Case Study: Christopher Ward

Learn how we helped grow this premium watch brand: “BGF were straightforward, transparent and reasonable, which isn’t always the case in private equity”.

5 August 2020

In many ways, the Christopher Ward watch brand was born out of indignation. “We were trying to democratise luxury watches,” explains Mike France, who co-founded the business with Peter Ellis, after they sold the Early Learning Centre in 2004.

The pair had been shocked to learn that some Swiss watches sold for more than 30 times what they cost to make. “We discovered that many Swiss brands were, in our minds at least, charging outrageous amounts of money for their watches. We realised we could deliver equal quality but at a much lower price.”

Too good to be true?

Joined by their former colleague Chris Ward, the three founders went about setting up an online-only business model that was “significantly different to anybody else’s,” and by June 2005 their first watches went on sale.

Initial sales proved painfully slow, until orders suddenly started coming in from around the world – including a scientific mission at the North Pole. Unbeknownst to the team, the brand had sold a watch to a well-respected watch collector living in Tasmania, an enthusiast who regularly posted on watch forums.

“He actually ordered a watch with the intention of exposing us because he assumed we were con merchants!” explains Mike. “He’d never seen a watch with that quality of movement in it for the price we were selling it at, so he assumed it was fake.”

However, once the collector opened the watch and saw it was genuine, instead of writing an exposé, he posted a glowing review on the forum – just in time for Christmas. “It sparked a lot of interest in the community, until our watches were being talked about more than Rolex,” recalls Mike.

Not a traditional PE firm

The next decade saw steady growth for the brand and, by 2017, the founders were ready to take on an external partner. The question was, who? “We weren’t short of suitors and a number of people had made approaches to us, and then my cousin suggested BGF. He thought they would be a good fit for us culturally and from an appetite point of view.”

After meeting with BGF in November 2018, Mike was impressed: “They were straightforward, transparent and reasonable, which isn’t always the case in private equity. It felt very much as if we would be in partnership with them.” What followed was a smooth process and, in July 2019, BGF provided £6.25 million of backing.

Christopher Ward's leadership team
“BGF were straightforward, transparent and reasonable, which isn’t always the case in private equity.”
Mike France
Co-Founder of Christopher Ward

Value creation

BGF’s investment enabled Christopher Ward to launch a major marketing campaign across London and the US, as well as build a new website and invest in new systems.

“We’re investing in new systems and people to keep pace with what we hope will be a very exciting ride for Christopher Ward from here on in.”

Meanwhile, we also introduced the firm to Steve Kershaw, former group director of ad agency BBH, who now serves as the company’s non-executive chair.

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