Family businesses never fail - they can be re-born

Nicholas Bowman-Scargill with a portrait of his great-grandfather, the last member of the family who ran the original family business    Photo: Fears Watches

Nicholas Bowman-Scargill with a portrait of his great-grandfather, the last member of the family who ran the original family business    Photo: Fears Watches

There’s always tomorrow. And so it is for a watchmaker called Fears. A flourishing British watch company that had existed for more than 100 years as a successfully family business, but eventually collapsing in the late 1950s, has been re-launched by a sixth generation member of the original owners.

“It was my mother who suggested the idea to re-launch the business,” says Nicholas Bowman-Scargill, the man behind the re-launch and managing director of the new Fears Watches, based in London. “She’s a direct descendant of Edwin Fears, who set the company up in the city of Bristol way back in 1846.” Re-launched early this year and keeping the original Fears brand, the new company with an old heritage looks already to be well on its way. Bowman-Scargill says Fears Watches has already achieved the sales targets its business plan expected to achieve by the end of 2017.

Fears watches are elegant, with a simple ascetic, and with a definite nod to the storied heritage of the original company that launched the brand.  Sold for around £600 ($742), they are aimed at discerning watch buyers in general, but probably have a particular appeal to Millennials. As Bowman-Scargill says about many of the buyers: “They are young professionals starting their career, who may not have the money to afford an expensive Swiss watch, but still want something special.”

The family business wasn’t discussed as I was growing up. But there must have been something in my blood that propelled me to following a career as a watchmaker.

Bowman-Scargill, 29, studies economics before entering the world of corporate public relations in London. But in his mid-twenties decided to chuck it all in and become an apprentice for the watchmaker Rolex. When he made the decision to join the famous Swiss watchmaker Bowman-Scargill had known that his great-grandfather Amos Reginald Fears had been a watchmaker, but he knew little about the family business. That only came later when his mother’s idea spurred him into his entrepreneurial venture. “The family business wasn’t discussed as I was growing up,” he says. “But there must have been something in my blood that propelled me to following a career as a watchmaker.”

The original company was a classic example of a shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations family business. Launched by Bowman-Scargill’s great-great-great grandfather when he was just 22, the business grew and became one of the best-known watchmakers in Bristol and south-west England.

The second generation led by Amos Daniel Fears incorporated the business in 1908 and opened export markets for the company’s watches during the 1920s. Following the course of so many successful family businesses, it was the second generation that really got things going. And by the end of the 1920s, Fears employed more than 100 staff with its watches being exported to 95 countries.

Although business was severely hurt by the Great Depression and World War II, Fears survived these difficult years and continued to trade as a business during the late 1940s and into the 1950s. During these years it was under the leadership of the third generation and Bowman-Scargill’s great-grandfather.  

One of the new Fears watches

One of the new Fears watches

“There was an assumption from my great-grandfather that Fears would pass over to the fourth generation, but in reality, there wasn’t enough enthusiasm among the shareholders to keep the business going,” says Bowman-Scargill. So the company was wound down in the late 1950s and eventually ceased to trade in 1960. The fourth generation, represented by Bowman-Scargill’s grandfather, went to work for Imperial Tobacco and the business soon became a distant memory.  

But in some ways, the timing of the demise of Fears was fortuitous. During the succeeding years, the so-called Quartz Crisis decimated many watchmakers and led to widespread consolidation in the sector throughout Europe. And because Fears had disappeared as a watchmaker before these years it was relatively unknown as a brand. “No one had taken it over and no one owned the trademarks,” says Bowman-Scargill. “This made it easier to re-establish the business.”

Nevertheless, even with its venerable heritage and Bowman-Scargill’s watchmaker skills, re-launching a watch company wasn’t something to be taken likely - or at least that’s what Swiss watchmakers were telling the budding entrepreneur. “They told me that to set up a coherent watch business you’d need millions of dollars,” he says. “The costs of the design would run into hundred of thousands of dollars, they said, and then there were the branding costs, the legal costs, and the distribution costs on top.”

People often talk about what is your ‘exit strategy’, but that’s just not in my thinking. I want to build Fears into a successful and sustainable business

But through working hard and learning new skills like watch design and the intricacies of marketing, Bowman-Scargill reckon the cost for the relaunch would, in fact, run into tens of thousand of dollars. Of course, the watch would be manufactured elsewhere, but there were still all the other costs associated with launching a new company with a physical product. In the end, he used around £40,000 of his own money to get things going. He says his public relations background helped, as did his corporate lawyer father, who dealt with the legals. But, Bowman-Scargill hastens to add, his parents offered no financial backing.

Anyone speaking to Bowman-Scargill would get a sense of a very personable, ambitious young entrepreneur, but an entrepreneur who’s very much influenced by the heritage of the original family business. Indeed, a big part of the re-launch of Fears was Bowman-Scargill’s exploration into his watchmaking family’s background and heritage of the original company. Without that, says Bowman-Scargill, the new company wouldn’t be what it is today. “Even today I still have conversations with someone from the Bristol archives about the business and my family. More and more is uncovered all the time and that only adds to the heritage of the business.”

Bowman-Scargill’s appreciation of his family’s original business has endeared him to the family business model and led him to source the various watch parts that make a Fears timepiece from family firms. The maker of the watch head is a 90-year-old family business in Switzerland, and the handmade watch straps are from a 40-year-old Belgian family business. Even all the printing is done by a family-run firm in the East End of London. But, as Bowman-Scargill points out, Fears today is firstly about being a new company, and secondly, about its heritage. “You can’t just rely on your heritage, as any family business knows. You need to be about today and what people want today."

But what about the future for Fears? Could it conceivably be passed to a seventh generation of the family? Bowman-Scargill says a big ambition would be to eventually base the business back in Bristol, which could even be where Fears actually starts one day to manufacture their own watches.

But passing it onto the seventh generation might encounter one problem. Bowman-Scargill is gay and he and his partner say they currently have no thoughts about adopting children. Perhaps, says Bowman-Scargill, it will be one of his many cousins among the Fears family who eventually takes over. Of course, given his age, those decisions are many years away. As he says he’s sticking around and if things go to plan he envisages, just like two of his ancestors who ran the original company did, celebrating working fifty years at the company.

“People often talk about what is your ‘exit strategy’, but that’s just not in my thinking. I want to build Fears into a successful and sustainable business,” says Bowman-Scargill. “One that can go on for generations just as the original business did.”

With those sentiments and a bit of luck, it might be that a new family business is born from the ashes of a past one - and that can only offer inspiration for future generations of entrepreneurs with a family business background.