A few weeks ago, we had the pleasure of sharing a virtual coffee with Kilian Müller, Alumni HEC Lausanne 2002 and head of sales at Bucherer, a Swiss luxury watch and jewelry manufacturer. During our chat, he offered us insights into his journey within the luxury industry, both in Switzerland and overseas. How did he start his career ? What were the key elements advancing it ? What is his day-to-day life like ? Dive into his journey and discover his advice for students and young graduates :
Let’s start with the beginning : could you please introduce yourself ?
My name is Kilian Müller. I grew up very close to the University of St.Gallen, in the eastern part of Switzerland. After graduating from high school, I decided to move to the French-speaking part of Switzerland and to study at HEC Lausanne where I completed a Master’s degree in Finance (Alumni HEC, 2002). I have worked in the luxury and watch industry for over 15 years now. I started my career at TagHeuer (LVMH group) and now work at Bucherer in Lucerne, where I head all market and retail operations.
Why did you choose to start your career at TagHeuer ?
After graduating from university, I received three offers : one in consulting, one in the consumer goods industry and one at TagHeuer. I chose the latter for several reasons. First of all, TagHeuer was an international company. They had just been bought by LVMH and had huge projects and ambitions. I sensed that there, I would have the most opportunities to learn and grow. Second, as a student, I worked as a ski teacher during the weekends and my team was sponsored by none other than TagHeuer ! Therefore, I had already connected with the brand and knew that we had values in common, in this case : sports and competition. I didn’t know if we would match 100% but I felt like this was a good way to start. I decided I would give it a try, and it worked out pretty well for me. Sometimes, all you have to do is to try. Don’t overthink too much.
Could you tell us more about your time and growth there ?
At TagHeuer, I became quite rapidly responsible for the Swiss market, then took over the European one. After that, I moved to Russia with my family. We lived in Moscow for three years. That’s where I built the LVMH watch and jewelry subsidiary. Following this experience, we moved straight to New Jersey, 20 miles west of Manhattan (New York) and were based there for six years. The US is a big market for TagHeuer. At first, I was in charge of Sales, then, I took over the subsidiary presidency for TagHeuer North America.
You then left New York and decided to go back to your home country, Switzerland. Now, you are responsible for all market and retail operations at Bucherer. What is your day to day life like ?
I usually get up and check my emails. I work a lot with strategic steering committees with whom we discuss strategic projects. I am often in contact with different subsidiaries and have calls with the heads of the different markets. My work also involves a lot of store visits. I meet with the people on the ground and share what the company’s vision and strategy is. There is a reason for that : we want them to know that they are a part of a journey which they can help to create. Now, a business is all about the customer. How does he feel ? What does he want ? What is going on in his mind ? The people who have gathered profound knowledge about customers work in stores. That is also why I really try to spend a lot of time on the ground there and within the different markets such as France, Germany, Denmark or England.
To summarize, my work is a mix of operational tasks, strategic tasks such as board meetings and steering committees, and finally, touching base with where things are really happening : stores.
You have decided to stay in the luxury industry for the past 20 years. What makes this industry unique ?
Luxury goods are about emotions, about feelings and about joy. People buy luxury goods for celebrations such as weddings and graduations and typically invest a lot of time, effort and emotions into them. Those pieces make people happy because they enjoy the craftsmanship or the story behind the piece. It’s not about the price. This is not a rational business. In contrast, if you need a toothbrush, you simply buy the one which is convenient for you, at the store next door. This is the profound difference with consumer goods.
The luxury industry is about continuity, about longevity, about being a part of a very long story. It’s not about short term profits and quarter on quarter results. Luxury brands are often very old and their strategy and vision are geared towards the long term. When you work for a luxury company, you have to tell yourself that it will still be here a hundred years later. You should never think about how you can sell the most tomorrow, you should think about how you can develop and protect the brand. If you manage to do this, you will automatically sell. This is something I really love about this industry.
How would you define luxury ?
In my perspective, luxury is time. More precisely, luxury is time well spent. It’s spending valuable time with your loved ones, your family and your friends. This also applies to your work life. During your career, you spend so much time working that you want to come to a point where you can come to work and profoundly like what you do. You want your work to give you joy, and through joy, you will get energy.
At the beginning of your career, be ready to spend time which is not that well spent ! At the beginning of your career, you should be ready for some trial and error. Don’t be afraid to have those kinds of experiences. Maybe you will do the wrong job and end up doing something that you don’t like. You will learn what you don’t like and what you don’t want. That’s definitely valuable.
You mentioned earlier that you spent a significant portion of your career overseas. What pushed you to leave your home country and what are your key take-aways ?
I think what pushed me to leave was simply curiosity. At 17 during high-school, I did an exchange in Jefferson City, Missouri. This experience was crucial because I realized what a positive experience that is and how it opens up your world. Maybe you’ve experienced this yourself : once you have done it, you just want to start over and over again. After going to the US, I moved to western Switzerland. A few years later, going to Russia with my wife and kids was a huge step and we definitely knew it wouldn’t be a walk in the park. Moving to a new place is always hard in the beginning, but in the end, it’s worth it. In the US, I met many people with open minds, great ideas and a can-do attitude. Everything there was bigger and bolder. Of course at the time, we laughed about Americans overdoing everything. In hindsight, we remember their positive spirit and willingness to try new things. We tried to bring this attitude back to Switzerland as well.
During my time abroad, I really grew personally. We, as a family, grew together as well. I learned that the world is not Switzerland. Switzerland is the exception, not the norm. Our standards are really high and we tend to think that this is normal. Once you have gained an outside perspective, you relate completely differently to things. This made me a much happier person.
You have had executive roles for many years now. What type of leader do you try to be ?
I really try to orchestrate, help and enable the team. I provide them with the tools they need in order to perform to the best of their ability. As a leader, it’s also crucial to create a safe environment. You need to integrate one word : empathy. It’s crucial that the team evolves without fear and that they dare to speak up their mind. I also don’t behave like I know everything. A leader can’t know it all. In fact, I try to hire people who know much more than me within a given area. I strive to regroup people in my teams who as a collective know a lot and are able to constantly evolve and learn.
Finally, I think it makes a big difference if as a leader, your actions are geared towards the long-term success of the company. I am personally not in for the short term and I believe leaders should never be focused on “winning” in the short term. This attitude is dangerous and will be picked-up on by your teams, which will hamper their motivation. Simon Sinek described how infinite minded leaders create stronger and more competitive organizations1.
What were the key elements that helped you advance your career ?
People. At any point in my career, I was surrounded by people who pushed me, helped me and believed in me. Those mentors were HRs, bosses or my family and friends. As an example, when the opportunity to go to Russia came, my boss was very transparent : Russia was not everyone’s dream. He motivated me with this great project of building a subsidiary there. It is important that people surrounding you understand what is important to you, motivate you and push you to do it.
People are also important sources of inspiration. One of my bosses was an entrepreneur. He stood for taking risks. That is something you don’t learn at university. I would encourage anyone to listen to themselves, try to find their passions and then follow that route. Don’t look at a company’s claims, salaries and names at an early stage in your career. Look at what opportunities a company gives you to learn and try to find an environment which matches with what you like to do and your values. Then, you’ll meet the people that will inspire and mentor you.
What are the most special moments in your career up to now ?
Meeting personalities who embody the history and the story of luxury brands is really something fantastic. Brands have stories and you become a part of them. Early on, I met Jack Heuer and he shared all those incredible stories with me. I had the chance to learn a lot from him and to understand how he made the brand big in the United States.
I also vividly remember all these times we were able to travel as a family. I remember best the situations where we arrived in a new country. I remember exactly the moment where I closed our door in Moscow. I remember exactly the moment when we arrived in Newark (New Jersey) with the family and rented a jeep with our kids. These memories represent all those big moments of change, all the times we had the opportunity to start new projects and to feel that the journey is going on.
It’s now time to wrap-up our interview ! What really stands out to me are the challenges that you have taken up both in Russia and in the US. What would your advice be for students or graduates who are interested in international experiences ?
Imagine you have the opportunity to go to Singapore for two years, ask yourself : what is the worst thing that could happen ? If things don’t work out, you simply go back home. In the US, we met a lot of people from other countries. When we told them that we were going back to Switzerland, they told us how lucky we were to actually want to go back home. Most of them had come to the US to stay, because the system here was much better than where they came from. In business, combining your great learnings from abroad with your learnings from Switzerland is exactly the one plus one that makes three. Moreover, it will allow you to build self confidence and a positive attitude, which is always helpful. To conclude, I believe that as a Swiss or a central European, the risk is to not undertake these opportunities abroad.
The entire HEConomist team deeply thanks Kilian Müller for his time, insights and advice !