WARREN — Kind words from a quiet man proved to be prophetic for Greg Thumm.
The man was Ned Parker, owner of Bowman Technical School right in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, who, according to Thumm, was a bit of a shy fellow who went out of his way to say something nice to a young student.
“He said, ‘Son, you’re going to go really far in this business. Your teachers say that you’re a very good student and this foundation is going to take you places you have never imagined,’” Thumm said, recalling the moment.
Parker was spot on.
Thumm’s more than three-decade career in the fashion watch business took him back and forth to Asia and Europe countless times to manage the supply chain, meet with heads of factories, go to trade shows and call on big-box accounts.
He worked his way up the corporate ladder to run one the most well-known and highly regarded watchmaking companies across the globe — Bulova.
The Warren native is back home living on the same street from his youth and running, with his son, Greg, a boutique fashion watch company — Thumm & Co. — in the back room of Thumm’s Bike and Clock Shop — the business his grandfather founded and his brother, Augie, has run for years.
“As a teenager I tried to think of ways … I guess I didn’t think of it this way at the time, but every kid wants to get close to his dad at some point. And rather than going fishing or whatever that pastime was, my father collected clocks and watches, so that put me on the road to wanting to be a watch guy,” Thumm said.
“He collected watches that were worth collecting, and since I was virtually penniless, I bought wristwatches because nobody wanted old wristwatches back in the ’70s. And so through that, I ended up dropping out of Ohio State and going to watchmaking school,” he said.
It was the summer of 1978 when Thumm said he told his father he didn’t want to return to Columbus. It was a decision met by support from the older Thumm and a chance for the son to put to use the mechanical skills he developed working for his dad at the bicycle shop.
Being four years younger than Augie made Thumm “low man on the Totem pole” doing the work of straightening frames, respoking wheels and cleaning hubs, “but it actually made me a good mechanic.”
At Bowman in Lancaster, Pa., Thumm excelled over the 32-month course and graduated to open a jewelry store at the Masonic Temple building at the corner of Pine Avenue and East Market Street.
That stretched until 1983, when an encounter with a would-be robber caused Thumm to rethink and close the store.
Then Gruen Watch Company called.
CAREER IN THE TIMEPIECE INDUSTRY
Gruen, formerly one of the largest watch manufacturers in the U.S., had contacted Bowman looking for job candidates. Thumm’s name was one Bowman gave.
He interviewed and was offered a job the next week as Gruen’s technical manager to oversee manufacturing quality assurance. Gruen was a wholesaler that made its own products in Switzerland and Hong Kong.
“What they found out is there was a lot of problems happening after the watches were produced that they felt they could have headed-off if they knew the right instructions when they were being made,” Thumm said.
Within a year, Gruen offered to move Thumm to Hong Kong to have him help engineer the products before production, so he did — along with two kids in diapers.
Two years with Gruen led him to a position with Chung Nam Watch Company. Around 1992, homesick and following his father’s death, Thumm said, “I thought if something comes along that brings me back home, I’ll definitely check that out.”
It did. And he did.
An executive shakeup at Gruen resulted in a call. He returned in the elevated position of senior vice president of product development and was able to come back the U.S.
A year later, Fossil started to gain momentum in the industry.
“So one night I was having a drinky-poo at home, and I said, ‘I wonder if I sent the CEO of Fossil an email, what would happen,” Thumm said.
Thumm sent the email after convincing a friend at Gruen to pass along the CEO’s address.
The gist of the message was, according to Thumm: He introduced himself, noted he ran the Kenneth Cole watch brand, which started at $0 but he grew into $64 million wholesale, and he also just had launched Tommy Bahama watches.
“Ten minutes after I sent the email, I get an email back from him saying, ‘When are you coming to see us?’” Thumm said.
He arrived in Dallas — using his own frequent flyer miles — at 6 a.m. some days later, interviewed, was offered the job and flew back home at 6 p.m.
Thumm worked for Fossil for eight years.
A friendly lunch date with the chairman and other high-level executives of Citizen, which hadn’t bought Bulova yet, “but the cat was out of the bag that something was going on” with the watch company, turned into a job offer.
“I said to them, if you guys really serious about changing Bulova, you need to have a person who knows how to create brand equity through design and not another deal-making knock-off of this …” Thumm said of making watch designs similar to others.
According to Thumm, a man at the lunch who later took over as chairman said, “Greg, you are an aggressive general, and you’d make a good leader for Bulova.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I would. I know that.’ But the problem is bean counters tend to put bean counters in charge of companies and so those bean counters never want to put their pinky toe into uncharted waters of risk.”
The only way to make it work, Thumm recalls saying, is that he be given full control.
The executives agreed. He was offered the job of president of Bulova in November 2012.
During his three years there, he created a curved watch movement, case back, dial and crystal that allowed the watch to curve around a person’s wrist. He also revived Bulova’s Accutron collection.
The company went from turning inventory twice per year to four times per year.
Upon his retirement from Bulova, he came to his son, also a lover of watches, with a proposal: “Let’s build a brand that fits into the new retail world that our core consumer is a millennial and a Gen Z consumer. We’re going to market it toward them … The target is to sell a boutique microbrand that has so much price / value relationship you don’t need to have heard of us for a long time to say that is one heck of a watch for the price.”
So Thumm & Co. was born in 2019 with the industry knowledge and connections of the older Thumm and the education, branding experience, third-party sources, software and e-commerce knowledge of the younger Thumm.
The younger Thumm, who has a degree in communications and marketing from Southwestern University, spent three years after graduating as global event manager representing Bulova’s partnership with the Manchester United Football Club in England. After, he’s held positions with several marketing and advertising firms.
Their goal: build a reasonably priced watch that will stand the test of time.
“That really was the carrot at the end of our stick,” the older Thumm said. “We wanted to make a very sensible, cool watch brand that has all sorts of features and benefits that nobody puts into this price point. I could never go public … never sell to Nordstrom, Macy’s, Dillard’s because that extra load of cost would make my $200 retail stuff $499 and up.”
Thumm is self-funding the business and has the benefit of a good reputation and previous commercial success in the more than 35 years in the fashion watch industry. That means, the few suppliers that are left that “are already up to their chin in work” still will do his product when he calls on them.
Thumm & Co. offers three collections of watches for women and two collections for men, each with details from lessons Thumm learned in the industry.
For example, the bezel, the top ring on a watch, is ceramic, meaning the color goes all the way through. The metal band was designed so the links never collide, meaning it won’t tug or pull at arm hair and the watches have a butterfly buckle, not a clasp, which tends to catch on clothing.
The leather bracelet is genuine leather on the top, but a hypoallergenic rubber on the backside that is impervious to sweat and other substances, Thumm said. It’s the same material Apple uses for its Apple Watch.
For women’s pieces specifically, the mother of pearl is genuine shell that is dyed to be a tonal match to the strap. Also, all the straps are dyed to match the trend in handbags for the next three years.
Thumm gave himself three years to break even. Business is good, he said; Thumm & Co. is selling every day and he remains patient.
“I didn’t do this to put in my kids’ mouths,” he said.
He did it because “I don’t want to go off in the sunset without giving the consumer my version of the way it should be. I want to offer the customer something that no one else is doing and I’m doing it through the experience of things that few people have had the chance to do.”