Georges Kern: Ride along

Breitling CEO Georges Kern on the brand’s support of charity Qhubeka and taking part in South Africa's Coronation Double Century bike race

Watches & Jewellery 10 Dec 2019

Coronation Double Century bike race in South Africa
Daniela Ryf at the race
Coronation Double Century bike race in South Africa
Qhubeka, a charity that manufactures and donates bicycles to high school children
Qhubeka distributed 100 Breitling-funded bicycles to 100 pupils at the Usasazo Secondary School in Khayelitsha, Cape Town.
Daniela Ryf, part of Breitling Triathlon Squad, engaging with the local communities

Georges Kern is the CEO of the independent watch company Breitling and a shareholder in the business. He has been behind the brand’s new platform of engaging with customers through a series of squads – including a Cinema Squad, Surfer Squad and Explorer Squad – made up of experts in their fields. There is also a Triathlon Squad comprising triathlete champions Jan Frodeno, Chris “Macca” McCormack, and Daniela Ryf.

Last month, on 23 November, the Triathlon Squad, including Kern himself – a keen amateur cyclist – and a group of amateur and professional friends, took part in the Coronation Double Century, South Africa’s premier endurance road cycling event. With three teams of ten, the Breitling extended cycling squad also included Swiss Ironman champion and duathlon specialist Ronnie Schildknecht, South African cyclist Nicholas Dlamini, and Italian bicycle racer Vincenzo Nibali, who is one of only seven people ever to have won the three Grand Tours (La Vuelta, the Tour de France, and the Giro d’Italia).

Breitling served as Official Timing Partner for the race in Swellendam, and the cyclists rode in support of Qhubeka, a global charity based in South Africa that provides bicycles to people in communities across Africa with limited transportation options. The Coronation Double Century marked the first anniversary of Breitling’s partnership with Qhubeka.

Here, Georges Kern explains the thinking behind his squad strategy.

‘Our aim here at Breitling is to be different to the other watch brands. That explains why, where sport is concerned, we are not in the more traditional arenas of golf, tennis or Formula 1. I believe people are becoming more relaxed in their attitude to how they live, more engaged with things they are interested in, and want to participate. We have a Surfer Squad because surfing is something amateur enthusiasts can do. And that is where the Triathlon Squad idea came from. I knew triathlete Chris “Macca” McCormack from doing a round-Switzerland 1,000km cycle race a few years ago. On that occasion, we spent many hours in the saddle together and talked a lot about triathlon and the way it has been growing. Today, for example, there are around 250,000 new Ironman participants a year – a year! It is a true pro-am sport where, if you take part, you can compete in the same event as professionals. It’s unlikely you will ever drive a Formula 1 car, and certainly not against an F1 racing driver, but here you can actually do the same thing as the people who are the best in their field. I like this aspect of triathlon. I like the fact that it is a democratic sport in this respect, and that reflects Breitling’s ambition to be a more democratic and approachable brand, for a modern era. So I asked Daniela [Ryf] and Jan [Frodeno] to form the Breitling Triathlon Squad with Chris.

‘And then, of course, the challenge is how to work in partnership with people where the relationship is authentic and genuine. How do we actually engage these people in a way that has meaning for them and for us? We have, for example, had considerable success with our Surfer Squad engaging with local communities to do beach clear-ups. What could be the equivalent for triathletes?

‘That’s when, through various contacts, I heard about Qhubeka in South Africa, a charity that manufactures and donates bicycles to high-school children so that they don’t have to spend hours walking to and from school. It has an immediate impact on the lives of these kids, helping more and more of them to stick with their studies while giving them back free time to play. It really is amazing to see what a difference a bicycle can make. It allows a pupil to go to school or to get medical care for a family member – things we take for granted.

‘Then I knew there was this great cycle competition every year called the Coronation Double Century, outside Cape Town. Here was the opportunity. We could sponsor Qhubeka and I could ask our triathletes to each join a Breitling team to help raise awareness of what the charity is doing. The teams would comprise 10 people each – friends of the brand, including some other professional athletes, and some journalists to spread the word. We’d enter the Coronation Double Century – a 202km ride through Swellendam and ride in support of Qhubeka. And then I would take my extended squad of cyclists to see the work Qhubeka does first hand.

‘This is now the second year Jan, Daniela and Chris have come to South Africa to compete in the Coronation Double Century, and the second year we have supported Qhubeka. They are amazing athletes, but more importantly, they are role models for the many amateurs who ride alongside them, and the kids whose lives we are helping to change.

‘The day after the ride, Qhubeka distributed 100 Breitling-funded bicycles to 100 pupils at the Usasazo Secondary School in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, and we were privileged to be there to witness it. This brings the total number of bikes delivered to the school under the Qhubeka’s Scholar Mobility Programme, supported by Breitling, to 350 for 2019. The pupils have signed 12-month contracts in which they pledge to commit themselves to academic performance and school attendance as conditions for receiving their bicycles – bicycles that will help them get to and from school more easily, and have improved access to libraries, sports activities, and many other opportunities.

‘Our hashtag at Breitling is #squadonamission, and this project with our triathletes really embodies this message.’