015.

The Conference commenced with a short presentation by myself on "The Conference and its' Objectives". I explained how the Conference came about and emphasised how essential it was for us all to learn from past mistakes and not to waste any time or energy on ascribing blame or picking over old wounds from past disputes. The two objectives for the day were to start the process of developing a strategy and looking for areas where we could all work together without giving up our individual competitive advantages, and the second was to try to ensure that everyone had an opportunity to give their view without fear of being criticised for it, and more importantly, leave knowing that their views had been listened to and noted. The tone for the day was very much discussion rather than lecture, and to achieve this we employed a technique called "Listening Panels". For each of the topics we covered there was a small panel of relevant individuals on the platform, along with myself as Chair and Steve Domb as Moderator. We wanted to ensure that we stayed on topic and to bring up any points or questions that had been raised in advance of the event. Paul Cradock ended up being the scribe for the day and he summarised the points that delegates made, which were read out at the end of each session and corrected if necessary.

"A Strategists point of View" was the next presentation by Steve on fundamental business strategy issues and applying them to the current situation in the watch marketplace. He pointed out the need for our industry to grow in size in order to justify the necessary investment in education and reskilling, and to leave us less vulnerable to outside attack. He proposed that we set, as a long term objective statement for the strategy we wish to develop, the wording : "To return British Horology to its' historic position of pre-eminence in world markets for innovation, design and manufacture of quality timepieces" and the Conference was happy to accept this as a starting position for our efforts.

Our first panel session was titled "What does the Industry need from its' Trade Organisation?" The panel consisted of myself, my Vice-Chairman, Chris Papworth, the Guild Secretary, Paul Cradock and the Guild Treasurer, Lionel Blowes. With over 200 years experience in Horology between us, I feel that this is one of the strengths of the Guild, that all our members are professional horologists or work in the allied trades. I then introduced Chris Papworth who stands to be elected as The Guilds' new Chairman at the AGM in a few weeks' time and he spoke about the background of The Guild and what our objectives are. There then followed several questions.

Obviously, the biggest section of the day was reserved for the discussion on the parts situation and our next speaker was David Perry. David was a solicitor for 25 years, working on international Mergers and Acquisitions, Competition Law and Intellectual Property. Eight years ago he decided on a career change and now works as a restorer of mainly military watches and marine chronometers. David provided the source material for Steve Domb's Report and he gave us an update on the current situation along with some of the legal options that might be available to us. There then followed a good selection of questions from delegates.

A tea break followed and it was interesting to note that many people stayed in their seats having in depth conversations with their neighbours. After the break it was our second Panel Session entitled "Parts Supply, Other Options and Approaches" with Anthony Cousins from Cousins Material House, Luke Gleave from Gleave & Co and David Perry, our previous presenter. As you can imagine, there were a wide variety of opinions expressed during this part of the day. The history of the supply of Rolex material was raised and how this had created a demand for generic Rolex material. It was suggested that the restriction of parts supply may be part of a 'planned obsolescence' strategy by the Swiss intended to drive customers to buy replacements watches instead of having them repaired, and it was pointed out that many consumers are buying these watches unaware of servicing costs, or that in maybe five years' time they will be unable to have their watch repaired.

You will understand how in depth this session was when I tell you that it lasted almost an hour and a half and discussion continued all during lunch with many ideas being exchanged as peopled became more relaxed about expressing themselves in such a forum.

The first session after lunch was "Education - What does the Industry need? How should it be provided?" and we began with a presentation from Lewis Jones a PhD Research Student at Loughborough University. He gave us a fascinating insight into a project being developed at Loughborough to help Design and Technology teachers. Research has shown that the vast majority of D & T teachers come from an Arts background rather than from Engineering, and that they have had little instruction in the use of the tools and equipment available to them. They almost exclusively focus on design, which enables them to meet the needs of the D & T syllabus. Most schools are now equipped with laser cutting machines, vacuum forming and some have 3D printing, however, many D & T teachers are not confident in using this equipment. Loughborough has tackled the problem by providing a ready prepared CAD/CAM drawing which allows children to make a simple working clock from MDF by using a laser cutting machine. They have supported this with a Teacher Training service to make teachers more confident in using the equipment, and hopefully this will restore the engineering content of the D & T qualification. They are looking to provide courses to around 1,000 teachers every year, and as a consequence, they hope there will be almost 100,000 young secondary school pupils making a working mechanical clock every year. The importance of this was not lost on delegates. It is a golden opportunity to get young children interested in Horology and could lead to a steady supply of apprenticeship candidates within a very few years. The Guild will certainly be following up with Lewis to see how we can support this work further.

The discussion panel of Lewis, Jeremy Hobbins (Head of Horology at Birmingham City University) and Dudley Giles (Chief Executive Officer at the BHI) looked at the wider education issue. There is clearly a wide range of skills needed by the industry and it appears that there is a shortage of available places to deliver the training, however there also appears to be a distinct demand for the reintroduction of apprenticeships.

This proved to be a lively and very interactive session, and after our final break we reconvened with our last panel entitled "The Issues Surrounding Products Branded as Brand British". 
We welcomed Robert Loomes from Robert Loomes and Co to the platform and he gave us a fascinating presentation explaining how difficult the law is to interpret. How in some cases it is possible to import a watch, take it apart, make some very minor improvements, re-assemble it and then being able to call it "Made In Britain".Robert has made a study of many case histories on this subject and spoke knowledgeably on the issue. It was clear from the questions which followed, that the issue is mostly about clarity to the consumer. One suggestion was to try to devise a Voluntary Code of Conduct on how a product is described and labelled. This could allow the more responsible vendors to demonstrate transparency to the consumer and enhance their reputation.

The day concluded with Chris Papworth and myself summarising the day and speaking about our possible next steps. It is clearly important that we keep the momentum going and continue to work on improving communication. One of the biggest issues that emerged, particularly when looking at the Parts Supply and Education issues, is the lack of any comprehensive up to date listing of all the professionals involved in the industry or any current survey data on their attitudes and requirements. This is an issue that The Guild is looking into urgently. We are still working our way through all the feedback forms and it will take us some time to collate all the information that was gathered on the day. All the comments so far have been extremely encouraging. All delegates appreciated the fact that we had managed to get so many people from the trade in one place at the same time. We were told that a discussion forum like the Conference was long overdue and asked when the next one would be held. The overwhelming verdict is that the Conference was a great success and we will continue to keep Guild members up to date with progress.

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