He pointed out the outline of tape on the floor. “That will be my desk.” He preferred I not take pictures of him at his temporary desk. A handyman was drilling audibly in the other room while on a ladder. This is John Simonian’s new office space. A short stroll from the previous location, no doubt the shrewd businessman took advantage of depressed real estate market to upgrade his surroundings — roughly tripling the size of his domain. Though most people who indirectly do business with John won’t ever see it, save for a few select clients who are fortunate. Simonian is the owner of Westime, the popular luxury watch store situated around the corner off Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Though he really does a lot more than that.
The watch don is friendly at his desk. His own office includes a conference table and toys. I recognize the wisdom of having company meetings in the room he feels most comfortable in, that is him. Soft in his tone and extremely congenial, my impressions of John all began before I met him. The watch industry is a small place, and its most important players are the subject of reputation and reference. Simonian is regarded as having an excellent eye for successful newcomers, as well being a businessman with enviable skills. Those unable to match his clever decision making and tactics are often most vocal about him. “Simonian is a shark, and the smartest person in the watch industry that I know of.”
Of Armenian descent, John grew up in Lebanon, moved to Switzerland, and then eventually to the US. The obvious analog is Nicolas Hayek, “ruler” of the Swatch Group who didn’t quite make it to the US from Switzerland, and is also from Lebanon. Simonian speaks several languages, but isn’t quite sure where he picked up English. Among them are Arabic, Armenian, Turkish, French, German (Swiss German as well), and a spattering of words and conversational skills in others as well. Learning this makes me jealous that I only know two languages. It seems that many successful business people are multi-tongued.
Listening to John on the phone, it sounds like he won’t choose a preferred language. His abrupt but friendly conversations with colleagues sound as though they are a mixture of phrases, languages, and personal innuendos. The sharp reputation John has must be in the ends to his means. Otherwise his presence is almost sage-like.
In addition to selling watches to the public via Westime, John is a distributor. The idea is simple, but John proves this end of the business to be the most complex — though likely his favorite. Distribution involves investing in a brand and representing them in a particular market. By becoming a distributor, John will control the brand in the US, as well as other markets depending on the deal. Anyone who wants to sell the brand must go through John. It is a fantastic way to slash and burn the competition when it comes to hot brands. You could say that John got lucky with Richard Mille — a hot new ultra-luxury sport watch brand. With few watches that retail under $80,000 you’d think the market for such timepieces is small. The success of the brand is soaring and John likely picked up the rights from the start. Sometimes referred to as “the nose,” John has the legendary reputation for picking out viable newcomers and making them big. Of course I asked what the takes into consideration when gambling with new brands. His answer is simple — the watchmaker means more than the product. He explains that you can reform a bad product into something great, but even a good design won’t last if the watchmaker is lacking in the qualities necessary for success.
He describes a world where new watchmakers have a series of role models that they wish to emulate or reach. There are in fact a series of “celebrity” watch makers in the industry. This is why so many brands are named for the people behind them. The reality, is that like aspiring actors in Los Angeles, only a few really make it. John helps find the best ones, and trust me that he has them knocking on his door – which is good for him, because he loves promising new comers. What advice can I give to new watch makers based on what I learned from Mr. Simonian? Well, I would say that at the least, you need to be charismatic and be able to sell yourself. Understand what consumers want, as well as have the ability to be flexible. Most important? Don’t be stupid. I ask John what annoys him with the watch industry and the response is applicable to any industry. Humorous, it is sadly predictable how often the biggest annoyance is stupid people. They really ruin the party for everyone.
Richard Mille is taking a lot of John’s time these days — but that is a good thing. While no one is spared the problems of the recession. Simonian’s business feels solid. At least that is the reputation I get from him. One of the things I admire about John is his innate desire to take risks. You have lots of people in the watch industry that act only on numbers — making decisions based almost purely on facts and figures (which ironically are sometimes not very factual). Taking chances is really the best way of becoming something in any industry. Of course, you need intelligence to accompany bravery.
Westime for example is filled with a number of brands. Sure you have the Richemont Group major players, but you will also find a number of smaller and independent brands with solid products and great images. John is known for helping to make such brands as Greubel Forsey and MB&F popular. Inside the shop I find others I am glad to see such as Nubeo and MCT. Like John, I see a lot to be impressed with in these brands. I am glad that we have some of the same taste, but happier to see brands like this on home soil. Too often promising smaller brands aren’t given a chance in America. I am glad to see a big name like Simonian taking interest in them.
John isn’t the fanatical watch lover I am, but that is a tall order. He loves the watch industry though. His father was in the watch industry, and now John’s son, Greg Simonian, is also involved. Soon to take over the retail side of the business, John will passed over an important part of the operation to his son, and leave him to be the big boss he enjoys being. Richard Mille will continue to be grown and nurtured by Simonian. When it matures other fresh projects will headline his distribution business, but he is never a one brand man.
I know that the next time I visit John his office will be different. Fully moved in, the big watch boss’s operation will take the products and personalities that are so obsessed over in Europe and do the necessary task of actually selling them. The thing that no one liked to mention often is that the luxury watch industry relies on people continually buying new, highly expensive watches. Collector’s get their “watch fix” and everyone is happy. The industry needs that stream of interest that keeps clients coming back for more. John’s role is perhaps not as appreciated as it should be. He plays the ongoing games of making the buyers happy. This involves not only learning about new products, but resolving their issues during and post sale — something that the brand themselves are notoriously bad at. While Simonian is a big boss, he is also an army. Fighting the good fight that keeps the watch industry gears lubricated.