Leaving the Comfort Zone

By his own account, Steven Kaiser never really envisioned entering the family watch business. His father, the late Benjamin Kaiser, founded David G. Steven, the exclusive U.S. distributor of Baume & Mercier. But after earning a master’s degree from Columbia University in 1979, Kaiser followed the advice of a mentor, longtime Baume & Mercier executive Eugen Maier, and entered the family business in 1982.

Based on his natural sales and marketing talents and hard work, Kaiser rose through the ranks, eventually becoming manager of national accounts and then vice president of sales in 1988. In 1990, Kaiser’s family sold its business to Baume & Mercier, and both Kaiser and his father stayed on, with Benjamin Kaiser becoming president of Baume & Mercier North America. When his father’s contract ended in 1992, Kaiser was offered the position of president and chief executive officer, which he accepted. Under Kaiser’s leadership, Baume & Mercier grew into a leader of the luxury-watch industry and increased sales 80 percent with 25 percent fewer retail doors.

By 1998, Kaiser was ready to take on a new challenge and left Baume & Mercier. In 1999, he became executive shareholder of Benedom Inc., a subsidiary of leading luxury company LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton Group. At Benedom, Kaiser directed the successful introduction of the Christian Dior and Fred Joaillier brands to the U.S. market.

In 2000, Kaiser sold his shares in Benedom to LVMH and founded Kaiser Time Inc. The New York City–based consulting firm provides a full range of services to the watch and jewelry industry, including marketing, sales, and distribution programs; private-label watch development; mergers, acquisitions, and crisis-management strategies; and executive search. Through his vast industry experience and extensive contacts, Kaiser has managed to expand his business exponentially. Kaiser Time now counts some of the industry’s most prominent players among its clients, including Tiffany, Philippe Charriol, Honora, Wolf Designs, Richemont Group, Rosy Blue, Gucci, Tourneau, and many others. The firm also partnered with JCK to create and organize the appointment-only Swiss Watch by JCK show in Las Vegas.

Acknowledging his good fortune in the industry and his desire to “give something back,” Kaiser is involved with many industry and business organizations, including the 24 Karat Club of New York, Jewelry Information Center, Jewelers For Children, Jewelers Vigilance Committee, American Watch Association, National Conference for Community and Justice (Jewelry Industry Chapter), and Boston Jewelers Club.

In an exclusive interview with JCK, Kaiser discussed the forces that have shaped his career and how his extensive watch experience helped him develop a successful consulting and executive-search business.

JCK: What was the most challenging partof getting involved in the family watchbusiness?

SK: You always have some trepidation that people will look at you and believe you’re only there because you’re one of the owner’s sons. You have to work three times as hard to prove yourself. I remember a turning-point moment in 1983. I was really starting to get into the business and taking on more and more responsibilities when I was recommended to handle the Bailey Banks & Biddle account. This put me in charge of our largest account. It was a blessing and not a blessing at the same time. I knew that if I screwed up, I would be out. But I did pretty well and this led to my handling our other national accounts.

JCK: What were some of the key things you learned during these early years that helped you throughout your career?

SK: I was on the road all the time with the sales force, and I made great contacts. I really got to know our accounts, our competition, and the industry. There was a whole new generation of younger leaders coming in then. These were my peers, and they were taking over the leadership at many of the top chains and independent stores. I got to know people at all levels of the business. I also learned a great deal about the business from my dad; from Eugen Maier, who was in charge of Baume & Mercier Worldwide at the time; and also from the Richemont Group. I was fortunate to have learned about the industry from both the entrepreneurial side and the international corporate side.

JCK: What were your biggest challenges in becoming president of Baume & Mercier North America, and what did you learn during this period?

SK: One big challenge had to do with succeeding my father. It was clear that he could stay on as owner emeritus and would no longer be involved in day-to-day operations. But this is just a change in title. When the old president is still there, there’s the tendency for people to go to him as they did before. That’s why [Baume & Mercier] made me take his corner office, even though I was uncomfortable with doing it.

Another challenge in becoming president of the company is that every problem becomes your problem. All of a sudden, you’re responsible for finance, selling, marketing, dealing with Europe, everything. It’s a great opportunity to make any changes you want, but you also take full responsibility for them if they fail. It’s also difficult letting people go that have been with the company for many years. And I had to learn to implement policies I didn’t always agree with.

We had sold the company by then to Baume & Mercier, and we were transitioning from an entrepreneurial business to a multinational corporate business, so that was a major change. I was learning how to integrate Baume & Mercier into the U.S. market, how to launch products and build brands, and how to market those brands. It was a fascinating experience for me and a huge time of growth for the company—we doubled the business in the five years I was president [1993–98].

JCK: Why did you decide to leave Baume & Mercier?

SK: I will always have a close relationship with Baume & Mercier, but I knew that at some point I would go out on my own when I was ready. It was like a calling for me. When I first left Baume & Mercier, I went into business with Stanley and Joel Schechter from Honora, working on developing branding programs. Stanley was another one of my mentors. He was always someone I could talk to during a crisis. Working with him was very humbling—I realized how much I still had to learn about the business, and how much time and money it took to build a brand from scratch.

Then in 1999 I got a call from LVMH to become a minor partner in Benedom—minor to them, but my investment represented a lot of money to me. Here was an opportunity to be a shareholder and still build a business and get all the rewards of being an entrepreneur. We became the U.S. distributors of the Christian Dior and Fred Joaillier watch brands. A year later, a whole new group was formed, and I had no desire to become part of another corporate entity. So I sold my shares to LVMH in June 2000, re-formed Kaiser Time, and tried to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life.

JCK: Why did you leave your comfort zone of the watch sector to form a consulting business that services the entire industry, and how did you decide on what services you would offer?

SK: I realized that the last thing the world needed was another watch firm. I wanted Kaiser Time to be something new and different, a company that would work with clients to open doors, build brands, increase sales, and do whatever it takes to satisfy our clients.

Our first account was Enjewel, thanks to all our retail friends. Then we got a call from a branded diamond company. They wanted me to help them build their business. I really knew very little about the diamond business then, so I called Marvin Markman [of Suberi Bros.] for advice, and he told me, “Why do it for them? Come do it for me.” So we helped him build the Gabrielle Diamond brand. Suberi was our first diamond client.

We created the [Swiss Watch by JCK] show for JCK because we found that luxury-watch brands didn’t want to be at The JCK ~ Las Vegas show. They wanted something more exclusive, so they were spread in suites all over Las Vegas. But retailers were upset because they had to run all over town to see everyone. So in 2003, we developed an appointment-only show in the Venetian Hotel, right next to the Las Vegas show.

We also created an executive-search division. We have clients in watches, jewelry, diamonds, trade shows, associations, retailing, and manufacturing, so we are involved in every aspect of the business. It was a natural progression for us to help our clients build the right team. This area of our business is expanding. We placed 45 people last year in all sectors of the industry, and we have already placed 15 people this year—including an international president.

We also offer merger and acquisition services. We have put some deals together. It’s all about providing the best fit for your client, whether it’s product, people, or partners. If I don’t think it’s the right fit for my client, I won’t sell it to them.