Pushing the Clock at Bulova

It’s not a coincidence that—like clockwork—Sian Williams put herself in position to overhaul watch companies Movado and Fossil—leading to a doubling and tripling in business, respectively. Now, as president of Bulova Canada, she’s breathing new life into the 141-year-old timepiece company by moving from a push strategy to a pull one.

Photo by Jonathan Bielaski

There’s a certain pleasure that comes in turning a company toward better days, a pleasure that stays fresh no matter how many times you get it done. Sian Williams should know—after getting her start with cosmetic titan Estée Lauder, followed by 16 years with Christian Dior, she switched gears and did some major business-building within the watch industry. First with the Movado Group of Canada, she grew sales by over 80 percent in just three years. Then, as a general manager with Fossil Canada, she grew business by a whopping 128 percent—again in less than three years.

Most recently there’s Bulova Corporation, a 141-year-old company based in New York whose Canadian division started in 1927. Williams was tapped to be its president in 2013. “The company needed a lot of updating in regards to purpose and technology,” she reports. “So we’ve been working hard on that and have made some great headway. The Bulova brand equity centers on innovation and diamonds. The line is amazing.”

Another great hallmark of the year is the result of a partnership between Bulova Corporation and Barclays English Premier League football club Manchester United. The Club Watch, a customized cobranded Bulova timepiece designed with nine historical styling cues unique to the team was launched at the club’s megastore, and on its website, to overwhelming demand. “It’s doing extremely well—so well that no one in this country is even getting it until we satisfy all current sales orders,” Williams says. “Then in January, the rest of us can start selling it.”

Throughout 2014 and 2015, however, Williams has kept Bulova Canada’s focus on a sales philosophy that’s decidedly different for the company—one that underscores the customer, not the store from which the customer buys their product. “Previously the emphasis had been a push strategy—on pushing the product in an effort to sell more watches to our accounts,” Williams says. “Whereas now we run a business with a pull strategy, not just focusing on the sell-in but more so on the sell-through. This is a complete 180 from the way things were managed prior to 2013.”

“now we run a business with a pull strategy, not just focusing on the sell-in but more so on the sell-through. This is a complete 180 from the way things were managed prior to 2013.”

Complete 180s were to be expected, though, given that she started her presidential tenure at Bulova by getting familiar with the company’s best-selling watches, only to find they weren’t really best sellers at all. Rather, they were the watches that had been pushed at highest volumes to retailers. Williams quickly let it be known that, in her experience, the best sellers were determined by the consumer and the consumer alone.

To that end, she also stressed the need for their wholesale accounts to buy into said “best sellers” before any other items, so stores can have them in stock every single day. “We’re talking about watch styles that are proven, which do 80 percent of our business,” she explains. “I shouldn’t want to sell them the one with the red strap and the blue dial that’s going to sit in their showcase for the next three years. I should want to sell them our number one SKU eight times in the next two years!”

Then, taking it to the next level, Williams stressed the importance of a surgical approach to sales analysis. For example, if a particular type or colour of watch is dominating sales at one store, but other stores carry limited amounts of that type or colour, then that deficiency must be remedied the next time orders are placed at those stores.

With all these changes made to Bulova Canada’s business model during her first year as president, year two resulted in a dramatic shift within the company itself. Where once there were agents working for the company, there now were sales representatives. The difference, Williams says, is in the way the two entities think. “An agent is required to think short-term, and that’s excellent for launching a brand,” she notes. “But when you have a brand that’s 141 years old, you need to be much more long-term minded. We need to be in accounts that build our brand. Where we’re not the most expensive but not the cheapest either and ideally in accounts that pay their bills.”

Admittedly, the Bulova Canada transformation resulted in personnel overhaul—16 of the 40 on staff arrived after Williams did—but she believes it was necessary to get the company on par with its potential. Some are now devoted to full-time surgical sales analysis, which hadn’t been done there before. And with the help of another new hire—a PR and social media-savvy marketing manager—17 million-plus impressions were generated in 2015.

But as important as all that change has been to Bulova Canada’s recent success, Williams thinks that the company culture she’s helped create plays an equal part. By fostering employee engagement through monthly events, empowerment, and regular recognition, she feels she’s created a culture that respects its employees at every level of operations; one that encourages input rather than disparages it. “My goal is to be as happy coming in to work on Monday as I am leaving on Friday,” she says, “So I see it as my mission to create that kind of atmosphere. I want them to be comfortable coming in, knowing that they can ask questions about anything.”

For whether it’s a classic style of timepiece or an all-new design, Williams wants her staff to feel great about what Bulova is creating. “Watches are very emotional,” she says. “They punctuate the milestones of our lives. So we want to make sure we’re doing the best by our accounts that are trying to serve our customers.”