PARIS — When it comes to beating the odds, Severin Wunderman is a role model.

This story first appeared in the June 14, 2002 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The much-respected chairman of Swiss luxury watch firm Corum built Gucci’s watch business and transformed the beleaguered Corum into a brand retailers rave about. Now, Wunderman is about to add a new title to his resume: Hollywood actor.

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Wunderman will make his silver-screen debut this month in Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi thriller “Minority Report,” starring Tom Cruise, which opens June 21. The filmmaker, who met Wunderman through his Shoah Foundation, also cast him for a minor role in “Catch Me If You Can,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, set for a holiday release. In the next installment of the “Indiana Jones” series, Wunderman stars opposite Harrison Ford as the fearless archaeologist’s nemesis.

Wunderman is tickled that he plays killers in all of the films.

“I’m a good killer,” he quipped. “I find it funny because in life I’m a real survivor.”

True enough, since his own life could be the subject of a movie. Now 63, he survived the Holocaust as a child hidden in a home for blind children in Brussels. At 16, he immigrated to America and initially lived on New York’s streets. He ultimately entered the watch business as a salesman and by 1968 had convinced Aldo Gucci to award him the Gucci watch license, which made him a multimillionaire.

Wunderman’s success has not been slowed by formidable health problems. Six years ago, when he was diagnosed with incurable lung cancer, he searched out the most prominent specialist in the world, who at first refused treatment. Wunderman persisted and pledged $5 million in research funding a year for every year he continued to live.

“I don’t believe in giving up, I only see opportunities,” said Wunderman.

The brisk storyteller recalled how he landed the deal with Gucci — by serendipity and through hot tempers.

“I was downstairs at [Aldo Gucci’s] New York office and wanted to see him,” he recounted. “I called his direct line by mistake. He was waiting for a call from one of his lady friends. I said, `Just the man I wanted to speak to.’ And he started cussing me out. Gucci wasn’t a man of patience.”

But Wunderman retaliated. In a twist of fortuitous providence, he had been dating a girl from Florence, Gucci’s hometown. Not only could he speak Italian — he could respond to Gucci’s heated insults in local Florentine dialect.

“We cussed each other out for about five minutes,” he continued. “Gucci asked where I was. I told him downstairs. He said, `Don’t move. I’m coming to bash in your face.’ I told him, `Don’t bother. I’m coming up.’ We ran into each other in the stairs and realized how absurd the situation was. We erupted in laughter and went for a drink. The rest is history.”

In only his second year of their partnership, Wunderman was selling a million Gucci watches a year. His concept was to bring the mystique of the Gucci name to a midpriced product, while executing tight control of distribution to preserve the brand image. In 1998, the last year the company operated under Wunderman, sales of Gucci watches topped $550 million.

Gucci bought back its watch division in November 1997 — part of chairman Domenico De Sole’s and creative head Tom Ford’s decision to cut licenses — from Severin Montres group for $150 million. Despite a two-year noncompete clause, Wunderman had already identified his next project: Corum.

“I had to wait. But I got to work,” he said. “I redesigned the whole Corum line and set out a game plan.”

Wunderman acquired 90 percent of the high-end brand in January 2000 for an undisclosed sum. Jean-Rene Bannwart, the son of the company’s founder, retained the remaining 10 percent.

Wunderman moved the brand into the middle market, where he had excelled at Gucci, by introducing a less expensive Boutique collection. But he built on the brand’s heritage for avant-garde, high-end pieces, too. Corum watches retail between about $795 and $1.8 million.

While sales were only $30 million — and losses $7 million — when he took over, they soared to $130 million last year, with profits jumping to $14 million. Wunderman projects sales will peak at about $200 million within the next two years. Swiss watch brands have become a hot commodity for luxury conglomerates like LVMH, Gucci Group and Richemont, but Wunderman said Corum is not for sale. He thrives on his independent status and criticized the prevalent strategy for branded stores, which many groups are using to control distribution, boost margins and pump up profit.

“Retailers are my biggest allies,” he said, adding that he took over all distribution rights when he bought Corum. “That way, I can give the retailer a little better margin. If you were a retailer, what product would you try to sell first? Those that make the most money. I try my best to be sure that is a Corum watch.”

Wunderman said he admires the few remaining independent brands, such as Chopard and Franck Mueller, which he cited as his most immediate competition.

“As an independent, you have the ability to react quickly,” he said. “The big groups have to go through the chain of command. I’m like a destroyer and they are big aircraft carriers. If I need to change course, I can stop on a dime. Do you know how long it takes to reverse the course of an aircraft carrier? Hours.”

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