How a poorly puppy inspired a pet food success story

There were times when Henrietta Morrison felt like giving up when trying to get her pet food idea off the ground.

She knew the type of products she wanted to sell, but finding a factory prepared to make them her way proved far more difficult than expected.

Unlike most mass-produced pet food, Henrietta wanted to use fresh meat as well as less predictable ingredients, such as vegetables and even blueberries.

“They laughed at me – they literally thought I was mad,” she recalls after trekking to factory after factory in 2008.

But as luck would have it, her search coincided with the recession, which meant one factory had spare capacity. It agreed to make pet food using fresh ingredients, and Henrietta’s brand, Lily’s Kitchen, was born.

The idea came to her after Lily, her border terrier, became ill and refused to eat her normal food. In a last-ditch attempt to tempt Lily back to her bowl, Henrietta started cooking meals for her featuring lamb, lentils and vegetables in the kitchen of their north London home.

The trick worked, and got Henrietta thinking: “Why doesn’t pet food smell delicious and have human-grade ingredients?”

She became a “woman on a mission”, quitting in the final stages of a three-year garden design course, and remortgaging her house, in a bid to make her dream a reality.

“I know it sounds crazy, but I had this sense of urgency – I thought I had to set up a pet food company because thousands of people like me are unwittingly feeding their pets food that is making them ill.”

There were just seven products in the initial range – including chicken and turkey casserole for dogs, which remains the company’s most popular product. There are now 90, spanning both wet and dry food for cats as well as dogs, along with “treats”.

After initially selling through vets, independent retailers, and from its own website for about five years, Ocado and then Waitrose started selling Lily’s Kitchen products.

Henrietta went to a Waitrose store to see how the items looked on the shelves, only to be convinced that she had made a terrible mistake by expanding to supermarkets.

Her dog food was directly above a pack of six of bestseller Pedigree Chum – but one can of Lily’s Kitchen cost the same as the multipack from US giant Mars.

“This is not going to work – people are not going to understand the difference,” the 49-year-old remembers thinking at the time. “It did really shake my confidence.”

Those fears turned out to be misplaced – “we have done incredibly well at Waitrose” – and were followed by deals with Tesco, Morrisons, Pets at Home and Sainsbury’s.

Trishna Shah, an analyst at market research group Euromonitor International, says that London-based Lily’s Kitchen is “going from strength to strength” with double-digit growth last year, despite a declining market as pet ownership falls.

Leading brands made by giants such as Mars and Nestle are losing share to smaller players such as Lily’s, Ms Shah adds.

“Pet owners are looking for the same quality of pet food as they would feed themselves,” says the analyst. “As a result, there has been an increased preference for small luxury brands because of their perception to be more healthy and natural.”

Supplying big supermarkets has required Lily’s Kitchen to increase production – and also improve its IT systems to ensure everything worked smoothly.

To help pay for this, and expand sales to several European markets, Henrietta secured private equity funding a couple of years ago, but she maintains a majority share in the business.

It’s a far cry from humble beginnings at her kitchen table with one employee, and having to share the phone. However, Henrietta admits that the first few years were “really gruelling”, with no idea if things would work out. “That’s why you need passion – to keep going,” she says.

Her faith was not misplaced. The business now has an annual turnover of £40m and 67 employees. Many members of staff have come from far bigger consumer goods companies, and all have a stake in the firm.

“There’s always a lot of focus on the start-up phase of a business, but it’s the growth phase I think is really difficult,” says Henrietta.

She adds: “You’re completely having to shape shift at that point – going from two employees, to five, to 10, is manageable, but 85? You need an HR team – it’s a different level.”

Henrietta realised she needed help after her workforce reached 25 people, but admits: “It’s hard to let go – it really is.” The leadership team now consists of seven people, and Henrietta says she has learned to trust their expertise and ideas.

When it comes to the wider pet food sector, Henrietta says that after going to a girls’ school and a women’s college at Cambridge, she found that the lack of women in the industry came as something of a shock.

Even now she can go to a trade function and find “the only other woman there is the person taking the coats”.

She adds: “It happens all the time. If I’m turning up for business lunches and dinners, and I’m the only woman, in this day and age I think that’s really appalling.”

Yet in Henrietta’s view, the lack of women in senior roles across all industries is partly a question of confidence.

“If I interview a senior director-level male candidate he’ll say ‘I’ll definitely be able to handle that’ even if he hasn’t done it before. But a woman will say ‘I just need you to know I’ve never done that before, so I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it’. It’s a question of confidence.”

At Lily’s Kitchen three quarters of the workforce are women.

More The Boss features, which every week profile a different business leader from around the world:

Next admits toughest trading period ‘for 25 years’

Annual profits at Next have fallen 8% after what the retailer described as its most challenging year for 25 years.

The company said pre-tax profits dropped to £726.1m in the 12 months to January, marking the second year in a row that profit has declined.

Next said that sales of full-priced products at its stores tumbled in contrast to online demand.

It blamed “a weak clothing market” as well as “self-inflicted product ranging errors and omissions”.

Full priced sales at its shops fell by 7% but rose by 11.2% online. Total revenue for the year fell by 0.5% to £4.1bn.

Next’s chief executive, Lord Wolfson, said that “in many ways 2017 was the most challenging year we have faced for 25 years”.

He said that while it had been uncomfortable, “it has also prompted us to take a fresh look at almost everything we do” including the structure of its shop portfolio and the “in-store experience”.

‘Quite lazy’

Experts on the retail sector say mid-priced retailers like Next are in a tough spot.

“The middle market is suffering and there isn’t a way back home,” Kate Hardcastle, from consultancy Insight with Passion, told the BBC.

“I think retail generally in this market place has been quite lazy,” she said.

Shoppers have moved towards retailers that are cheaper, or are quicker to respond to fashion trends, according to Ms Hardcastle.

“So you’ve seen the rise of Primark on the discount side, Asos and Zara on the more fashion-orientated side and a consumer very much influenced by Instagram and social media.

“It’s just too much of a turnaround, too much of a challenge for these quite heavyweight retailers who have expected to trade the way that they always have,” Ms Hardcastle said.

The latest retail data from the Office for National Statistics showed a rise in sales at supermarkets in February, but falling trade at non-food stores as consumers choose to spend their money on essential items.

A number of retailers and casual dining outlets have failed or face having to radically restructure their businesses.

Both Toys R Us and Maplin have fallen into administration. Fashion chain New Look this week secured an agreement with its creditors to close 60 UK stores and cut 1,000 jobs.

In the restaurant sector, Jamie’s Italian, burger chain Byron and Prezzo are closing outlets and laying off staff.

Next said that it planned to roll out more concessions across its store after trying out a number of new services at its shop in Manchester’s Arndale Centre.

These include; a florist, a prosecco bar, a restaurant, a children’s activity centre, a café, a card and stationery shop, a barber and “shortly a car showroom”.

It said that it was in talks to add a spa operator and bridalwear concession to the store and said it expected these steps would add £800,000 worth of income to the shop.

Next also said it was in discussions to add other services to its stores including travel, branded footwear and cosmetics.

“In the year ahead we currently plan to open 98 concessions across our store portfolio and expect to generate annualised income of around £5m from these concessions.”

High Street v Online

Despite the fall in profit, the figure was in line with guidance Next provided in its Christmas trading update and its share price was up 7% at £49.53 by midday.

Over the year, profit from Next’s shops fell by 24% to £268.7m. Sales fell 7.9% to £2.1bn in what the retailer said was “a particularly difficult year” for its stores.

However, online profits rose by 7.4% to £461.2m, with revenue up 9.2% at £1.8bn.

Neil Wilson, senior market analyst at ETX Capital, said: “The shift in the sales performance from retail to online begs the question as to when Next will look to shift its operations away from stores and focus more on maximising its online divisional strength.”

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Baselworld: Swiss watchmakers smarten up their act

Luxury watch label Hublot must have spent a small fortune bringing together football royalty – and soccer-mad Usain Bolt – for the launch of a new product.

They were joined by other legends from South America and Europe to add some sporting glitter to the unveiling of Hublot’s first smartwatch, which coincides with the brand’s sponsorship of this summer’s World Cup.

The unveiling at Baselworld, the huge annual watch jamboree in the Swiss city of Basel, was the biggest celebrity event of the show.

That it was for the launch of a smartwatch was also significant. Because this looks like being the year when mainstream Swiss watchmakers accepted that smart devices will be a big part of the wrist-wearing future.

Some Swiss manufacturers have been making smartwatches for years, but in general the industry has been a slow adopter of the technology.

The products being launched at Baselworld, though, are not the traditional black-faced Apple watch design. They are hybrid devices, mixing traditional features with connectivity.

And whereas they were until now all powered by quartz battery technology, Frederique Constant has gone one better with what it claims is the world’s first smartwatch with a mechanical movement.

In other words, the watch is powered by a spring, not a battery.

Many critics of hybrid watches find them a turn-off because the analogue part of the movement – the heart of the watch that makes it work – was quartz.

Frederique Constant’s president, Peter Stas, did not hold back on the significance of the company’s new Hybrid Manufacture watch. “It could be a revolution” for the industry, he says.

Priced at up to $3,800 it’s not cheap, but the watch is aimed at traditional – and wealthy – lovers of luxury timepieces who are interested in also owning a connected product.

The Frederique Constant group also unveiled other smart devices at Baselworld, including the Alpina X, which is aimed at the outdoor sporty type. It has a UV sensor, another first, says Mr Stas.

And to prove the company is at the forefront of the digital game, the watch is being launched with a Kickstarter fund-raising campaign.

This is aimed at getting feedback from what will almost certainly be a younger consumer on the best features and refinements for future developments.

The Kickstarter move underlines a problem facing traditional watchmakers, particularly in Switzerland where most of the major global brands reside.

Sales among younger consumers are falling, with buyers either turning to smart devices or shunning watches entirely.

Apple sold 20 million smartwatches last year, about the same number exported by the entire Swiss watchmaking industry.

“Smartwatches are not going away; Apple is not going away,” says Mr Stas. But he doesn’t want to overstate the Apple threat.

“Hybrid devices are in many ways opening up a whole new market. They are for people who want traditional design plus something that is connected,” he says.

It’s possible Apple could one day consider a hybrid design, although Mr Stas thinks this highly unlikely. “Apple is moving in a different direction. The DNA is different.”

Mondaine Watch also unveiled a smart range this week. However, chairman Andre Bernheim can’t see smart devices overtaking sales of traditional watches any time soon.

“But the time is here when most of the manufacturers will have to have them as part of the product range,” he says.

He also doesn’t see a threat from Silicon Valley or Samsung.

“A watch with a traditional design evokes an emotion. Lovers of good watches are passionate about them. You don’t throw away a good watch, even if it’s broken,” Mr Bernheim says. The marketing challenge for hybrid manufacturers is to convince buyers they are not just a gadget

The emotional link is exactly why traditionalists are sceptical about smartwatches. “For me, it remains a fad; a fashion I think will change,” one small watchmaker told the BBC.

The country’s famous watch and clock heritage is not just used as a marketing tool. There are still scores of artisans hand-crafting pieces prized by collectors and enthusiasts.

Nevertheless, for the president of the Federation of Swiss Watchmakers, Jean-Daniel Pasche, says it is important that the label “Swiss Made” becomes a hallmark of quality smartwatches as well as traditional pieces.

He says: “We cannot say that smartwatches have affected our market. It has created a new market and both can develop alongside each other. It is important that the Swiss industry is a part of that.”

And although the traditionalists extol the artisanal qualities of Swiss watches, Mr Stas is quick to point out the smartwatch is a far from uncomplicated piece of machinery.

Adding connectivity into an already cramped space has taken years of R&D at Frederique Constant.

The movement and electronic parts are all made in-house at the company’s factory in Geneva. The shield that protects batteries in the company’s quartz smartwatches from magnetic interference is patented.

That Swiss manufacturers finally see the technology as part of the mainstream was underlined with the official launch of the first smart device by the luxury brand Hublot, part of France’s LVMH group.

No expense seems to have been spared to promote Hublot’s Big Bang Referee 2018 Fifa World Cup Russia watch (yes, that really is the name) as global football stars of the past were brought together to launch a watch that will have a limited run of 2,018 pieces with a price tag of about $5,800.

But it was a statement of intent from Hublot. The technology-packed watch, designed with Google and Intel, will be on the wrists of referees at this summer’s World Cup.

Crucially for referees, the watch will be linked to new goal-line technology. But users will have pre-match alerts, goal alerts, and up to the second information on such things as red cards and player changes, as well, of course, as standard smartwatch features.

For a country whose watchmaking heritage goes back centuries, it looks like the industry is entering a new era.

Baselworld: Swiss watchmakers smarten up their act

Luxury watch label Hublot must have spent a small fortune bringing together football royalty – and soccer-mad Usain Bolt – for the launch of a new product.

They were joined by other legends from South America and Europe to add some sporting glitter to the unveiling of Hublot’s first smartwatch, which coincides with the brand’s sponsorship of this summer’s World Cup.

The unveiling at Baselworld, the huge annual watch jamboree in the Swiss city of Basel, was the biggest celebrity event of the show.

That it was for the launch of a smartwatch was also significant. Because this looks like being the year when mainstream Swiss watchmakers accepted that smart devices will be a big part of the wrist-wearing future.

Some Swiss manufacturers have been making smartwatches for years, but in general the industry has been a slow adopter of the technology.

The products being launched at Baselworld, though, are not the traditional black-faced Apple watch design. They are hybrid devices, mixing traditional features with connectivity.

And whereas they were until now all powered by quartz battery technology, Frederique Constant has gone one better with what it claims is the world’s first smartwatch with a mechanical movement.

In other words, the watch is powered by a spring, not a battery.

Many critics of hybrid watches find them a turn-off because the analogue part of the movement – the heart of the watch that makes it work – was quartz.

Frederique Constant’s president, Peter Stas, did not hold back on the significance of the company’s new Hybrid Manufacture watch. “It could be a revolution” for the industry, he says.

Priced at up to $3,800 it’s not cheap, but the watch is aimed at traditional – and wealthy – lovers of luxury timepieces who are interested in also owning a connected product.

The Frederique Constant group also unveiled other smart devices at Baselworld, including the Alpina X, which is aimed at the outdoor sporty type. It has a UV sensor, another first, says Mr Stas.

And to prove the company is at the forefront of the digital game, the watch is being launched with a Kickstarter fund-raising campaign.

This is aimed at getting feedback from what will almost certainly be a younger consumer on the best features and refinements for future developments.

The Kickstarter move underlines a problem facing traditional watchmakers, particularly in Switzerland where most of the major global brands reside.

Sales among younger consumers are falling, with buyers either turning to smart devices or shunning watches entirely.

Apple sold 20 million smartwatches last year, about the same number exported by the entire Swiss watchmaking industry.

“Smartwatches are not going away; Apple is not going away,” says Mr Stas. But he doesn’t want to overstate the Apple threat.

“Hybrid devices are in many ways opening up a whole new market. They are for people who want traditional design plus something that is connected,” he says.

It’s possible Apple could one day consider a hybrid design, although Mr Stas thinks this highly unlikely. “Apple is moving in a different direction. The DNA is different.”

Mondaine Watch also unveiled a smart range this week. However, chairman Andre Bernheim can’t see smart devices overtaking sales of traditional watches any time soon.

“But the time is here when most of the manufacturers will have to have them as part of the product range,” he says.

He also doesn’t see a threat from Silicon Valley or Samsung.

“A watch with a traditional design evokes an emotion. Lovers of good watches are passionate about them. You don’t throw away a good watch, even if it’s broken,” Mr Bernheim says. The marketing challenge for hybrid manufacturers is to convince buyers they are not just a gadget

The emotional link is exactly why traditionalists are sceptical about smartwatches. “For me, it remains a fad; a fashion I think will change,” one small watchmaker told the BBC.

The country’s famous watch and clock heritage is not just used as a marketing tool. There are still scores of artisans hand-crafting pieces prized by collectors and enthusiasts.

Nevertheless, for the president of the Federation of Swiss Watchmakers, Jean-Daniel Pasche, says it is important that the label “Swiss Made” becomes a hallmark of quality smartwatches as well as traditional pieces.

He says: “We cannot say that smartwatches have affected our market. It has created a new market and both can develop alongside each other. It is important that the Swiss industry is a part of that.”

And although the traditionalists extol the artisanal qualities of Swiss watches, Mr Stas is quick to point out the smartwatch is a far from uncomplicated piece of machinery.

Adding connectivity into an already cramped space has taken years of R&D at Frederique Constant.

The movement and electronic parts are all made in-house at the company’s factory in Geneva. The shield that protects batteries in the company’s quartz smartwatches from magnetic interference is patented.

That Swiss manufacturers finally see the technology as part of the mainstream was underlined with the official launch of the first smart device by the luxury brand Hublot, part of France’s LVMH group.

No expense seems to have been spared to promote Hublot’s Big Bang Referee 2018 Fifa World Cup Russia watch (yes, that really is the name) as global football stars of the past were brought together to launch a watch that will have a limited run of 2,018 pieces with a price tag of about $5,800.

But it was a statement of intent from Hublot. The technology-packed watch, designed with Google and Intel, will be on the wrists of referees at this summer’s World Cup.

Crucially for referees, the watch will be linked to new goal-line technology. But users will have pre-match alerts, goal alerts, and up to the second information on such things as red cards and player changes, as well, of course, as standard smartwatch features.

For a country whose watchmaking heritage goes back centuries, it looks like the industry is entering a new era.

Baselworld: The watchmakers keeping Switzerland’s traditions alive

There’s a separate area inside the world’s biggest watch fair where the showbusiness and champagne is less conspicuous.

The huge Baselworld arena, in the Swiss city of Basel, is this week hosting a catalogue of ‘A’ list celebrities to add glitter to the latest product launches from the big luxury brands.

However, you’re unlikely to find Usain Bolt or Colin Firth at Les Ateliers, a quieter quarter of the six-day event where many smaller, independent watchmakers reveal their wares.

But you will find men like Kari Voutilainen, who produces about 50 wristwatches a year which sell for tens of thousands of pounds – minimum – and take years to design and make.

Les Ateliers is also a place for the avant garde.

Maximillian Busser & Friends (MB&F) makes what it calls miniature machines, many of which, says director Charris Yadigaroglou, have no “rational reason” to be built other than to demonstrate the beauty and craftsmanship of watchmaking.

Sales slump

Major players such as Swatch Group, Tag Heuer, and Rolex dominate Swiss watchmaking – and will dominate Baselworld.

But the country still has scores of independent watchmakers turning out precious pieces for collectors and enthusiasts.

And with Switzerland’s watch industry suffering a sales slump in recent years, many firms have struggled.

It’s important that the country’s independent sector thrives, says Jean-Daniel Pasche, President of the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry.

They are not just a source of skills, training and innovation; they are a link with Switzerland’s watchmaking heritage dating back hundreds of years.

“The independent sector adds to the richness of the industry,” Mr Pasche says.

Mr Voutilainen, born in Finland in 1962, wanted to be part of this heritage, and came to Switzerland in 1988 to learn his trade.

He’s been fascinated by the mechanics and detail of watchmaking since childhood, and is now regarded as one of the world’s foremost experts in the field.

Slow time

Made to order, his pieces have a starting price of about 72,000 Swiss francs, rising to about 360,000.

The watches nod to a classical style of design. “I do not like geometrical forms, I like soft curves,” Mr Voutilainen says. “I like vintage cars – a Jaguar E-Type or old Maserati. They are just stunning.

“Designs today are industrialised. Sometimes, a product looks too perfect because it’s machine-made.”

In his workshop at an old house in an idyllic rural setting in the Motiers district, Mr Voutilainen and his 22 staff design, fabricate and assemble timepieces.

No parts are bought in. Everything from the tiniest screw, the dials, and the movements – the beating heart of a watch – are made in-house.

But even someone as renowned as Mr Voutilainen faces challenges in a changing industry. The big labels have grown through takeovers and mergers. Their global marketing clout gives them huge power.

“This bigger industry is, for us, the biggest challenge to finding customers,” Mr Voutilainen says. He has no marketing budget or communications team, and carries no stock at his workshop.

And he is strict about spending at least 60% of his time making watches, lest he lose sight of his reasons for setting up as an independent watchmaker.

He says: “There is an ever-lurking danger that you become a manager and are never behind the bench anymore. The product will suffer, and within the shortest time you have sold your soul to the devil.”

But buyers must be patient, as time is not something Mr Voutilainen will rush. A “simple” watch takes about 12-14 months to produce. “For more complicated pieces, it may take three, four, five years,” he says.

Concept watches

Staying true to the craft can be difficult, however, when bigger brands can get products to market more quickly and cheaply.

MB&F’s Mr Yadigaroglou says the independent sector is suffering as the big brands expand. “It was big is beautiful. Everything could be done in-house,” he says.

“But some of the skills were so specialist, it was not practical to do it all in house. So they made suppliers sign confidentiality agreements about who they worked for.”

MB&F has a different business model. The word “friends” in the company’s name – Maximillian Busser & Friends – refers to the independent artisans it uses.

The company has a core staff of 20, but a network of specialists for specific projects. “Most are Swiss, but we did once go to South Korea to get a particular bezel on one piece,” Mr Yadigaroglou says.

MB&F produces about 300 watches a year, and does not make-to-order. “We start with the concept – something that we think is cool,” Mr Yadigaroglou says. “Then we try to find a buyer. It’s a risky way of doing things.”

Arguably, the firms facing the biggest challenges are those independents just snapping at the heels of the bigger brands.

Whereas Voutilainen or MB&F make strictly-limited pieces for a select few, the family-owned firm Paul Picot is trying to double in size in order to compete.

“I think we have a quality comparable to international high-end brands,” says chief executive Massimo Rossi. But he doesn’t have their brand and marketing power.

Paul Picot sells about 5,000 watches a year, with a core price bracket of between 2,000 and 10,000 Swiss francs (£1,500-£7,500).

But for something more complicated – the firm is becoming a specialist in enamelling designs on the dials – the price can easily rise to about 40,000 francs.

But Paul Picot is neither exclusive enough to charge tens of thousands of francs per watch, nor big enough to compete with more powerful brands.

“We need to grow,” Mr Rossi says. “5,000 pieces is not enough. We would like to go to 10,000 pieces. But even that is still very limited for the price range we are in.”

The company buys in most of its watch parts, leaving its 12 employees to concentrate on design and creating specialist pieces. “For our watch price, it’s just not viable to produce everything in house,” Mr Rossi says.

Despite the constraints, he says it’s a good time to think about expanding the firm. The industry’s sales slump looks to be over, according to figures released this week by the Swiss Watch Federation.

Swatch Group, Switzerland’s biggest watch company, returned to profit last year and is bullish about 2018.

“I hope worst is over. I’m convinced things will start to become better,” Mr Rossi says. The big brands always recover first: “With luck, the independent watchmakers will not be far behind them.”

Baselworld: The watchmakers keeping Switzerland’s traditions alive

There’s a separate area inside the world’s biggest watch fair where the showbusiness and champagne is less conspicuous.

The huge Baselworld arena, in the Swiss city of Basel, is this week hosting a catalogue of ‘A’ list celebrities to add glitter to the latest product launches from the big luxury brands.

However, you’re unlikely to find Usain Bolt or Colin Firth at Les Ateliers, a quieter quarter of the six-day event where many smaller, independent watchmakers reveal their wares.

But you will find men like Kari Voutilainen, who produces about 50 wristwatches a year which sell for tens of thousands of pounds – minimum – and take years to design and make.

Les Ateliers is also a place for the avant garde.

Maximillian Busser & Friends (MB&F) makes what it calls miniature machines, many of which, says director Charris Yadigaroglou, have no “rational reason” to be built other than to demonstrate the beauty and craftsmanship of watchmaking.

Sales slump

Major players such as Swatch Group, Tag Heuer, and Rolex dominate Swiss watchmaking – and will dominate Baselworld.

But the country still has scores of independent watchmakers turning out precious pieces for collectors and enthusiasts.

And with Switzerland’s watch industry suffering a sales slump in recent years, many firms have struggled.

It’s important that the country’s independent sector thrives, says Jean-Daniel Pasche, President of the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry.

They are not just a source of skills, training and innovation; they are a link with Switzerland’s watchmaking heritage dating back hundreds of years.

“The independent sector adds to the richness of the industry,” Mr Pasche says.

Mr Voutilainen, born in Finland in 1962, wanted to be part of this heritage, and came to Switzerland in 1988 to learn his trade.

He’s been fascinated by the mechanics and detail of watchmaking since childhood, and is now regarded as one of the world’s foremost experts in the field.

Slow time

Made to order, his pieces have a starting price of about 72,000 Swiss francs, rising to about 360,000.

The watches nod to a classical style of design. “I do not like geometrical forms, I like soft curves,” Mr Voutilainen says. “I like vintage cars – a Jaguar E-Type or old Maserati. They are just stunning.

“Designs today are industrialised. Sometimes, a product looks too perfect because it’s machine-made.”

In his workshop at an old house in an idyllic rural setting in the Motiers district, Mr Voutilainen and his 22 staff design, fabricate and assemble timepieces.

No parts are bought in. Everything from the tiniest screw, the dials, and the movements – the beating heart of a watch – are made in-house.

But even someone as renowned as Mr Voutilainen faces challenges in a changing industry. The big labels have grown through takeovers and mergers. Their global marketing clout gives them huge power.

“This bigger industry is, for us, the biggest challenge to finding customers,” Mr Voutilainen says. He has no marketing budget or communications team, and carries no stock at his workshop.

And he is strict about spending at least 60% of his time making watches, lest he lose sight of his reasons for setting up as an independent watchmaker.

He says: “There is an ever-lurking danger that you become a manager and are never behind the bench anymore. The product will suffer, and within the shortest time you have sold your soul to the devil.”

But buyers must be patient, as time is not something Mr Voutilainen will rush. A “simple” watch takes about 12-14 months to produce. “For more complicated pieces, it may take three, four, five years,” he says.

Concept watches

Staying true to the craft can be difficult, however, when bigger brands can get products to market more quickly and cheaply.

MB&F’s Mr Yadigaroglou says the independent sector is suffering as the big brands expand. “It was big is beautiful. Everything could be done in-house,” he says.

“But some of the skills were so specialist, it was not practical to do it all in house. So they made suppliers sign confidentiality agreements about who they worked for.”

MB&F has a different business model. The word “friends” in the company’s name – Maximillian Busser & Friends – refers to the independent artisans it uses.

The company has a core staff of 20, but a network of specialists for specific projects. “Most are Swiss, but we did once go to South Korea to get a particular bezel on one piece,” Mr Yadigaroglou says.

MB&F produces about 300 watches a year, and does not make-to-order. “We start with the concept – something that we think is cool,” Mr Yadigaroglou says. “Then we try to find a buyer. It’s a risky way of doing things.”

Arguably, the firms facing the biggest challenges are those independents just snapping at the heels of the bigger brands.

Whereas Voutilainen or MB&F make strictly-limited pieces for a select few, the family-owned firm Paul Picot is trying to double in size in order to compete.

“I think we have a quality comparable to international high-end brands,” says chief executive Massimo Rossi. But he doesn’t have their brand and marketing power.

Paul Picot sells about 5,000 watches a year, with a core price bracket of between 2,000 and 10,000 Swiss francs (£1,500-£7,500).

But for something more complicated – the firm is becoming a specialist in enamelling designs on the dials – the price can easily rise to about 40,000 francs.

But Paul Picot is neither exclusive enough to charge tens of thousands of francs per watch, nor big enough to compete with more powerful brands.

“We need to grow,” Mr Rossi says. “5,000 pieces is not enough. We would like to go to 10,000 pieces. But even that is still very limited for the price range we are in.”

The company buys in most of its watch parts, leaving its 12 employees to concentrate on design and creating specialist pieces. “For our watch price, it’s just not viable to produce everything in house,” Mr Rossi says.

Despite the constraints, he says it’s a good time to think about expanding the firm. The industry’s sales slump looks to be over, according to figures released this week by the Swiss Watch Federation.

Swatch Group, Switzerland’s biggest watch company, returned to profit last year and is bullish about 2018.

“I hope worst is over. I’m convinced things will start to become better,” Mr Rossi says. The big brands always recover first: “With luck, the independent watchmakers will not be far behind them.”