Bulova will relaunch Wittnauer line in 2002

Bulova Corp. will relaunch its newly acquired Wittnauer watch line in early 2002, say Bulova officials. The revamped and redesigned Swiss watches will retail for $300 to $1,000.

Bulova also has added what president and chief executive officer Herbert C. Hofmann calls “key players from Wittnauer’s successful history” to oversee the new Bulova division.

Bulova acquired the Wittnauer and Trieste trademarks, related inventory and receivables, and some equipment from the former Wittnauer International (now the name for Bulova’s division) for $11.6 million early this month, as previously reported by JCK. (The management of the former Wittnauer International has retained FUBU and some other trademarks.)

Bulova also acquired the use of the Internet domain names Wittnauer.com and WittnauerWatches.com in the transaction. However, the Wittnauer factory in Puerto Rico (used primarily for repairs and imports) and the former Wittnauer headquarters in New Rochelle, N.Y. weren’t part of the deal.

Wittnauer will continue to function as a separate brand of high-quality Swiss watches, with the added benefit of Bulova’s strengths in financial management, distribution and service. Wittnauer joins Bulova’s three other brands-its core Bulova line, Accutron, and Caravelle.

New Wittnauer. The new Wittnauer line of Swiss watches will be “a separate entity [within Bulova], with a separate sales force, and separate marketing campaign,” says Bulova chief operating officer Paul S. Sayegh. It will be relaunched in early 2002 with “a whole new look,” he told JCK.

Wittnauer currently has a couple of thousand outlets, primarily jewelers and department stores, many of them also Bulova clients. Bulova has sent a letter about the changes to its retailers as well as to Wittnauer’s retailers. It states that Bulova “will continue to do our best to satisfy them.” Says Sayegh, “Currently, we’re evaluating the details of how to go forward and ask them to be patient. They will get a stronger, better product coming back into their doors.”

The key Wittnauer players joining Bulova, says Hofmann, are Robert M. Mazzone, who had a 21-year career at Wittnauer, including serving as senior vice president of sales until 1997. He will be vice president of Bulova and managing director of Wittnauer International. Bulova senior vice president John L. Davis, a 46-year veteran of Longines-Wittnauer and its president from 1979 through 1991, will be a consultant on the Wittnauer brand.

“Wittnauer has great brand equity but needs strong and consistent brand support to achieve its maximum potential,” says Mazzone. “We have the balance sheet, desire, and commitment to grow this brand,” Other core personnel with experience at Wittnauer who have signed on with Bulova Corporation to concentrate on the Wittnauer brand are Lorraine Logue as managing director of Wittnauer Canada, Jay Lott in sales administration, and Adrienne Forrest in special markets.

Prominent timekeepers. The purchase brings two of the world’s most prominent timekeeping names under the same corporate leadership. Bulova has been a major player in the U.S. watch industry since its founding in New York City in 1875. Wittnauer was created in 1880.

The two companies were early neighbors on New York’s Maiden Lane, then an important center for the watchmaking and jewelry trades, and later on Fifth Avenue. Bulova later moved its headquarters to Woodside, N.Y., while Wittnauer eventually went to New Rochelle, N.Y. Bulova, still U.S. owned and operated by the Lowes Corp., now does most of its production in the Far East and in Switzerland.

As reported by JCK last month, Wittnauer International’s former operators said earlier this year, according to a document sent to creditors, that it couldn’t “continue in business with its current level of outstanding trade indebtedness.” Its estimated debt, as of June 18, was about $23.8 million.

Topsy-turvy. The sale caps a topsy-turvy decade for Wittnauer (formerly Longines-Wittnauer). Its longtime, successful boss Jack Davis retired in 1991, turning the reins over to Reynold M. Swift. In 1995, SMH (now the Swatch Group) ended Longines’ 125 years relationship with Wittnauer and took over U.S. distribution of Longines. In late 1996, Swift and three other executives of Wittnauer International backed by Composite Holding, a St. Louis investment group, bought the watchmaker from Westinghouse Electric Corp., the company’s owner since 1969. The four execs later sold their share in the company, leaving Wittnauer. Charles Watkins, one of the partners of Composite Holdings, took over as president and chief executive officer.

Earlier this year, the former Wittnauer International considered moving its headquarters from New Rochelle, its longtime home, to Lauderhill, Fla. Watkins told a local newspaper that a South Florida headquarters would put the company closer to its core markets in South America and its manufacturing plant in Puerto Rico. However, the move-which would have required Wittnauer to sign a minimum 10-year lease and create 200 jobs in the community-apparently fell through this spring.