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Thread: Roamer - A Passage to China

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    Moderator - Central tribe125's Avatar
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    Roamer - A Passage to China

    The timeline on Roamer's website takes a leap from 1972 to 2003, but apart from that the company doesn't do a great deal to conceal the fact that ownership moved continents during that period.


    SWITZERLAND UNDERESTIMATES ELECTRICITY

    The short story is that Roamer foundered, or very nearly foundered, in the quartz crisis. It stopped making movements in 1975, but was still making watches after that date. The founding Meyer family relinquished ownership in 1983 and Roamer was incorporated into the ASUAG group, which was effectively a kind of state protection.

    In 1985, Marcel Leval, Roamer's former marketing director, restored the company to independent production, using components from other manufacturers. It's not clear whether production was interrupted at any point. It seems quite likely that it was, but evidence is lacking or contradictory. There are, for example, watches and Roamer promotional materials from periods in which the company is said to have been inactive. It would be useful to know if Marcel Leval was producing watches at the original (and rather impressive) factory in Solothurn, and when that factory was vacated, but I haven't found that information. Interestingly, the road behind the old building in Weissensteinstrasse is called Roamerstrasse.


    EASTERN INITIATIVE

    Marcel Leval sold the company to Chung Nam (Hong Kong) in 1994. In 2009, it became a joint venture between Chung Nam and the Swiss Watch Group of Dubai.

    Chung Nam is a global corporation employing 10,000 people. It started out as a watch manufacturer (in 1935) but diversified into technology and retail. The watch division owns ISA Prestige Time (Swiss), Technotime (Swiss) and Time Network (Swiss) in addition to Roamer. The Swiss Watch Group of Dubai is a watch distributor. Roamer is one of its brands but its website doesn't mention investment in the company.

    However, it's an interconnected world, the watch business. Swatch, for example, has a controlling interest in Rivoli, a Dubai retail group that has 360 outlets in the Middle East. Swatch also has significant stakes in similar companies in Hong Kong and China (Hengdeli) and Saudi Arabia (Alzouman).

    The Far East invests in Switzerland, Switzerland invests in the Far East. It's all one world in business, where national identity can matter most as a marketing image.


    ROAMER STILL SWISS. OR KIND OF SWISS. OR NOT SWISS.

    Roamer has a production base in its home town of Solothurn, and the Swiss operation is said to function independently of Hong Kong. Roamer says that the current chief designer worked for the original family company, and that they have maintained links with Marcel Leval - although both designer and Leval must be getting on a bit by now...

    Leval certainly provided some continuity by transferring the archive from the basement of the original building. It was clearly more than a paper archive, because in 2002 Roamer found that they had a significant cache of movements from the 1950s (MST 468). Roamer's autonomy and general Swissness should be seen in the context of an interview given to TimeZone by Ralph Furter, Roamer's Product Manager. The interview dates from 1999, but Furter holds the same position today. Describing his role, he said:

    "I develop new product, I take care of the collection, I look for new manufacturers to produce our products. I buy the components, and try to have them at the right time at the right place... The components are bought mostly in the Far East... We try to use synergies and buy within our own group."

    He notes that the movements are Swiss, produced by sister company ISA in Switzerland. (Today, Roamer also uses Ronda movements.)

    Furter's comments support both 'Swiss' and 'Not Swiss' points of view. On the one hand, Roamer has a measure of autonomy in Switzerland. On the other, it relies upon components from the Far East. Furter is merely reflecting the reality of watch production for middle and lower-level brands. Swiss labour costs mean that Roamer "can produce higher quality goods by using the advantages that China offers".

    To the inevitable follow-up question asking about other companies producing in China, Furter says: "Well I don't want to mention names. But a big part of the mid range watches are produced in the Far East."

    There have been other frank answers to similar questions. In 2005, François Thiébaud, CEO of Tissot, told Europa Star: "I would not be telling the truth if I said there were no Chinese parts in a Tissot watch", although he said that there weren't that many. Like Furter, he said that it wasn't really an issue and pointed to the benefits of globalised production, both in terms of cost and quality.

    Watch enthusiasts know the score by now.


    STOP PRESS: WHO IS CHRISTIAN FROMMHERZ, AND HAS ROAMER COME HOME?

    Roamer's local newspaper, the Solothurner Zeitung, carried an article about Roamer in April, 2013.

    After giving a run-down of the company history and noting that it "almost disappeared from the scene" in the 1970s, it says that Christian Frommherz acquired a majority in Roamer in 2009. At the same time, he acquired a majority in Hanowa (Swiss Military), and both brands were under the same roof at Roamer's Gibelinstrasse address. Thirty people were employed at Gibelinstrasse.

    A majority of Roamer? The Roamer owned by Chung Nam? And thirty people - for both brands?

    The Chung Nam website doesn't mention Hanowa, but it's one of the brands distributed by Swiss Watch Group in Dubai. LinkedIn has Christian Frommherz as the owner of Swiss Watch Group. Wikipedia says that as of 2014, Roamer and Hanowa belong to the 'Frommherz Group'. So that's great - Roamer is Swiss again.

    But hang on - Tick Tack is part of the Frommherz Group. Tick Tack makes watches for Hanowa, Savoy, Aigner, Escada, Nina Ricci, Christian LaCroix, Police and... Roamer. Tick Tack also has subsidiaries in the watchmaking centre of Pforzheim in Germany.

    Tick Tack is a subsidiary of Stategrace Group Limited, which is a subsidiary of Winning Metal Products (Chinese distributor of watch movements from Seiko, Citizen, Timex, Swatch, Epoch and ISA), which is a subsidiary of Time Watch Investments of Singapore - which also owns Swiss Watch Group.

    Maybe Roamer isn't home.

    What happened to Chung Nam? Roamer's current Chairman is Hot Hoi Chong (known as Bob), a British citizen in Hong Kong (Roamer is British!). Bob Chong is the Managing Director of Chung Nam, and the son of the man who founded the company. Bob Chong is a respected senior figure in the Hong Kong watch industry. He was instrumental in organising Hong Kong's first watch and clock fair. He owns race horses and runs celebrity golf events. In 2008 he was awarded the Bronze Bauhinia Star, the post-colonial equivalent of the OBE.

    Bob Chong is also - and this might be a good point to end my research - an advocate of revising the country of origin regulations for wristwatches.


    GLOBAL BUSINESS, FLOATING WORLD.

    Actually, I haven't so much ended my research as given it up. It's been fun, and it's been instructive, joining the dots around the world, but it's endless. Global companies shift their investments with the frequency of squirrels changing their nests. Holding companies come and go, names change. The company at the top turns out to be the company at the bottom, or in the middle. Some companies aren't companies at all, in terms of producing things.

    Christian Frommherz probably does have a majority interest in an entity that might conceivably be described as 'Roamer'. I'm equally sure that Bob Chong doesn't play second fiddle in the boardroom. I quite like the sound of Bob Chong, actually. I'd be happy to have a watch with his name on the dial.

    From a narrow and partial perspective, Christian Frommherz could appear to be 'Our Man in Switzerland' for some major players in the Chinese watch industry, but that would be doing him a disservice. There are connections at all levels between Switzerland and China, with benefits going in both directions. Frommherz is clearly a significant and very successful entrepreneur in his own right.

    Frommherz has made a positive difference to Roamer. The brand has been realigned more than once since leaving Switzerland, but Frommherz has given it momentum and has raised its profile in more lucrative markets.

    Is Roamer Swiss? Yes, I'm sure it complies with the regulations when putting 'Swiss Made' on the dial.

    Is Roamer really Swiss? Not on your life, but that's the fault of the Swiss.

    Roamer is a brand, and like many watch brands there's a sense in which it doesn't really exist. It's a concept, nudged this way and that like a paper boat, by the half-dozen people who control it. You could say the same of some of the Swatch brands - or any number of brands - in any number of industries.

    It's a floating world.


    THE WATCHES IN THE SHOP

    But all that aside, I like Roamer.

    Roamer has always operated at the value end of the market, even when it was a thoroughly Swiss company making its own movements. I became aware of the modern Roamer (along with other minor Swiss brands like Atlantic and Adriatica) when first visiting Poland in the 1990s. In recent, post credit-crunch years, Roamer has become more common in Britain, and is stocked by the Ernest Jones jewellery chain. (They lost Rolex and replaced it with Roamer...)

    In his TimeZone interview, Ralph Furter said that Roamer should offer true value for money: "We want people to see value, so that when they hold the watch in their hands they're surprised at the quality for the money."

    And that's just how it is with Roamer - more than acceptable quality at a more than competitive price. Good luck to them - whoever and wherever they are.

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    Happily unadjusted 😜 popoki nui's Avatar
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    Great article! Very informative. The watch industry (among others) sure can be convoluted!

    Thanks for the interesting read.

    ~Sherry,
    Eterna | Tudor | Seiko | Casio | G-Shock | Orient | Swatch | Mondaine | Zodiac (pre-Fossil) | Rolex | Wenger | Hamilton Pulsar Time Computer | Omega | Timex | Bucherer | Citizen



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    Random guy vinylgreek's Avatar
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    Thanks for a well written piece.

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    Ownership and definition of Swiss/Not Swiss is a very convoluted business.

    One might also point out that the Richemont portfolio of Swiss watch brands are under a South African owned investment company... IWC and JLC a passage via Germany, and Vacheron Constantin via Saudi Arabia.

    In my view, in today's globalised business world, parent corporate ownership is not important, if the Swiss watch subsidiary has operational autonomy and is able to grow, backed by investment from its parent company of whatever nationality.

    With the economic rise of China and Asia/Pacific, the acquisition of prestige Western brands by Chinese and other Asian companies will only increase. And this is not necessarily A Bad Thing. Jaguar cars is doing much better now under Indian ownership than it ever did under Ford, and are still viewed as British. Pelikan remain quintessentially German pens... who would argue they are Malaysian?

    Back to Roamer - I'm glad to see them on the rise again, no matter who owns them

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    The Dude Abides Nokie's Avatar
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    Very interesting. Thanks for posting.
    "Either He's Dead, Or My Watch Has Stopped....."
    Groucho Marx

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