Time has come for Accurist

A UK watch firm is making the most of the Millennium, says Roger Trapp

A clock that will count off the remaining 1,000 days to the Millennium is to be unveiled in Greenwich this Friday in the presence of the Heritage Secretary, Virginia Bottomley, and other luminaries.

Another gimmick on the way to what many believe will be little more than a massive merchandising event? Maybe. But it is the latest step in a surprising success story for a small, family-run British company. For this timepiece was not made in Switzerland or Japan, but in London.

Accurist, which has just moved into a smart international headquarters in West Hampstead, will have its pride and joy positioned on the Meridian that has become the baseline for the world's time. A state-of-the-art digital affair, part of the Global Positioning System with links to up to eight satellites, the clock will reveal at any given time the number of days, hours, minutes, seconds, tenths of second and hundredths of seconds to the end of the 1990s.

Managing director Andrew Loftus sees it as a wonderful international branding opportunity for a company that has already promoted itself in Britain by sponsoring the speaking clock: since 1983 nearly 2 billion callers have heard its name.

"Internationally, most people do not associate Britain with watches, but the association with Greenwich made it an instantly credible proposition," he says.

The Accurist story began just after the Second World War, when Mr Loftus's father, having sold watches, decided to go into business making his own. Marketing experts of the time suggested that the company choose a name obviously connected with Britain, such as Mayfair or Grosvenor. But Mr Loftus senior and his wife opted for Accurist on the grounds that it denoted accuracy in an item worn on the wrist - a point amplified in the Seventies by John Cleese's award-winning "Accur-ankle, Accur-wrist" commercials.

In the Sixties the company had made a name for itself with its "Old English" range, which won Mr Loftus's brother, Richard, the title "Young Exporter of the Year". Not long after, its digital quartz watches became the official watches for the pilots of the newly launched Concorde supersonic airliner.

Since then the company has become Britain's biggest watch brand in terms of value. It has seen sales soar by well over 1,000 per cent since the early Eighties, with more than 1.5 million units accounting for group turnover of more than pounds 25m.

The UK watch market is worth about pounds 500m, but is highly fragmented. However, Accurist has established itself as a leader with 40 per cent of sales of watches worth more than pounds 40.

As well as selling its mid-range products through 350 outlets around the country, the company - which employs 75 people - has developed a worldwide distribution network. And having secured a prominent position in what is arguably one of the most eagerly awaited events of the decade, it is not about to miss out on promotional activities.

The Greenwich link began when the Old Royal Observatory - home to Greenwich Mean Time and the International Meridian Line - was refurbished earlier this decade. In a typically bold move, Accurist saw offering the site a special clock as a way of demonstrating how it was pushing forward its technological developments - as well as being in on the official centre of the world's Millennium celebrations.

The arrangement, which has laid the foundations for a partnership with Greenwich Millennium 2000, organisers of the big event, has already led to advertising slogans such as "Accurist. The standard by which all watches are set" and "Accurist Mean Time". And, with a budget of pounds 5m for the next couple of years, more of the same can be expected.

Meanwhile, the company is preparing to launch worldwide a range of replica Accurist Millennium Countdown Clocks as corporate and personal gifts and is already selling countdown watches to a host of countries - including Japan and Switzerland.

"We're looking to take advantage of great opportunities," Mr Loftus says. "These are very exciting times."

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