Passion and performance

You could be forgiven for assuming that TW Steel was merely an off-shoot brand of a more established watch manufacturer. Not the case, it's a success story thanks to the unique approach of its leading man – Jordy Cobelens

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‘The Watch in Steel’, to give the brand name its full title, has accomplished much since debuting in 2005. It has cemented the demand for distinguished oversized watches, something it concentrates on exclusively, while it has also successfully nestled its way into the luxury apparel sector to sit comfortably against more established brands in such power house retailers as Harrods, Harvey Nichols, Christ, Karstadt and Selfridges to name drop a few.

From 2010 TW Steel will enjoy ‘Official Timing Partner’ status to the Renault F1 Team, heralding its first true global marketing venture, while other high profile brand ambassadors include the likes of Australian Olympic swimming legend, Ian Thorpe, and ATP Tennis Pro, Spain’s Tommy Robredo. The brand’s success however owes absolutely nothing to the capital of a larger parent company or the experience of sister brands. TW Steel, put simply, has enjoyed a phenomenal rise to prominence off the back of its uniqueness in the marketplace and the passion and drive of a family from The Netherlands.

Spearheading the privately-owned operation is Jordy Cobelens. The 27-year-old Chief Executive Officer, and co-owner, of TW Steel, is no ‘corporate suit’ overseeing operations from afar. The Dutchman leads by example and has been involved in the growth of the brand since his father, Ton Cobelens, created the concept of a watch company focusing exclusively on producing oversized watches. While his age undoubtedly sets him apart from the vast majority of CEO’s in the watch business, Cobelens is quick to point out that he hasn’t simply been parachuted into his position based on family ties.

“I’ve been selling watches since I was a kid at school,” he discloses. “My father used to be a Raymond Weil distributor and I’ve always had an interest in watches growing up.  When my dad started another watch brand prior to TW Steel I would be selling those watches to the dads and uncles of my friends at school.”

Having highlighted his entrepreneurial skills while balancing his education, Cobelens then left school to learn the watch trade from the ground up. This experience included a year spent in Germany, dealing with jewelers and distributors, gaining valuable first-hand experience of the business on a variety of platforms – core skills which would serve him well later in the birth of, and subsequent rapid growth, of TW Steel. While proving talented in the watch trade, Cobelens was equally accomplished in another of his passions, music. A talented DJ in his own right, Jordy was making a name for himself in this field, playing at several major festivals in Holland before going on to found his own record company – JC Records.

“Again I saw a gap in the market,” he reflects. “There was nowhere in Amsterdam for aspiring DJ’s, and even the established talents, to sample records and equipment in a professional environment. I created a store to service those needs and we quickly gained a reputation for being the place to go to. It certainly didn’t feel like work, as is the case with TW Steel, as I wanted to be doing it and was surrounded by equally passionate people. I had a great time with the record company and despite the demands of doing what I’m doing now, I still love the opportunity to hit the decks and hear what comes out.”

Again it was the influence of his father, Ton that ultimately led Jordy back into the watch business on a full-time capacity in 2005, this time with the creation of TW Steel. Having been a Raymond Weil distributor in the Benelux in the early eighties, it was during this same period when Ton Cobelens started to design his own watches, developing a range of private label watches for airlines such as KLM, Martinair and Wardair. He would later find himself managing advertising and promotions for the Swatch Group through the international advertising agency he founded before selling up to concentrate on the development of TW Steel.

With no formal design qualifications, the 59-year-old, now acts as TW Steel’s Chief Design Officer having been responsible for a range that stands at 124 executions but started crucially in 2005 with a simple four-model collection upon the request from a distributor for an affordable, oversized watch.

“We knew pretty quickly that we’d hit upon a successful formula with TW Steel,” Jordy explained. “Our first collection, which was a total of 1,200 pieces based on the first four models, sold out in just six weeks in the Dutch market. It was phenomenal to see and it basically provided us with the platform we needed to not only grow the collection but also our business model for TW Steel.

“It really was an experiment on our part but we quickly saw there was an appetite in the marketplace for our take on oversized watches. We really didn’t have much to lose, we weren’t worrying about overheads at the time but as interest grew throughout Europe we knew we had to establish a proper base for the company and expand the collection to meet the new demand.”

Cobelens Jnr relished the opportunity to apply his skills and head up TW Steel and front its development as a business, in doing so allowing his father to follow his passion for the creative process and ultimately shape the look and feel of each TW Steel model.

“This business is no different from any other in that it’s the people and the relationships that you cultivate that count. Obviously we enjoyed a lot of industry contacts through our previous dealings in the trade but very quickly we had people approaching us about taking on TW Steel to distribute into new territories. The first year was very exciting as we faced up to the challenges of supply and demand.

“I was keen to put my experience to the test and deal directly with our manufacturing and distribution partners. Having owned and run several businesses of his own, my father didn’t want to be so directly involved in the day-to-day operations and I was quite happy to let him focus predominantly on producing our latest models as we realised fairly early on that we had to bolster the collection.”

With a strap-line of ‘Big in Oversized Watches’, TW Steel’s success pushed the boundaries for the oversized watch market. From its immediate successes in Holland, the brand was soon picked up by distributors in Germany, Great Britain, Greece, France, Spain and Portugal forging a core sales base in Europe. Now firmly established as a big, bold lifestyle brand, TW Steel’s global reach boasts over 50 countries and close to 4,000 retail outlets. With sales being established in North and South America, South Africa and Asia, the world is well and truly beckoning.

Key lessons have been learned along the way, Cobelens being the first to admit that when dealing with the world at large, you won’t always get it right first time.

“We enjoy some fantastic relationships with our distributors but obviously there have been times when things haven’t always worked out. Being an emerging brand, we’ve encountered instances where some of the more established distributors in a territory want to see how we perform there through a different association before they’re then willing to talk with us to expand our platform.

“Maintaining positive and productive relationships are of extreme importance to me but sometimes it’s not always possible and we’ve had to change distributors. It’s easy to want to go with the biggest operators in a certain territory but it might not always be best for the brand. We’re beginning to put more structures in place and ask more from our partners as we learn and ultimately start implementing best practices.”

Cobelens has recently demonstrated his desire to ensure TW Steel’s needs are best served in certain regions by establishing subsidiary offices – maintaining the ‘direct to retail’ approach. 2009 saw such offices established in Thailand and Australia with the CEO refusing to rule out further such moves if in the best interests of his company.

“Sometimes it’s in our interests to work directly in a territory, sometimes it’s not. We know our retail partners benefit from a dedicated support team but similarly, we also work with some of the biggest and best distributors in key regions and we’d be foolish to think we can by-pass that process, and more importantly those relationships, just simply to do our own thing.

“TW Steel owes its success to many elements but without a doubt one of the biggest reasons we’ve achieved what we have is down to the passion of the people we work with globally. We’re definitely in the ‘people’ business, I learned that about the watch trade back when I was driving from town to town to meet with distributors and retailers selling watches for my father. I have a lot of respect for all the people we work with and I know that for the brand to continue to grow from strength to strength, we have to build on those relationships so we can continue to outreach to the consumer – the most important people in the ongoing success of TW Steel.”

Consumer demand for TW Steel’s oversized pieces, with watches ranging from 45mm, 48mm up to 50mm in dimension, has seen many executions sell-out completely but Cobelens works hard to ensure that the company doesn’t merely just keep repeating the same trick. The expansive TW Steel range, including the entry level ‘Icon’ watch, is capped by the impressive and aptly named ‘CEO’ collection. Offering ‘affordable luxury’ as its foundation, TW Steel’s ‘Collection ExtraOrdinary’ has purposefully been created to further showcase the company’s sense of ambition but secondly to establish the brand as competition to the more established, higher-priced watch brands.

“While we’re not a luxury product, we do compete well against the established luxury brands,” states Cobelens with obvious pride. “We were the first unknown brand to land directly into Harrods – that speaks volumes about the quality of our product. We enjoy a mid-point price range and we like to think that anyone can buy a TW Steel watch and anyone can wear a TW Steel watch.

“We’ve secured a position in a lot of high-end retailers as they appreciate the work we’ve put in to guarantee a watch that over delivers in terms of its design and build quality but enjoys a sensible retail price. As a result, we know the traditional consumers at these stores, who are no strangers to buying expensive watches, will often purchase a couple of TW Steel watches as they like them for exactly what they are.”

Cobelens is naturally enthusiastic for the future of his brand. Ambition is a key word in his vocabulary and the announcement that TW Steel will become the Renault F1 Team’s ‘Official Timing Partner’ in 2010, by way of a three-year commitment, merely serves to underline his desire to build the brand further. Not many 27-year-old’s find themselves as CEOs of international watch brands and even fewer have the ability to sign off on multi-year team sponsorship campaigns in a world as exclusive as the Formula One World Championship. For Cobelens however, he sees it as a strategic move to engage the consumer.

“This is an exciting time to be involved in Formula One. I’m naturally excited that in just four years of business we’ve reached the stage where we can commit TW Steel to such an association. Yes, it’s a big commitment on our behalf, but equally there’s no doubt in my mind that our partnership with the Renault F1 Team will deliver a significant return on our investment.

“TW Steel is now a global brand and as a result we needed a marketing platform to match. Formula One has immense appeal for a young, ambitious brand like ours and we know that we have to make the most of this opportunity if we’re really to cement our standing in the industry and lock down what the brand represents.”

It seems fitting that in just four years Jordy Cobelens has taken TW Steel from a simple trial collection to the heights of a Formula One marketing campaign. The young Dutchman’s watchwords of passion, ambition and performance perfectly reflect the keys to success found in both the watch business and world class motorsport.