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After 65 years as the U.S. distributor for Switzerland-based Victorinox, Swiss Army Brands in Shelton, Conn., was bought by the Swiss company and delisted from the stock exchange to again become private.. Shortly after that in late August, Sue Rechner, a senior vice president at Swiss Army, was named its president — the first woman in the company’s history to be elevated to that position.
She has no lack of credentials already at the company. SNEWS talked to her at the Outdoor Retailer show in August and after the post was confirmed about her tenure at the company, her expertise, and directions in which the company will be headed.
During her two years at Swiss Army, Rechner had overseen a design overhaul of the company’s watch collection, instituted a direct national sales team, and generated 30-percent growth in Swiss Army watch sales. Prior to that, she had been vice president of national accounts for Movado and also worked at Seiko Corp.
In her new presidential role, Rechner manages the Swiss Army and Victorinox brands within the United States, Canada and Caribbean, covering four main product categories: pocket knives, watches, travel gear and apparel. When SNEWS caught up with Rechner in early fall to discuss the details of her new position, she said brand management was the strength she most brought to the table.
“Brand management really boils down to having a vision for the brand. We always want to manage our brand to stay within a certain set of rules, or brand attributes, that we establish,” she said. “Our brand attributes are price-value relationship, exceptional quality, innovation and technical functionality. Anything we do in any product category we develop or that we launch has to live up to all those standards.
“So I think brand management includes a lot of things, besides distribution and selling strategies, it’s managing the attributes of the brand to ensure that the integrity of the brand stays consistent over the course of time,” she added.
One of Rechner’s goals is to increase brand recognition of Victorinox in the United States. Swiss Army has 92 percent brand recognition, but Victorinox lags behind with only 25 percent. She said marketing would play a significant role in the company’s future.
“We’re going to be doing a lot of brand advertising and brand marketing so that the association of Victorinox and Swiss Army becomes much stronger in the consumer’s mind,” she said.” We have a very, very aggressive marketing plan for our brand that we’ve never had before. That’s already significantly different than our previous years of doing business.”
Using her experience, she said she’s gained the know-how to turn a business strategy into an executed business plan and implement it at retail. Everything she is asking her staff to do, she has done at one point in time in her career.
“Good companies can write a lot of business plans, but if the message doesn’t get all the way down to the person standing in front of a retailer selling products, it doesn’t really matter. But if the person who’s standing in front of a retailer or a consumer knows the message, understands the brand, knows where we’re going, there’s a dramatic difference in what a company can accomplish in a very short period of time,” she said.
With her seeming devotion to Swiss Army, the timing of the company’s sale to Victorinox is fortuitous. With the company off the stock market as of August 28, she said Swiss Army can now focus on its products rather than on shareholders’ bottom line agenda.
“Being able to make decisions on where you want to be 10 years from now versus where you want to be next year is a world of difference. It’s long-term decision making versus short-term decision making,” Rechner said. “We are in this to build our brand over the course of time, and we’re not in this to drop earnings per share to the shareholder, per se. Obviously, you can’t spend money without making it, but our desires are to primarily build the brand and that does take time and that does take money and that does take some investment spending.”
Even though shareholders may be off its back, Swiss Army is still trying to make a profit in a challenging retail environment. Additionally, Rechner is trying to consistently offer the highest level of customer service, which involves everything from new product development all the way down to after-sales service, and staying a priority in the customer’s mind.
“That long-term philosophical approach to things is what endures over the course of time in the ebb and flow of economic challenges. We’re always going to have a challenge. Next year something’s going to happen. The stock market will drop; the stock market will rise. A new brand will enter the market — who knows what’ll happen. But taking a long-term view of developing your brand and taking care of your people will certainly get you far ahead of everybody else over the course of the long term. Maybe it won’t help in the short-term blitz, but that’s not what we’re after,” Rechner said.
Rechner is focusing on the company’s licensing ventures in travel gear and apparel. Its luggage launch in 1999 was the most well-received in the past decade, according to industry insiders. Apparel, though, is proving to be a difficult category, she said, but Swiss Army is committed to its licensing partnership with Tropical Sportswear International (TSI).
“Apparel is not an easy business to be in. It’s probably the hardest hit right now in terms of what’s going on at retail. We’re very committed to it, and TSI is very committed to it. We’ve got the right partner and I think that’s the key to any licensing relationship, finding a partner who can take your brand and make it come to life with their particular expertise,” she said.
“We’re very pleased with the results we’ve seen over the last year or two. We will face substantial increases in our business from this year to next. And it’s primarily working on building business in our existing distribution base, as opposed to selling it wherever anybody will take it,” she added.
SNEWS View: Swiss Army already has a certain cache with consumers but creating more brand awareness and more connection with Victorinox will be helpful in driving the brand to bigger and better things. As an insider who has obviously experienced success and seems to have good company and staff support, Rechner should be the right woman for the job. Woman. Now that’s novel, isn’t it? Certainly we know she was chosen on her strengths and talents, and not her gender, but whether she likes it or not, she is a woman. And she not only will be looked at very closely as she makes steps and decisions, but she will also become a bit of a figurehead for other women in the industry. We hope she uses her role wisely. Also, an intriguing move is Swiss Army’s switch from public back to private, which will as Rechner points out free it from stockholders’ wishes and enable it to look forward to what it needs to become what it can.