Published: 00:02, 12 May 2016
Three and a half years ago, Watchfinder director Matt Bowling invited watchmaker Tony Williams to take a look at his company’s burgeoning service centre.
“The first bit I saw was the case shop, where they polish watches, and I thought: Wow!,” said Mr Williams, now head watchmaker at the Maidstone company.
“I knew that if they were doing a job, they would do it properly. Matt asked me to join and I said yes.
“Then they got their first invoice from me for tools. It made them sit down quickly. It was a statement of intent.”
Today, Watchfinder services and polishes 1,700 watches a month at its service centre, fuelled by the public’s rapidly-growing appetite for pre-owned timepieces.
Turnover is forecast to almost double this financial year to £60 million, with customers paying an average of £4,119 for its classic second-hand gear.
It helped the firm creep into the latest Sunday Times Fast Track 100 list in 99th place, ranking Britain’s fastest-growing companies by sales over the last three years.
“The pre-owned sector is growing quickly because the watches cost less money and hold their value better,” said Mr Bowling, one of four directors of the business, which employs 115 people and has sold £203 million worth of watches since it was incorporated in 2002.
Originally an online retailer, Watchfinder now has four shops, including one in Bluewater.
It has a stock of more than 3,200 timepieces, covering more than 50 brands, each of which goes through a vetting process lasting about 21 days from the moment it is bought until it goes on sale.
Based in Albion Place in the town centre, the service centre’s team of eight watchmakers carry out any repairs and maintenance on the parts.
They have frequent run-ins with the company’s critically-eyed quality control team, who look at each watch “as if they were a customer in a boutique”.
“People go into a store and come out thinking they have a practically new watch because of the work we do,” said Mr Bowling. “Every department makes a huge contribution to the finished product.
“A lot of people are trying to get into the pre-owned space but, without this kind of service centre behind it, it’s very difficult.
"It’s hard to find out if a watch is real and if it can be fixed, how long it will take and in how much volume it can be done.
“Typically, watchmakers find themselves as an afterthought for a company. We look at it the other way around. This service centre brings enormous benefit.”
Part of that is the chance to establish Watchfinder in the repair market.
The service centre, which employs 49 people, is accredited by major brands like Omega, Swatch Group, Cartier, Audemars Piguet, Panerai and IWC. It is aiming to soon beat its record of completing 128 watches in a day.
“Two years ago we would not have been able to get our hands on that many watches in a day,” said Mr Bowling, the company’s servicing director, who grew up in Teynham.
“My biggest challenge has been keeping up with the growth in sales. I’m always trying to beat that growth by 25% because if you’re not keeping up then you’re holding the company back.
“It gives us the ability to have a large collection of watches, which gives us real strength.”
The firm’s position is a far cry from its early years, forming shortly after the dot-com bubble burst in the early 2000s.
It was viewed sceptically by investors for years before securing a £6.2 million cash injection from venture capital firms Piton Capital and Beringea in 2014. It used the money to boost stock and invest in the servicing centre.
Mr Bowling, 44, met fellow directors Stuart Hennell, 44, and Lloyd Amsdon, 43, the firm’s co-founders, as pupils at Borden Grammar School in Sittingbourne.
He left his career as a journalist with ITN, the BBC and Sky to join the company in 2002, shortly before Jonathan Gill, 38, a post-graduate friend of Mr Amsdon’s from Sheffield, joined the company as its fourth director in 2004.
“It’s horrendous to think back to how we used to work,” said Mr Bowling. “We had a small office and spent a lot of the day playing football in it.
"When I look at us today, it’s a really cool thing to have observed our growth. I feel really lucky to have watched it all happen.”
Dave Waterton and Rob Parfitt supervise the casing room at the service centre, where a team of about 15 polishers make the old timepieces sparkle.
“When I first started here, basically me and Rob were the service department,” said Mr Waterton, 31, from Walderslade, who has been with the company almost eight years.
“We were working in the basement in the old place, but now we have a proper service centre, lots of people and machinery. We have expanded so much.
“When I first started here, Rob and I would get through about 10 watches a day. Now we do more than 100.”
“I enjoy the work,” said Mr Parfitt, 28, from Sittingbourne. “This was my first-ever job. I love getting a smashed-up watch and making it look good again.
"Luckily I’ve been able to grow in the business. I enjoy passing on my experience to the new guys.”
Mr Waterton and Mr Parfitt have both been on trips to Switzerland to be trained to service watches by major brands like Cartier, Audemars Piguet and IWC.
Servicing director Matt Bowling said: “To go to brands with such amazing reputations and prove we have the skills and equipment to service their watches in a way they are happy with is a massive achievement for the service centre.
“The polishers have the most noticeable and tangible contribution. They are the people who make a watch, which has been around for six years, look like it has come straight out of the store.
“We’re talking about working to incredibly high standards at a seriously high production level across more than 50 brands. It’s amazing what we can do.”
Watchfinder’s head watchmaker Tony Williams has been in the industry for 32 years, of which he has spent the last three and a half with the Maidstone company.
However, there is a shortage of new watchmakers in the industry, which has prompted Watchfinder to join a push with 3,500 other representatives in the sector for the creation of a watchmaking apprenticeship.
A report has been submitted to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which is expected to give a response this summer.
If all goes to plan, Watchfinder hopes to have hired its first apprentice by next summer at the latest.
Servicing director Matt Bowling said: “A guy under the age of 30 could be earning £45,000 a year. This is a fantastic career and I can guarantee there will always be work.
“More than £1 billion of watches are sold in the UK every year and that has been the case for a long time.
"If you are someone qualified to repair watches, I can’t foresee a scenario where there is not work for qualified watchmakers.
“There are not many jobs for life now, but watchmaking is one.”
Watchfinder is looking for its second round of funding to help it move into international markets and to hopefully bring its business all under one roof.
At present, its Maidstone headquarters is divided between its original warehouse in Pudding Lane, near Fremlin Walk, and its 2,000 sq ft service centre at Albion Place.
Servicing director Matt Bowling insists the company will stay in the Maidstone area but needs to find a larger premises, with its casing room and workshops close to capacity.
He said: “That is expensive and requires a lot of investment, but it gives you the ability to grow the team of watchmakers to 12 or 15 and put in another five or six polishing machines.”
The company would probably be seeking a bigger sum, in exchange for equity, than its £6.2 million venture capital investment in 2014. The board does not feel this presents any barriers, given its growth in recent years.
“The company is a lot bigger than when we went through the first round of funding and the opportunities available to us are different to then. We have overcome some of the challenges we faced.
“Investors want to get as much as they can for their money and we want to get as much as we can for our company. It is not just about getting the money. We want someone to come in and make a contribution.”
The business is looking to enter between three and five new territories during the next financial year. It launched its US and Australian websites in January.
Mr Bowling said: “We need significant investment in the company to fund international expansion. There is a lot of opportunity in America and the Far East.”
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