The retailer’s new Timeworks store in Honolulu’s Ala Moana Center is a watch lover’s delight
Last night, I flew home after a dreamy four-day visit to Hawaii (boy, are my arms tired!). Half business, all pleasure, the trip was timed to coincide with a Jan. 28 party that Seattle-based Ben Bridge Jeweler held in conjunction with the Swiss watchmaker Patek Philippe to celebrate the opening of its new 5,000-square-foot Timeworks store in Honolulu’s Ala Moana Center.
Anyone who’s been to Ala Moana knows it would be a misnomer to label it a mall; the luxury retail destination is the world’s largest open-air shopping center and welcomes more than 42 million visitors annually, making it two and a half times more popular than Disneyland.
Ben Bridge opened its first location there in 1988. Eight years later, the company debuted a second Ala Moana location dedicated to its Timeworks watch-only concept. In November, the watch store reopened in a prime corner location in a renovated section of the center and now boasts a lineup of 22 watch brands whose products range from $300 to $300,000 at retail.
On Thursday afternoon, a few hours before Patek and Ben Bridge were to host a party for their best Hawaiian clients at the posh Kahala Hotel & Resort on the southeast coast of Oahu, I sat down with Ben Bridge president and co-CEO, Ed Bridge; his son, Marc Bridge, who handles the company’s marketing and branding efforts; and Larry Pettinelli, president of Patek Philippe USA, to talk about timepieces, Warren Buffett, and what the Bridges look for in a smartwatch (among other topics). Here are my takeaways on what the forward-thinking retailer is doing right.
1. Ben Bridge has built its Hawaiian business on locals.
Prior to this trip, my last visit to Oahu was 20+ years ago. While much has changed, one thing has remained constant: The island is a tourist mecca. Thread your way through the crowds on Waikiki Beach, and you’ll hear a polyglot of languages. Japanese tourists dominate, but the Chinese, Russians, and Australians aren’t far behind. It would be easy to assume that Ben Bridge’s Hawaiian stores make most of their sales to tourists, but Ed Bridge emphasized that after surviving the ups and downs of the Japanese economy and myriad currency wobbles, Ben Bridge focuses on the roughly million people who live in and around Honolulu.
“Ala Moana is such a crossroads, but we always wanted to build our business on the locals,” he said. “That’s the base of our business, and it’s continued to grow just fine.”
Marc Bridge chimed in: “Ala Moana is the centerpiece of what goes on in Honolulu,” he said. “People like to come by and say hello.” As if on cue, he waved hello to a familar face at the front of the store, a client who just happened to be passing by.
2. Ben Bridge’s manager has run the Ala Moana store for more than 20 years.
During our conversation, Ed returned to one point several times: Manager Lisa White has run Ben Bridge’s Hawaiian operation for longer than two decades and has spent that time ingratiating herself into the community; she belongs to the local Rotary Club, for example. A number of other employees have clocked at least 10 years working for Ben Bridge at Ala Moana. According to Ed, that kind of consistency and the long-term trust it has engendered is how the company has earned such steady business in the market.
3. The retailer understands the value of client appreciation dinners.
“We’re not making any sales tonight,” Ed said, referring to the evening’s cocktail party and sit-down dinner. “We’re not bringing a cash register.”
Instead, the company hopes to “whet some appetites,” he continued. To that end, they arranged for Patek to bring some of its most desirable and limited timepieces to the event, including a minute repeater that retails in the range of $700,000. At the dinner, Pettinelli showed off the highly sought after complication and explained that it’s not available to just anyone who wants to purchase it, but that it requires an application of sorts.
Patek Philippe Ref. 5539, minute repeater and tourbillon
4. The company partners with the best brands in the world.
I’ve made no secret about my admiration for Patek Philippe. Not only is the firm considered the world’s finest watchmaker, it is staffed by people who are warm, reliable, and extremely good at what they do. Above all, they’re part of a family business that thinks carefully about how decisions will impact the company in the long term. Patek’s management philosophy resonates with how the Bridge family approaches its own business. And even though Ben Bridge belongs to Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, Ed made it clear that Buffett is a hands-off boss who respects the Bridges’ management style and the decisions they’ve made, and, in fact, insisted that Ed and his cousin, co-CEO Jon Bridge, stay on as the stewards of the company after the acquisition.
5. As watchmakers increasingly open their own monobrand boutiques, Ben Bridge confidently promotes the multibrand concept.
At a time when nearly every major Swiss watch brand has embarked on a boutique-opening spree, the future of the watch industry’s traditional wholesale distribution network is uncertain. Will watch buyers of the future choose to buy their timepieces direct from the makers, eschewing selection and third-party advice in favor of choosing from a deep assortment of a single brand’s products? Or will they continue to patronize retailers who offer multiple brands and a wide array of choices?
The Bridges are convinced they know the answer: “Philosophically, we have a lot of prejudices and one of them is: You want to see a lot of pieces,” Marc said. “People come in and say, ‘I’d like to find a watch.’ This store has a critical mass.”
Patek Philippe’s Larry Pettinelli with the Bridge family: Ed and Pam, Bobbi and Bob, and Marc