Watches of Switzerland tycoon almost blew his big career break to watch Celtic

Watches of Switzerland tycoon almost blew his big career break to watch Celtic

Brian Duffy is about to take his luxury watch public – but his career was nearly derailed by his love for Celtic FC.

The Watches of Switzerland CEO was on the verge of a big career break with Ralph Lauren – but skipped the job interview to watch the club play in Seville in the UEFA Cup final.

Duffy told Business Insider: “I nearly lost that job as European President. Instead of going for a second interview with Ralph I decide to fly to Spain and watch Celtic. While the score against Porto wasn’t so good, I eventually landed the job.”

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The Watches of Switzerland Group is the leading multi-channel luxury watch retailer in the UK and a leading retailer of luxury watches in selected regions of the US. It is understood to be valued at between £600-800 million.

In 2002, before getting the call from Ralph Lauren, Duffy, now 64, had enrolled as a guitar student at the Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford. After the big game in Spain, Duffy went on to work as UK managing director of Ralph Lauren from July 2003 until October 2011, a time he greatly relished, raising the bar for the Polo Jeans brand. 

During this time, he joined the board of his beloved Celtic between February 2010 until June 2014.

Duffy told us: “I thoroughly enjoyed my time on the Celtic board but I had to step down as my business interests with Watches of Switzerland were taking off, although I try and see Celtic as often as possible, and I’ll be supporting them at the Scottish Cup Final later this month.”

In February 2014, he became a director of Jewel UK Midco, a Luxembourg-based vehicle based in Leicester, which owns Aurum Holdings, Goldsmiths Finance, Mappin & Webb and Watches of Switzerland.

In March 2013, Aurum Holdings was acquired by Apollo Global Management, with Duffy becoming chief executive officer.

The Glaswegian has had a stellar business career. Born in July 1954, Hugh Brian Duffy was brought up in Castlemilk and attended St Mungo’s Academy.

“I lived in Castlemilk and just about every other housing scheme in the city from Balornock to Ruchill,’’ he recalled.

He trained as Scottish chartered accountant, qualifying in 1976, and worked with KPMG in Buchanan Street in Glasgow, before heading to the United States, where he worked with Polaroid and then joined Playtex in 1984 as finance manager, becoming general manager and launching the famous Wonderbra marketing campaign in 1994. This helped make his international reputation.

He is delighted with the growing success of Watches of Switzerland in Scotland.

“It’s all working well. We’ve a great business and it’s a great business in Scotland too. We’re doing well at Gleneagles and in Buchanan Street. We’ve got Mappin & Webb at the front of the Argyle Arcade in Glasgow, while Dundee is doing well. We’re doing well in Heathrow Airport and we’ve just won the franchise for Gatwick Airport.’

Results for the year show UK revenue grew by 8.6%, with the group generating revenues of £773 million. He said the IPO will raise money to pay down the debt. The company took out bank loans of £70 million which were due to be repaid by January 2020.

Leon Black, Apollo chairman, chief executive officer and founder, and Josh Harris and Marc Rowan, senior managing directors and co-founders, set up their firm in 1990 after a call from a French bank, looking for investment opportunity. Apollo was given $800 million to build and manage a portfolio based on value. It sees Watches of Switzerland as a high-value investment.

“Apollo have been wonderful in supporting us from the start. They have been totally on board with our strategy for investing in high quality growth and will continue to do so,’’ said Duffy, who stands to cash in some of his shares.

Apollo have been backers for six years and are now wanting to release around 25% of their stake, worth an estimated £250 million.

The advances in the US has helped. In November last year the group saw the first two major new store openings for the Watches of Switzerland Group in the US with flagship showrooms for New York and Las Vegas. Despite strong growth in 2018, Duffy said America is still an underdeveloped market where the formula of large, luxurious destination stores underpinned with brands such as Rolex and Patek Philippe will grab a large slice of a growing pie.

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Speaking about the retail experience, he said: “The fundamentals do not change. The store has to be welcoming, not intimidating and inviting intrigue so that people look around. That said, we have to adapt to the environment and the brand proposition for each location.’ 

“I am incredibly proud of the transformation Watches of Switzerland Group has undergone over the last five years to become the UK’s leading luxury watch retailer and successfully enter the important US market. Our announcement signals the next stage in that journey, leveraging our scale, retail and e-commerce expertise, and strong…

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