Interview by Wei Koh.
(reproduced with permission from Revolution Australia Magazine)
REVOLUTION: What brought you from South Africa to Australia?
Steven Rom: Due to a horrific political experience and with the future uncertainty in the country at the time, I decided to relocate my family to Australia. We feel privileged to have been allowed to call this fine country, Australia, home.
How did you get involved in the watch industry?
I had done a deal to purchase a majority stake in a very successful liquor business, but when I arrived in Australia, the deal fell apart.
I was not doing anything for too long and a business broker told me about the Raymond Weil agency that was up for sale. I went over to Geneva and met the late Mr. Raymond Weil and family, and saw that the chemistry was good, so we struck a deal. The start of our partnership and establishment of AVSTEV was in November 1999.
I and my son Marc totally re-established the business from scratch and hit the road running. We invested heavily in marketing to establish brand awareness which was lacking; and the rest is history.
Tell us about each of the brands in your portfolio: Girard-Perregaux, Frédérique Constant, JEANRICHARD, Raymond Weil, and Ball, and which way does each empower you as a distributor?
As a distributor, we look for brands that cover different price points and design aspects. We have done the “entry” price points in the past and now will only consider high-end brands. As we are a family business, we are working long term to build and nurture each brand to its greatest success.
Raymond Weil was our first brand and one that is very close to our hearts. We have built it from a relatively unknown brand in Australia to make it one of the top five markets in the world.
We took on Frédérique Constant as we saw great attention to detail and excellent value for money in the brand. Now with their manufacture capabilities, the brand is even more exciting and promising.
Girard-Perregaux has certainly been successful beyond our wildest imagination and has even greater potential. This success has come predominantly from our Asian customers, but from this year, we are making a heavy investment into the local market.
Ball is our “sport and adventure” brand. It offers innovation and value for money that no other brand in its category can match, and is certainly one to watch.
Tell us why each brand has been particularly successful in the Australian market?
Each of our brands offers a point of difference to its competitors. We are also big believers in marketing and PR. AVSTEV is about long-term relationships and not making demands on our retail partners. Therefore, we get wonderful support creating a “win-win” for all.
You’ve worked closely with your son, Marc, for 14 years; please tell us a bit about the dynamics between you two.
Marc joined me in the business from the first day and has worked his way through the company. I am a big believer in not simply promoting family to the top — they need to earn it. Marc is the general manager and looks after the day-to-day running of the business. He was instrumental in setting up our internal service centre. He is a man of great attention to detail.
I act as founder and CEO of the company and spend a lot of time out in the trade getting to know the sales staff, as well as networking. I enjoy the traveling and working closely with every one of my retail partners and my dedicated and professional AVSTEV sales team. I would say, apart from being founder and CEO, I spend more time today as a visionary; handling the networking, marketing and PR is part of my overall responsibility.
Marc and I work very closely together as a team. This is very special and, in fact, was what I did with my late father back in South Africa in the liquor business for many years.
Marc has described you as something of a genius with people. Can you extrapolate on this?
Wow — quite a compliment! He has never told me that. I enjoy interacting with people, no matter who they are, where they are from, or what status they hold in a company.
When you look at a watch for the first time, what does it need to have to resonate with you?
Marc always says to me when you are buying a range, don’t only think about what you like but what the customers will like. Personally, I like loud, complicated large watches and have fallen in love with the groundbreaking Girard-PerregauxConstant Escapement, which has just won the Aiguille d’Or award, the most coveted distinction in the watch industry at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève.
What does a watch say about the person wearing it?
That really depends on a person’s budget. Many people buy a watch purely because of a brand. I hear from people all the time saying, “I would only buy X brand…” and this is purely because of its status and what people will think of that brand on their wrist. That is why a brand like Ball is doing nicely for the consumer who is looking for something different that not every man and his dog is wearing.
What was the first watch you’ve ever owned, and what do you imagine the last one will ever be?
I believe my first watch was a Seiko that I had as a kid. You never know what the future holds and which brands we will take on in the future. Today at least, the last watch that I would like to imagine is the Girard-Perregaux Tourbillon with Three Bridges in pink gold. A wonderful piece of craftsmanship.
What have been the key factors in the development of the Australian market over the last decade and a half, and in what way have you contributed to this development?
In the early days, there were only a few key players and everyone was in every store. We have come to realize that it is not about quantity but rather, quality. The competition has become a lot more demanding on retailers, be it in range sizes, display sizes or presence in stores. There are now many more brands trying to get their foot into our market here, but without a professional infrastructure to support the effort, it will be a sell-in with limited success.
Our five Swiss brands are heavily supported by strong branding and PR, and my team will call on every store at least every two weeks, with training a minimum of every three months.
The bottom line is, it is crucial that the retailers get the stock turns and we help them manage their investments.
Where do you see the future of the Australian watch market?
I always look at opportunities in the watch industry and if it makes commercial sense for all. I will consider other top high-end brands. We are very comfortable with the growth of our five Swiss brands and our main focus is growing them continuously.
There are many Swiss brands that don’t take Australia seriously, and try [to gain a foothold in the Australian market] by themselves from afar. AVSTEV are highly experienced distributors with a superb team of dedicated people who have the respect of the trade. In fact, Australia has grown every year for us and this financial year ending June 30, 2014 will be our best year, both in revenue and bottom line.
The only way to predict the future is to create it yourself. I am extremely proud of our track record and what we have achieved as a privately-owned family business. The future is certainly bright in the Australian Swiss watch market for our brands and others.