For the past two years, one of the biggest guessing games for watch pundits has been who will take over at Richemont Group when current CEO Richard Lepeu retires. As the inevitable date grew nearer, this became a two-man race with no consensus among the industry on who was in the lead. At no point, however, was a dead heat considered, so it came as a huge surprise when news broke yesterday that the Richemont Board has decided to do away with the CEO role all together when Lepau steps down in March 2017, restructuring the senior management set-up and roles of responsibility.

Not only will Lepeu, Chief Financial Officer Gary Saage and seven other directors retire from the Board, but young blood will be injected in the form of the two men once feted for the soon-to-be defunct CEO position: Georges Kern and Jérôme Lambert. Kern will take up the position of Head of Watchmaking, Marketing and Digital and Lambert will become Head of Operations responsible for all maisons other than jewellery and watchmaking. Intuitive and ground-breaking, the appointments recognise and play to the strengths of these two titans of the luxury industry. Charismatic, fiercely intelligent, brave and daring, both Kern and Lambert have paid their dues in the watch world and, while their decisions might not have always been universally popular, neither man has ever been willing simply to settle for the path of least resistance.

With an eye toward enticing a new generation of watch buyers, Kern and Lambert have, in their own ways, taken watchmaking out of the realm of quaint anachronism and into the everyday. Recruiting relevant ambassadors and embracing both digital and social platforms, they recognise that we are now in a new age of consumerism where brand, image, marketing and communication are all equally as important as product. In short, they have adapted to 21st-century luxury merchandising, while plenty of so-called traditionalists have refused to do so at their own peril.

Talking earlier this week to Revolution, Kern said of his approach: “The reality is that today people buy a brand before they buy a product. I believe in the strength of the brand as much as I believe in the beauty and the quality of the product. It’s a combination of the two – it is never the product alone. We have to ask: ‘What do people want?’ We all look to heritage but we have to be careful not to be stuck in the past. We must constantly reinvent ourselves. Even if we keep the DNA of a product, we must surprise and innovate and do something which might interest people that are younger than 60 years old.”

A graduate of Political Sciences, Kern cut his teeth in the watch industry at TAG Heuer before joining Richemont Group in 2000. Involved along with Franco Cologni in the takeover of Les Manufactures Horlogères, Kern then worked with the late Günter Blümlein on the integration of A. Lange & Söhne, Jaeger-LeCoultre and International Watch Company. Already seeing the huge potential in the brand, Kern became the Group’s youngest CEO, when he took the helm at IWC Schaffhausen in 2002 and also assumed responsibility for Baume & Mercier in 2009 and Roger Dubuis in 2010. Over the past 16 years, Kern has taken what was one of Switzerland’s best kept secrets and turned it into one of the most successful and recognised watch brands in the world, solidly defining the six separate families of watches and giving each its own flavour of “cool”.

Jérôme Lambert

After four years with A. Lange & Söhne, Lambert joined Jaeger-LeCoultre as a financial controller, becoming CFO in 2000 and CEO in 2002. When Lambert left JLC to take up the position of CEO at Montblanc in 2013, it is fair to say that the watch world was shocked. Leaving one of the watch media’s darlings for a brand better known for its writing instruments was met with confusion from part of the press pack and speculation from the rest. But in three short years, Lambert has not only turned the also-ran watch division into one of the most innovative, affordable and serious brands on the market, he has also successfully steered the pen and leather divisions of the business to new heights, revolutionising product and bringing in a new client base.

Recognising the wealth of experience among the outgoing Board members, and to ensure continuity during what is a difficult time for the watch industry, five of those retiring will join a new International Advisory Council which will “act as a sounding board for the Board of Directors, drawing on the significant expertise of its members”. Johann Rupert will remain as Executive Chairman of the Richemont Group.

Speaking of the new developments, Rupert said: “The changes we have proposed today will strengthen the Group’s ability to respond to the dynamic markets in which we operate, especially in the developing field of digital marketing and e-commerce.” And there are few in the industry that understand this as well as Kern and Lambert – men who have brought their brands to the forefront of the marketplace by delivering the right product in the right way to today’s consumer.

There is little doubt that there are turbulent times to come, but with the decision to let these two men help steer the Richemont ship, there is every reason to see bright times ahead. As the Manic Street Preachers and the Welsh football team declared this summer (in a slogan more recently borrowed and reversed by Hillary Clinton): “Together Stronger.”