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Survival of the fittest
Point of View

Survival of the fittest

Friday, 29 July 2016
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Anaïs Georges du Clos
Freelance journalist

“Nothing great has been accomplished in this world without passion.”

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

“All thoughts are permitted; writing demands reflection.”

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4 min read

“Survival means knowing how to adapt.” Philippe Belais, CEO of Vaudaux 1908, Geneva’s oldest luxury leather “gainerie”, looks back at the company’s golden years, its trials and tribulations, and how it is reconquering markets.

Vaudaux has been making prestigious leather boxes and cases since Marc Vaudaux established the firm in Geneva in 1908. The company remained in the hands of the Vaudaux family until 2010, when it was taken over by Philippe Belais, formerly with Richemont. It is now using its palette of skills and branching out into different segments to begin a new chapter in its history.

Philippe Belais, CEO of Vaudaux Gainerie
How long have you known the company?

I’ve been in watchmaking for over 30 years, and for as long as I can remember, I’ve always sourced my boxes and cases from Vaudaux.

What made you take over what was at the time a struggling business?

It’s important to remember that Vaudaux was a thriving concern from the time it was established into the 2000s, when it occupied 7,500 square metres, employed 250 people, and produced several hundred thousand boxes a year. The company could count on the multiple skills that were mastered within its walls: woodworking, selecting and cutting leather and other materials, gainage, morocco leather, construction, stitching, adhesives, heat-forming, etc. Its success also lay with the high level of qualification of its staff, many of whom started out with the company as apprentices. One lady recently retired after 49 years of service! And of course Vaudaux has always enjoyed an excellent reputation among the leading names in watchmaking and jewellery; some have been loyal customers since 1912.

What factors led to its reversal of fortune?

The company was well placed to profit from the explosion in sales of luxury goods in general, and watches in particular, to an ever-growing audience: the Japanese in the 1980s, a worldwide surge in interest in the 1990s, the Chinese in the 2000s. As demand increased, production volumes increased in proportion, which prompted the company to look for ways to make economies of scale, in particular for its watch-related products such as the box, the sleeve and the warranty holder. These savings would pay for marketing expenditure, which had risen by a significant amount. Other manufacturers were relocating production to Asia, to make boxes of lesser quality at lower prices. This wasn’t how the Vaudaux family did things, and despite having a partner in China the business started to lose market share. Then in the early 2000s, the company’s biggest client asked for major changes to be made to the design and production of its boxes that implied new materials and adapting the adhesive accordingly. The competition was quicker on the draw. The crisis that hit the Swiss watch industry between 2008 and 2010, one of the toughest we’ve ever known alongside the one we’re facing now, added to difficulties.

© Vaudaux Gainerie
What were the first decisions you made to save the business?

The company I took over was showing its age. I spent two years on a complete restructuring. In line with current market demand, we’ve opened a new production site in Thailand. Attention to detail is part of the country’s culture and perfectly matches luxury industry expectations. Thanks to these facilities, we’re able to satisfy demand in terms of quantity, price and flexible delivery. We’re also looking for a site in Europe, something our clients are asking for. We are also constantly reviewing our production processes to meet new environmental and other standards.

© Vaudaux Gainerie
What about the manufacturing site in Geneva?

The Geneva site is the backbone of our development and has a key role to play in our diversification. We master a diverse range of skills which we use to guide our Asian partners and locally fulfil orders for bespoke and high-end products. Increasingly, clients are coming to us with more unusual requests for prestigious realisations such as lining an elevator, a banister or a trunk with leather. Vaudaux is what is has always been: the crème de la crème of “gainerie” since 1908.

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