A tragic flying accident provided the inspiration for Giles and Nick English to transform a family passion for watches into one of the leading brands of chronometer. Nick Martindale discovers the unlikely story behind Bremont

By his own admission, Giles English and his brother Nick had a fairly unconventional upbringing. "My father was an amazing guy," he recalls. "He had a PhD in aeronautical engineering from Cambridge and he set up his own business that he took public. But he also had this desire to build things, and he built a boat, which we lived on as kids, and restored old aircrafts."

Initially the two brothers headed off down traditional career paths, with Giles studying engineering at university and Nick qualifying as an accountant, and both working in corporate finance in the City of London. But their lives would be turned upside in 1995 when their father - former RAF pilot Dr Euan English - and Nick were involved in a plane crash. Euan was killed and Nick was seriously injured. Giles had been due to go up on the next sortie.

Out of this tragedy, though, came the drive to start up their own enterprise. Initially they set about restoring and maintaining historic aircraft - turning their father's passion into a business - and then set up Virtue Broadcasting, which specialised in putting video on the internet. But after taking that company public, the duo starting dabbling in a family passion for watches, which would eventually lead to the creation of Bremont.

"The accident was the tipping point where we just thought: ‘Sod it, let's go and do what we love'," says Giles. "We were young enough and stupid enough to be able to take these risks. But we were very aware of this amazing history of British watchmaking. A hundred years ago we were making half the world's watches in this country but at that time there were 750 Swiss watch companies, and not a single British one." All watches are manufactured in the UK, he adds; something that is a major plus point with many customers.

The brothers financed their venture through the proceeds from Virtue Broadcasting. "We made a bit of money out of that, not nearly enough to retire on, but enough to give a bit of seed capital," recalls Giles. "We went out to Switzerland, and we thought it would take a couple of years to find the right production facilities, and build up a collection of watches. It actually took five, and that whole period was pretty devastating in terms of funding." The brothers took on additional funding to help ensure the business could get off the ground, diluting their own stakes in the firm.

The main focus for those five years was an unremitting emphasis on quality (the watches themselves are actually chronometers, meaning they must meet precision standards set by the Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres in Switzerland. "We knew we had to create something that a hardcore watch journalist would pick up and say ‘this is a bloody good watch'," he says. "But every year that went by meant we were producing a better product, a better collection and a better launchpad. That time enabled us to get it really right."

Deciding on a name was another early priority, and once again an incident with a plane would prove the inspiration. "We couldn't use our surname ‘English' because obviously you can't get a trademark for that," he says. "But we were on this flying trip and we force-landed in a French farmer's field, and this lovely old man helped us out," he recalls. "Our father died at 49 but had he lived till his late 70s he would have been this old boy. We really connected with him, and he helped us out. His name was Antoine Bremont. We left and thought it was a lovely sounding name. We didn't name it after him, but that's where it came from."

Building the brand

Initially the business started selling wholesale, through other retailers, which English says gave it credibility as the watches would sit alongside products of similar quality. "Working very closely with them meant we could really help build our brand together," he says. "But we then progressed quite early on into our own stores. We wanted a home where people could come into our world and get a full taste of what Bremont was about rather than just seeing a small display. That became quite important." Today, the business has a presence in around 20 countries, with physical stores in London, Melbourne, New York and Hong Kong, and plans to move into mainland China in the near future.

Over time, the business has moved into other areas, selling accessories that are a natural fit with watches, such as watch straps, cufflinks, key fobs, clocks and even a Bremont-branded cap. It has also taken advantage of partnerships, including creating bespoke watches for military personnel. "It's about 25% of our business, just manufacturing and selling them into the military," says English. A recent partnership with Rolls-Royce has also seen Bremont manufacture a stopwatch for its aircraft, while other prominent tie-ups include ejection-seat manufacturer Martin-Baker and car firm Jaguar, for its range of lightweight E-Type sports racing cars.

In total, Bremont employs 130 people and expects to turn over around £20 million this year, although the Covid-19 pandemic has obviously had an impact. "It's a difficult time, but I think those are there to challenge you and you've got to make the most of them and restructure accordingly," he says. "It actually makes you run a business more efficiently." It's also seen online sales - which have traditionally only accounted for a small percentage of total sales - grow by around 300%, he adds, although he expects this to be temporary as most customers want to see and feel the product before buying.

"We intend to grow more stores because we think that retail works if you offer an experience and we're quite good at that," he says. "It works if you're not paying too much for your stores, but too many store owners have been tied into these ridiculously expensive leases that have gone up and up for the last 30 years and it's got to a point where they're just way overvalued."

Running a business is never easy but working with your brother adds in an additional dimension. Giles, though, believes the two complement each other well, with Nick taking on more of the design and production while he focuses on the marketing side. "I'm very lucky that we are incredibly close and he's a very talented man, so that really helps," he says. "We design all our watches, so it really helps having someone with the same kind of ethos and the same design flair as you because it means decision-making around design is very easy. But we're very much hands-on all over the business."

If there is a downside, it's that the two spend all their time talking about the business, he says. "We're very close but if you're working with someone all day, you tend not to do so much socially. Our life is spent talking about work rather than just being mates. That's definitely the downside to it."

Word of caution

As someone who has clearly benefited from their decision to take the plunge into running a business, it is slightly surprising to hear English's cautionary words for would-be entrepreneurs. "Don't feel you have to be an entrepreneur because it's the thing to do," he says. "I don't think everyone is a natural entrepreneur. You really have to feel you can take on stress and enjoy that pressure."

He is, though, a strong proponent of forward planning. "You need to have a three-year business plan on day one," he says. "Really plan that out because it helps with that long-term focus. Don't ever do anything without a target to be met."

It's important to listen to people's advice too, he adds, but not necessarily to let that put you off. "Everyone said what we were doing was mad and it couldn't be done," he says. "Make sure there is a market for what you're doing. We saw that the watch market is worth billions around the world, and felt all we needed was a small share of that to build a really solid business, whereas with our previous business we were the number one player in Europe but it was a tiny market. We were way ahead of our time."

The brothers have certainly learned a few lessons along the way, particularly over the amount of time and money involved in major projects. "We always have this three-times rule in our business, or at least we do now," he says. "It will always take three times longer, it'll always cost three times more, and it will be three times as much effort than you ever think it's going to be. Most people give up after one and a half or two times, but you've got to really commit. Then you can see through the early ups-and-downs, to get that right. Very little is an instant success. It takes time and your original business plan will keep changing."

He and Nick would have loved to have a mentor such as their dad, he adds, who could have added more business experience in the early days. "Especially when you're young and naïve, you can easily get screwed over or give too much of the business away," he says. "If you can start a business and have a mentor who's on your side and can give you that level of advice, that will make a big difference. We were probably lacking that early on."

Partly as a result of this, he's keen to help pass on his own experience to up-and-coming entrepreneurs. "I think as an entrepreneur you get excited by business," he says. "I've learned so much. My focus is obviously on Bremont, but I do enjoy business and I love helping young people out who have good ideas and let them bring a natural talent out. However good your business, you need the right people around you."

Forward planning

As for the next few years, under more normal circumstances, English is confident the business can double its sales through a combination of taking on more partners, opening more stores and further pushing online as a sales channel. "China is a massive domestic market so we need to be out there," he says. "Every year our brand is growing, which is very exciting. We're also moving to our new facility in December, which this amazing new building in Henley-on-Thames. It's taken about four years, but it means we can say to everyone ‘Come and see a watch being built'. It helps people realise why it's that value and the cost associated with it."

Outside of work, Giles enjoys sailing, and both he and Nick restore classic cars and motorbikes. They both still fly too, although Giles does it less these days after a nasty accident in 2013 saw him break his back, when the engine on his 1930 Gipsy Moth light aircraft cut out.

It may have been an unlikely route to start a business, but there's no doubt that both brothers can be proud of how they dreamt up Bremont and transformed it into reality, even if the success is tinged with regret. "All the family members around us are proud of what we've achieved," he says. "I'd love my father to have been part of it. He would have loved the concept of building things, and manufacturing something that will sit on someone's wrist and work in 200 years' time. It's a lovely thing to have."