My wife and I had a memorable time with family and friends in Prague this summer. We decided to make a short drive to Dresden and spend the night there before continuing on to Berlin the next evening. Dresden has a special place in my heart – a city I visited very often when I lived in Prague as an expat. The beautiful Semper Opera, romantic castles and museums on the banks of Elbe river, and a sensory overload of watches. Dresden used to be known as the Florence of Elbe (Elbflorenz).
During the JCK Couture event in Las Vegas, my wife and I met with Thilo Mühle, the fifth generation owner of Mühle Glashütte. I seldom come across CEO’s with such down-to-earth personality and a pragmatic attitude. We promised Thilo that we will visit him on our way to Berlin. So as we bid adieu to Dresden, we set course to Glashütte – a very familiar short drive through several villages.
Mühle factory stands out compared to all the other watch factories in Glashütte. It stands out for a good reason – it is not a tall and modern building covered with glistening glass; it is a modest building which cannot be mistaken for anything other than a factory. It was not built with cash inflow from large groups or investors. It is a family owned-and-operated business. Thilo’s dad, wife, and extended family – all have a role in this business. There is no big or small role, it a truly a team effort. I met Mühle’s CFO, Thomas Nitzschner, carrying few hundred nautical clocks, getting ready to go to Hamburg for installation on a large Malaysian cruise ship.
Thilo took us to the CNC room where he can now produce eight thousand watches annually. He proudly states that these new efficient CNC machines are capable of producing much more than the current annual production. They are also paid for which keeps his overhead low. While the big brands are spending lavishly yet laying-off workers, Mühle is frugal and is able to retain entire staff with year-round production. I met his marketing manager, Marie Felgner, at the inventory station helping out since the inventory manager is on holidays. Marie said it is great for her to learn and appreciate this part of business.
Mühle has a real history with the manufacturing of the nautical clocks and instruments. The first marine chronometer I witnessed as I entered the exhibition in the Glashütte museum was that of Mühle. Even though it is currently less than 10% of the overall business, it is an important one. This afternoon Thilo was driving to Hamburg to meet with ship and yacht manufacturers. This was the core business from first Mühle generation. Advent of quartz and GPS technology has changed the marine clock business significantly. Even though mechanical marine chronometer manufacturing is great for continuing a dying tradition, it is simply not practical. Imagine if a boat is stranded in middle of the ocean with no GPS or clock and trying to figure out the mechanical sextant.
Majority of the watches being assembled by the watchmakers are the tool watches we guys passionately discuss on the forums. There were also watches produced for corporate customers like Audi, with whom Mühle has a good relationship. Audi presents these watches as a gift to employees when they reach 40-year milestone of their employment. I am sure some of Audi’s best customers also receive special watches from them. Thilo has recently begun to diversify his offerings with the Robert Mühle and ProMare series. But ultimately, Mühle produces no-frills, well-made sports watches giving us “bang-for-your-buck” satisfaction.
My favorite watch in the current collection is the 29er Zeigerdatum (pointer-date). I would gladly part with my money to pair it with casual jeans and a t-shirt. I had recommended this watch as one of the top 5 watches to wear this summer. Mühle design team got everything right about this watch – from bushed/polished case, to dial with white, blue, red color combination, and the navy blue fabric strap.
As we ended the factory tour and sat in the modest conference room to wrap up, I asked Thilo what are his lunch plans, to which Thilo replied with a smile “I brought my lunch with me”.
The watch industry needs brands like Mühle to keep the rest of them honest – in making an honest watch, at a modest price, and taking care of its’ employees in a cyclical business.