You’ve Earned It: The International Watch Press Wishes Longines’ Walter von Känel A Happy Retirement
Discover a selection of personal stories and messages from our friends in the watch media as they wish Longines’ CEO Walter von Känel a very happy retirement.
On behalf of the international watch press, we here at Watchonista would like to raise our glasses to Walter von Känel as he retires after half a century at the helm of Longines. From Denmark to Guernsey, from the United States to the United Arab Emirates, here is a selection of stories our fellow watch journalists and we remember about Walter and what we would write in his retirement card if we could.
Gisbert L. Brunner, Watch Journalist and Author
It would not be far from the truth to refer to Walter von Känel as “the Prince of Saint-Imier.” Born in Schwerin in 1941, he worked as a customs officer and in a watch dial factory before joining Longines in 1969. This turned out to be a real stroke of luck for the venerable company. Looking back, his influence can only be described as positive. It took him exactly 19 years to work his way up to the position of CEO in the little town in the canton of Jura, where Longines has been based ever since it was founded.
He experienced, firsthand, the negative impact of the quartz crisis and the integration of the traditional brand, which has existed since 1832, into today’s Swatch Group, as well as the order in 1984 that Longines would have to buy all of its movements from ETA in the future for cost reasons. At the time, Nicolas G. Hayek’s logical, strategic decision assured the economies of scale needed to survive.
Walter made the best of it and, through his clear product and pricing policy, gradually turned Longines into a million-selling brand from 1988 onwards. The firm has a tradition of not releasing precise sales figures, but somewhere in the region of one and a half billion Swiss francs would be a fair estimate.
Now 80 years old, Walter has always eschewed computers, PowerPoint presentations, and Excel spreadsheets. “My computer’s in my head, it helps me to ward off dementia,” he says. He preferred to record his figures on large sheets of white paper with a pencil. There is ample evidence that this did little to hinder the company’s success. Retiring due to old age was not an issue for many years.
With an unshakable calm that comes from years of experience and success, he took what he once called “the annual dressing-down by Papa Nicolas G. Hayek” at head office in Biel in his stride. “That’s where, at the start of every year, I was reminded who the real boss was. Then I got left in peace again for the next 12 months,” he recalls.
Walter also went his own way when it came to his company car, especially since Swatch Group has no company cars as such. A keen art collector and bon viveur, he doggedly refused to give up his faithful company Mercedes from the 1980s.
I still have a vivid recollection of our first encounter at the start of the 1990s. “The Boss” himself picked me up from Basel airport in the aforementioned car. As we ate lunch at Chez Sandro in Le Locle, Walter was so taken with the 1986 Bordeaux from Lynch-Bages that he laid his gold Longines chronograph on the table and asked for as many bottles as it was worth.
The Swiss watch scene is losing a unique and defining character in 2020. Against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, it is not yet clear whether Walter’s departure is truly voluntary. After all, Walter von Känel was to Longines as salt is to the sea.
Ken Kessler, Freelance Journalist
As a relative newcomer to watches – relative to Walter, that is – I have only had the pleasure of knowing him for around 25 years. What sticks with me is that, of the 100+ watch brand bosses I have met, none have been as imbued with the culture of the company they represent. Nor have they exhibited anything even approaching the knowledge and loyalty, as Walter has shown for Longines.
Walter knows me not only as a writer but also as a minor collector of Longines, a mere dilettante with only seven or eight pieces in my collection. One, however, belonged to my father, a rectangular model from 1948 with fancy lugs, and with a movement that represents the height of Longines’ expertise.
It was Walter who ensured that the watch was serviced at Longines with full respect to its age and originality, ultimately remarking to me that it needed no cosmetic attention whatsoever. I wear it now as much for my love and respect for Walter as I do for the memory of my father.
Malcolm Lakin, Europa Star
I always enjoyed meeting up with Walter because he is – apart from being one of the great CEOs within the watch industry – he had a wicked talent of avoiding questions he didn't want to answer. He would somehow deflect the question without upsetting you and break into a monologue about either the long-standing efficiency and creativity of Longines or the brand's latest creations.
Apart from a few enjoyable visits to the company, most of our interactions were, almost annually, were at Basel. He was always welcoming and an imposing ambassador for his brand. In short, he'll be a difficult act to follow and will be remembered with fondness and respect.
Kristian Haagen, 8past10
Mr. von Känel. Thank you for your enthusiasm and warm humour. Thank you for leading a wonderful watch brand through thick and thin like a true champ. Thank you for not owning a computer. And thank you for being a print romantic. The world needs more personalities like you.
Keith Strandberg, Former Writer for Revolution US
I remember Walter von Känel very fondly, as he had a very wry sense of humor.
I remember one time I was doing an interview with him in Basel. Accompanying us was Jessica Kingsland, who didn’t know either of us well. The interview was going well, when it took a bit of a turn, with Walter starting to be aggressive, and I pretended to be livid with the way he was behaving.
Of course, we were both joking, but Jessica didn’t know what was happening. Then at one point, Walter gave me the finger! Jessica was so shocked she could barely speak, while I took it in stride and shot him the finger back. I’m not sure Jessica ever recovered, but it cemented Walter’s place in the pantheon of watch industry characters.
Oh, and the interview was fantastic!
Elizabeth Doerr, Quill & Pad
I wish you much enjoyment on your retirement, Walter! I have greatly enjoyed your dedication to Longines over the years as well as the particularly enjoyable moments I have spent with you in St. Imier, Basel, and on press trips.
In particular, it was the trips to Roland Garros that stick out in my memory as being so enjoyable as you genuinely appeared to have cared about the young tennis players and charities you supported while enjoying the company of the tennis professionals. Looking at some of these photos still makes me smile.
Rest well, and rest assured that the watch world will never be the same without you.
Joy Corthésy, GMT
I only met Walter von Känel once for an interview, but what a memorable interview that was. It was in Rome, during a Longines event launching new Dolce Vita models. And in the company of a longtime ambassador for the brand, Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai, von Känel welcomed us to a modest hotel suite for a group interview and sat us down in front of him.
He shook my hand and gave me his card, and he introduced himself as if I didn’t know who he was. It’s an old school move nowadays, but an appreciated one in today’s impersonal world of emails and texts.
He talked to me about Longines and his career, got out catalogues, and could practically name any watch by reference number and tell you when it came out. He remembered my name that evening at dinner, which, when you’re doing 8 interviews a day with 3 journalists at a time, is impressive at any age.
Von Känel is a true businessman and CEO, motivated by his passion to keep working and keep giving the industry beautiful watches. To say his retirement is well deserved; is to minimize his decades in the industry – he will certainly be missed by us in the media!
Joe Thompson - Modern Jeweler, American Time, WatchTime, Hodinkee
Congratulations on your promotion to Honorary Chairman!
You are the paragon of the Good Book's "good and faithful servant." You have served your brand, your company, your industry, and your customers for more than half a century. Speaking personally, thank you for making my job so much easier and so much more fun with your insights and stories, on and off the record, for four decades! It was a privilege to know you and cover you.
2 GOOD 2 BE 4 FORGOTTEN
Jack Forster, Hodinkee
Congratulations on your retirement after many years of service to Swiss watchmaking and on having endured so many ups and downs in the industry as one of its most iconic personalities.
Nader Freiha, Arabian Watches & Jewellery MPP ME
I sincerely like Walter von Känel. He is always positive with a smile on his face. I wish him a pleasant and peaceful retirement. He managed to put again Longines on the international map in such a short time.
Timm Delfs, Freelance Journalist
Dear Mr. von Känel,
I consider myself very lucky to have known you during your tenure at Longines and enjoyed many encounters with you. Your good humour and perhaps even somewhat rebellious nature were a breath of fresh air in this industry, which sometimes takes itself rather too seriously. I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all the very best for your retirement.
Yours, Timm Delfs.
Serge Maillard, Europa Star
What Walter von Känel has accomplished for Longines and the watch industry will remain etched in the history of Swiss watchmaking. Captains of industry with his stature and common sense will never come out of the standard business school mould! To view a selection of historic articles about Walter von Känel see Europa Star’s tribute.
Sophie Furley, Watchonista
Walter von Känel was the very first CEO I interviewed when I started working as a journalist many moons ago.
I remember it clearly. It was during Baselworld, and I was absolutely petrified. But he immediately put me at ease, sharing his love for Longines and that year’s novelties with me.
I don’t think I got up the courage to ask any of my carefully prepared questions, but I know I walked out of the booth with 10 pages of notes and enormous respect for his knowledge and kindness, respect that has continued to grow over the years.
Many thanks to everyone who contributed to our digital retirement card. For any other friends in the media who would like to contribute, feel free to drop me a line at email@example.com, and I’ll happily add your well-wishes to the list.
(Images provided by Longines)