If it’s not fun to do, it’s not worth doing”. Arun D’Silva’s simple life philosophy has helped him navigate life’s ups and downs. A journey that has kept taking him back to one of the world’s prettiest corners. Arun is the Director and Co-Founder of Retail Interface (that represents premier brands like Frederique Constant and Alpina), a company that has changed the way Indian consumers buy bespoke Swiss watches. The road to Geneva wasn’t always smooth, especially at the turn of the millennium when he found himself at the crossroads.
We all need an anchor. Arun probably found his in sports. Back as a college kid in Punjab, Arun excelled in almost every sport he dabbled in. He was a national-level swimmer, squash player and footballer. Sports might have taken a backseat as he graduated from XLRI (Xavier School of Management, Jamshedpur) in the 1980s, but it has always been a part of his identity and his daily routine. It’s why he still makes time to ride almost every single day — he has three horses that he works with. “I love the challenge of Eventing. It’s the horse-riding equivalent of a triathlon.” Arun’s horses in Bengaluru are his constant companions, he never lets his passion for show-jumping and dressage fade, even on a busy work day.
Riding can be a physically demanding sport, it’s why his tri-weekly gym routines help and so does his passion for cycling. “I’m one of the only individuals who has completed the Tour of the Nilgiris on five occasions.” Arun’s pride is justified. 800km in 7 days over tough terrain can test most 20-somethings. “There’s nothing that can’t be done.”
Call it naivety or courage, but Arun’s self-belief is rock solid. A strong belief system that was put to the test in 2000. Arun was one of the casualties of India’s first recession that followed the country’s bold liberalisation policy of the early 1990s. Back then, the only way for MBAs from premier business schools was up. Being laid off is tough, even tougher when you imagine you’re infallible. It wasn’t just self-belief that helped Arun overcome this bump; it was his belief in relationships and the importance of carving your niche. First it was HR Consulting: Arun leveraged his rich HR experience to develop a competency mapping solution that large corporate houses found invaluable. “The decision to embark on my own paid off. Eventually, I found my niche in retail solutions.”
It wasn’t a planned foray; it’s probably why it paid off. Arun soon realised it was his corporate stints with the Oberoi hotels and working with international clients for Eicher’s luxury women’s footwear export unit that he enjoyed the most. He leaned heavily on this luxury and lifestyle experience as be became a successful franchise store operator for brands like Titan Watches and formidable apparel brands in the 2000s like Indigo Nation. At a time when malls were a non-entity in the Indian retail space, brands like Titan held sway through their destination stores. When Swiss watch major Raymond Weil planned their ambitious India re-entry (they retailed in India back in the 1960s), it presented a big opportunity for Arun and his fledgling Retail solutions company — Retail Interface.
What started as a consulting assignment blossomed into a wider relationship; eventually Retail Interface almost became a subsidiary of Raymond Weil. But Arun opted to retain the company’s identity at a time when Raymond Weil was ready to buy him out.
Another bold decision that paid off. “My faith in business relationships was put to the test again”. His frequent visits to Switzerland helped him build strong relationships with some of the country’s iconic, heirloom watch brands. It’s what held him in good stead when Retail Interface parted ways with Raymond Weil. In 2011, Arun struck a strategic alliance with Frederique Constant, that has grown into a winning relationship in India. The brand has held its own in a cluttered luxury segment with brands like Longines, Omega and Tag Heuer.
I see Arun’s trademark confidence surface when our conversation drifts towards the invasion of smartwatches. The Apple Watch’s rise has seen a mix of reactions from Swiss watchmakers but Arun remains unperturbed. He views it as a device you wear on your wrist and not a watch. He goes a step further — “Apple has actually expanded the market for the luxury watch”. He builds his case by breaking down the smartwatch audience into two sub categories — first-time buyers who’ve never owned an heirloom watch and those who own multiple Swiss watches and add an Apple Watch to their collection.
“I believe a first-time buyer will eventually gravitate towards a Swiss watch. It’s one reason why brands like Frederique Constant have added smartwatch functionality and yet still let you standout in a boardroom with your own distinct identity.” It's this optimism and deep understanding of the Indian consumer that has helped Arun widen his portfolio of brands.
His obsession with Switzerland doesn’t end with watches, he’s tried to emulate the Swiss fixation for quality and integrity.
Values that haven’t just helped him build one of India’s most successful watch distribution and service companies, but also shaped his passion and commitment for sports and the outdoors. His show-jumping needs the same precision as a bespoke Swiss watch.
Arun’s tips on how to buy a luxury watch in India
1. Stick to Swiss brands until you become a seasoned watch collector.
2. The key is to determine your use case scenario or answer the question — why am I buying a watch? Choose a classical design with a metal case and a leather strap if you’re keen to make a style statement. If you’re a sporty or active user, choose alloy or carbon fibre cases with rubber or special water-resistant bracelets. These can look natty in a boardroom too. If you’re a diving enthusiast, choose a watch that boasts of at least 100m water resistance. If you need visibility at night, look for watches that have luminescence without having to depend on external light sources or batteries.
3. If you’re gifting a watch to a senior citizen, choose a watch with a quartz movement or a watch winder, and teach them how to use it.
4. Don’t always buy the most advertised brand. There are many Swiss brands that don’t advertise heavily, but have a long-established heritage in watch-making and that quintessential Swiss pedigree.
5. Make sure the brand has a dependable service network in India. Once you buy the watch, always choose an authorised service centre, even if it’s for a battery change.
Pictures: Bhanu Prakash Chandra