Time For A Change At Wittnauer

Luxury watchmaker now in black hands

Wittnauer International Inc. recently changed hands when the company was acquired by Composite Holdings L.L.C., an African American management team, in a deal valued at $34 million.
The purchase of the New Rochelle, New York-based timekeeper from Westinghouse Electric Co. was “a great opportunity to get into an industry that has shown double-digit growth over the last 10 years,” says the firm’s new chairman, Robert L. Coleman. He and Vice Chairman Charles D. Watkins own 84% of Composite, which privately owns 100% of Wittnauer.

Coleman, 52, was formerly a St. Louis Seven-Up bottler. Watkins, 51, previously owned a concert promotions firm. Together, they’d held Tennessee franchise rights for Zipps Drive Thru, a restaurant chain.

Looking to move away from the food and beverage industry, the duo approached Westinghouse about purchasing Micarta, another of its divisions. Although they were outbid by the International Paper Co., the company gave Watkins’ team the option of bidding on several other properties, one of which was Wittnauer. After securing bank financing, they closed the deal in December, concluding 20 months of negotiations.

The Movado Group is the perceived leader among dozens of companies in the $100-$1,000 price range, which includes Bulova, H.E. Cross and Seiko.

“It’s perhaps the most hotly contested part of the watch industry,” says David Leibowitz, a managing director at Burnham Securities in New York. “Now it’s a matter of the styling, positioning and pricing of the product,” he says. “Their ability to reestablish a brand presence is the paramount concern. To that end, Watkins plans to fully promote the Wittnauer name. He projects sales of $50 million this year.

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