Cousins steady growth since it began meant that it was in a position to tackle one of the greatest threats to its industry that other rivals and many industry associations had run from.
Despite the fact that sales of quality watches had greatly increased over the past 40 years, the independent watch repair industry had been in declining. The cause of this problem was an increasing refusal by watch manufacturers to openly supply spare parts. This practice began in 1984 when Rolex stopped supplying wholesalers, and limited availability of parts to its in house repair service and a small number of selected and heavily controlled repair shops. Every two or three years after, another company would copy this practice, and supplies of parts for more brands would dry up.
In 2002, a Belgian watch repairer formed a small company called CEAHR to represent the European repairers, and in 2004 launched a formal complaint about anti competitive behaviour to the European Commission. This resulted in two formal investigations and two court cases over the course of the next 11 years. Unfortunately, CEAHR had very little funding and was unable to gather and document the evidence that the European Commission asked for. As a consequence, the investigation was ended without any decision being taken on whether or not these restrictions were legal.
When the decision was announced by the Commission, CEAHR launched its second appeal to the European Court of Justice, but the last of major Swiss companies that was still supplying spares, the Swatch Group, did not wait for the outcome and announced it would cease supplying spares at the end of 2015. This action would see Cousins driven out of the very market that had been the foundation of its success.
The company responded with a two pronged approach. It applied to the European court to be allowed to support CEAHR with its appeal, and at the same time responded to an approach from the Chairman of the Epping training centre, supported by British Watch and Clockmakers Guild, to sponsor an industry conference to formulate a response.
As a result of the Conference, an Industry Action Fund was set up and tasked with gathering funding and evidence to prepare a full submission to the UK authorities. Once again, Cousins was a main sponsor of this activity, and Anthony also sat on the steering committee overseeing the work.
In November of 2015, a delegation went for a meeting with the Department of Business, Inovation and Skills in London to submit its report and findings. These were quickly passed on to the Competition and Markets Authority, who are the UK regulator.
In parallel with this, Cousins own legal team had been in Court in Europe trying to get permission to support CEAHR with its appeal against the ending of the European investigation. At the end of 2015 the EU Court announced that it had refused Cousins permission to join the appeal on the grounds that CEAHR represented the repairers, but Cousins was a wholesaler, not a repairer.
When a case on an issue is being held in one Court, it is not possible for anyone else to bring the same case into another Court. The side effect of the decision by the EU Court was that Cousins was clearly not part of that case, and was therefore free to bring its own case on the matter if it wished. With Swatch Group being the most recent to cease supply, the company’s legal team advised that they were the organisation to launch an action against, so in March of 2016, Cousins send a formal letter to Swatch warning them that if supply was not restored in three weeks, legal action would follow.
None of the Swiss brands thought that anyone in the independent repair trade would dare to take them on, or have the resources to do so. Swatch Group were over 1,000 times bigger than Cousins, and the threat of action caught them by surprise.
In an attempt to frighten Cousins away, and stop the UK courts from hearing the case, Swatch brought an action against Cousins in the Swiss courts, thinking that the prospect of fighting in a foriegn language, and having to find Swiss lawyers, would be enough to make Cousins give up.
The idea failed. Cousins dug in and has been fighting the case ever since. One side effect for the company of all this effort has been a greatly enhanced profile within the industry and the wider business community. Articles have appeared in the business press, and submissions have been given to MPs and government departments on dealing with anti competitive behaviour in general.