“The Olympic Movement gives the world an ideal which reckons with the reality of life.” The words of Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games, capture just how important the Olympics are around the world. Which makes Omega’s presence at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games all the more grand. For Stephen Urquhart, President of Omega, it was a crowning moment.
Urquhart, who is a Swiss and British citizen, got his start with Omega in 1968. Although he subsequently spent many years with Audemars Piguet, Urquhart returned to the Swatch Group, the luxury conglomerate which owns Omega, in 1997 when he became the President of Blancpain. In 1999, he returned home to Omega. Since then, Urquhart has helped make Omega not only one of the most successful manufactures in the world, but also one of the most recognized haute horlogerie brands. Omega’s presence in Sochi earlier this year is a prime example of Urquhart’s tremendous success.
“Obviously the Olympics are really different to normal sporting events,” Urquhart said. “We do golf – the PGA – and we have the America’s Cup, the Ryder Cup – we have a team. But the Olympics are something very special because it goes beyond the actual sports.”
Omega’s relationship with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) goes back nearly as far as the modern Olympics. The brand has had an exclusive presence at the Games since the 1932 Los Angeles Summer Olympics. This year the brand was not only the Official Timekeeper of the Olympics for the 26th time, it also opened the Omega Pavilion in the Olympic Park.
“We have a fantastic deal with the IOC,” Urquhart said. “Omega is the only brand that is physically present on the ground and on television [during the Olympics]. That is great for branding. At the same time, it gives us the chance to invite people in from around the world, to showcase the brand in a very exclusive way, but a very meaningful way and down to earth. It’s not a highbrow event; it’s open to everyone.”
For Urquhart, Omega’s presence in Sochi was something of a homecoming. “We’re very committed to the Olympic cause. We were there in 1980 [at the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics] so we’re coming back to Russia,” Urquhart said.
Even before the return of the Olympics, the brand has had a presence in the country, with an Omega flagship established in Moscow in 2006. According to Urquhart, the brand’s nearly 800-foot facade in the iconic GUM department store on Moscow’s Red Square is just the beginning of Omega’s planned expansion in the country.
“Russia is a market that is really waiting to explode,” Urquhart said. “I think it was a courageous decision [to move into Russia] that was taken by management 10 years ago. It’s not an easy market to get into – it’s a complicated market, there’s a lot of red tape. It’s not like an open market, easy to get into, like Spain or France.”
Although it may be challenging, Urquhart is confident in Omega’s growing presence. “We opened our premises there, [and saw] customer service is very important in Russia. They’re very demanding and quite rightly so. So we made a big investment in customer service and we have a good team, so we’re going to break out in Moscow and some other cities and really establish the brand there,” Urquhart said. “The brand presence is there, and the image of Omega is on the right track in Russia – we’ve had quite some movement. Russians are quite keen on mechanical movements and high-end watches.”
No doubt Omega will continue to prosper with Urquhart at the helm, in Russia and around the world. And we can be certain that when the first athletes step out at the opening ceremony for the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics, no one will be cheering louder than Omega.
Photography by Alisa Rauner.