Ruediger Albers Celebrates 35 Years At Wempe New York

Ruediger Albers stands out among his peers in the watch industry, not only for his passion for timepieces but for his unpretentious persona. Even after 35 successful years at Wempe’s U.S. flagship store, he is universally admired for being the same modest, soft-spoken and attentive person that he was when he first started working for the watch and jewelry retailer in 1987.

As president of Wempe USA, he manages a 5,500-square-foot retail operation on the ground floor of the Peninsula New York hotel with 22 watch brands, including in-store Rolex and Patek Philippe boutiques, and a growing jewelry business.

Wempe is a family-owned company with 34 retail locations, primarily in Europe. The New York store is the only retail presence Wempe has in the U.S. but it is far from a lonely outpost. The luxury watch and jewelry store on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 55th street regularly produces more than $100 million in sales per year. Its showroom floor hums with sales staff engaged in detailed conversations with clients, often with glasses of champagne in hand.

It’s common for Albers to be in the center of the hustle and bustle supporting his staff and engaging with customers. His easy-going personable style makes people feel so comfortable that in many cases new customers are unaware they are interacting with the store’s top executive.

Recently, an event was held in the store honoring Albers for his longevity and success. In addition to longtime clients and employees, those in attendance included several members of the Wempe family who flew in from Germany to honor the man they entrusted with this job.

“There was so much love in the air, Albers said. “Many people were there from the day I first started and they brought their kids which was so touching.”

To further commemorate the milestone anniversary, Albers curated a special exhibition of his favorite pieces from Wempe’s museum collection in Hamburg. The selection includes timepieces from the company’s early days of watchmaking in the 1800s, co-branded limited editions, and important watches from iconic watch brands along with a high jewelry necklace from Wempe’s own in-house collection. It is on display during the month of October at Wempe’s Fifth Avenue boutique.

Below is an interview with Albers discussing his 35 years with Wempe.

Anthony DeMarco: How did you end up in America working at Wempe’s New York location?

Rudy Albers: I was working for my parents. They had a little watch and jewelry shop in the countryside in Germany. I was already an adventurer, backpacking and hitchhiking throughout Europe. Wempe was looking for a watchmaker-slash-sales professional for its Fifth Avenue location. I immediately felt that I wanted this job. I applied and had a great conversation with Hellmut Wempe (the former head of the business). A letter came two weeks later. I didn’t open it for hours because I knew there were plane tickets inside. My parents groomed me to take over their business and they weren’t happy with my decision to join Wempe. I started in Hamburg for nine months to learn the business before being dispatched to New York.

AD: You came to Wempe USA in 1987 at the age of 25 primarily as a master watchmaker. How did you end up moving into sales full-time and eventually as president of Wempe’s U.S. operation?

RA: The manager at this time was a young woman who was in charge since it opened in 1980. She fell in love with the son of the Max Mara founder. She eventually moved to a castle and I moved into her office. Suddenly, I became the manager of the Fifth Avenue store.

AD: How were the early years?

RA: The early years were not easy. Hellmut (Wempe) said that in two years if business doesn’t get any better the store would close. That’s because at that time we moved across the street to the Peninsula Hotel. The space doubled and the rent tripled. I had basically no management experience. It was a leap of faith for both of us. I think he was happy about that.

AD: Did you have any experience that would help you in your new position?

RA: I did go to a school for a master’s in watchmaking. It was like a mini-MBA. They not only teach you everything about watches, but they show you how to basically operate your own store, including training employees and all the other aspects to it. It was a one-year crash course. Managing Wempe was certainly a lot at my tender age (28) and suddenly to be in charge of people older than me. I think I motivated them and was lucky enough to attract people passionate about fine watches and jewelry.

AD: Was the transition natural or were there some challenges?

RA: I felt at home immediately when I got here. One of the challenges with the store was the exchange rate between European currency (pre-euro) and U.S. currency was four to one. Tourists wouldn’t shop here and Americans traveled to Europe in droves to shop over there. I think all the brands realized that these price discrepancies were not sustainable, so they coordinated prices worldwide. Then the euro came.

AD: What made you agree to move to the U.S. and start a whole new life? Did you plan to stay for so long?

RA: I never set myself a deadline but the moment I arrived it was clear to me I was not leaving anytime soon. I came from a village with 2,000 people. I just loved New York.

AD: Do you still find the time to work with watches? If not, do you miss it?

RA: When I first came to New York, I was working at night at a small Chopard atelier in Rockefeller Center doing their repairs when I wasn’t working at Wempe. I was working non-stop basically. I was able to find very experienced watchmakers and we made sure they undergone rigorous training with all the major brands. We’re one of just two Patek Philippe service centers in the U.S. with level II certification. I have constant conversations with my service team. Because of my experience, I understand what’s possible and what’s not. I don’t ask for the impossible. Investment in parts is a challenge because the costs are staggering. Unless you have the proper parts, you can’t deliver the quality of work expected. They have a friend in me in that regard.

AD: How has the store expanded over the years?

RA: Our first store was across the street. It was deep and narrow. Obviously, our location in the landmark Peninsula building is more elegant and we have a corner location with more window space at 55th Street and Fifth Avenue. It was definitely the right foundation to set the store for success. Our first expansion was in 2001 and in 2016 we took on two additional spaces. We now have eight windows and 5,500 square feet. It all makes sense. It allowed us to create an entire salon for jewelry, which was treated like a stepchild. When I used to attend a jewelry industry event every year, people had no idea who I was working for. Now whenever we have brand training, they always make sure to include someone from Wempe. They come home like rock stars recognized for working for an industry icon, a premier place for watches and jewelry.

AD: What were some of your best experiences at Wempe during the past 35 years?

RA: I have boxes of memorabilia. I’ve been to the Oscars, Wimbledon you name it. I’ve had so much access and experiences. My biggest moment was the first time we crossed the $100 million sales mark in 2017. I vividly remember the time Hellmut (Wempe) said that we have two more years to turn the business around. Nobody ever expected that we could reach those heights. When I first started, we celebrated a $10,000 day. It began as a puzzle. It started with a different mindset in order to find professional and passionate people and elevate the selection of products. We now carry 22 watch brands. We have in-depth collections, and we have everything. Not just best sellers. We have marketing services, a watchmaking department. All of those came together. Now we have online shopping so we can cover other areas in the U.S.

AD: How has the industry changed during the past 35 years?

RA: The consolidation in the industry with many brands being owned by a particular company became a new group dynamic we had to adjust to. Information is easily accessible so you have to be on top of what’s new. Having well informed clients is just the norm today. With Instagram, newsletters and other access, the information is out there so you have to be with it.

The market has shifted and getting a watch takes some planning and managing the expectation of customers. Not everybody understands that you can’t just walk in and get what you want. There’s just too much demand for some models. This is not some game played by companies. They are eager to get watches on new wrists. The prices in the secondary market and skyrocketing demand have been very challenging when it comes to customer expectations. Not everybody understands that these watches are in great demand despite the best efforts by the companies to produce them.

AD: How are you preparing for the future?

RA: The next generation is so important to our company. Two family members in their 20s have entered the business: Chiara Wempe, and her brother Scott. We’ll groom them to take over. Their grandfather (Hellmut) is still active. He’s sharp as a tact and a wonderful man.

I’m 59 years old so l have a lot of time left. I discovered cycling and ride almost every morning around Central Park. Because of this I don’t want to hear from the young people that they’re tired. It’s still fun to be in the store and I see it as important to have a team around me that is built in a way to carry on this legacy and expand it. There’s lots of work left and I still have lots of energy. My office is in middle of store, in the middle of action where I’m accessible to the team and customers. It gives me a tremendous edge in keeping up to date with the merchandise, manage and motivate the team, and be there as a mentor.

AD: What’s the best thing about being in the store every day?

RA: Being with people. No two days are the same. People, coming in all walks of life from every industry so you have very interesting conversations. I get text messages from Sylvester Stallone. He comes to the store. I have to do lists but not much gets done because I’m so accessible. I get the list done after hours.

AD: What lessons did you learn during Covid?

RA: We obviously had a huge influx of international visitors but over time it has shifted more to the local market. When covid came we kept a close relationship with customers. We had to reach out to people as they still had birthdays, anniversaries and other moments. It allowed us to a do much better than we anticipated when the shutdown happened.

AD: How have you changed over the years?

RA: The biggest compliment I get is when people say I haven’t changed all these years. We have a new woman in the HR department and we took a long train ride together. She said you are completely different then I’ve imagined someone who runs a store doing $100 million in sales a year.

I am who I am. I haven’t changed and I don’t plan to change. The relaxed style in which we handle our clients will remain. It’s not transactional, it’s experiential. We don’t count how many times we are with our customers. Word of mouth is the strongest and least expensive advertising vehicle. People come to have this relationship. I’m on the sales floor and we get so busy I find myself having to take care of customers. Sometimes they say, “I didn’t realize I was dealing with the president of the company.”

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