Life in KC

Is the next great American watch company in the Crossroads?

Mike Wilson, co-founder of Niall Luxury, with his personal copy of the locally made timepiece.
Mike Wilson, co-founder of Niall Luxury, with his personal copy of the locally made timepiece. Special to Ink

Kansas City’s hometown watch is assembled in a modest, 400-square-foot room that, upon deeper inspection, is not really a room at all. This little corner space at 1810 Cherry St. is more like a spacious closet with high ceilings — a sun-lit nook with enough elbow room for a watchmaker’s bench and a small row of sleek tool cabinets.

On one wall are portraits from Kansas City’s celebrity class: Royals manager Ned Yost, actor Paul Rudd, professional tennis player Jack Sock, among a host of others. They are early adopters of the brand and a key to the growth ahead, and as Mike Wilson continues the tour, he pulls open a drawer to display a large assortment of watch movements, the tiny engineering marvels that let human beings keep time.

“It’s a very expensive place to be in here,” Wilson says, looking down at the drawer. “That’s like $30,000 in watch movements.”

It is a recent Wednesday morning, and Wilson, the co-founder and CEO of Niall Luxury, Kansas City’s fast-growing watch startup, is moving through the company’s headquarters in the Crossroads. Launched late last year, Niall has grown from a fledgling newcomer to a luxury brand that could be on the cusp of a breakout.

After producing close to 400 watches in 2015, the company is projecting to do around 3,000 watches next year, and Wilson already is thinking about his goals: 50,000 watches annually, he says, is what he desires. A spot among the top 25 watch brands in the world.

“For an entire generation of people,” Wilson says, “Niall (can be) the new Rolex — ‘We are the best watch in the world, and there is no other choice when you go buy your first watch.’ 

It is bold rhetoric, and coming from Kansas City, it can feel a tick or two out of place. A luxury company in the revitalized Crossroads? A throwback watch company in the age of smartphones and Apple Watches? A Kansas City company talking about making a world-class product in an industry dominated by the Swiss?

“It sounds really wrong, coming from Kansas City,” Wilson says.

But the story of Niall is a distinctly Kansas City story, from a founder who grew up here in the suburbs, to a head watchmaker who joined the company after seeing a story in the local newspaper, to a breakthrough moment earlier this summer that included an unexpected spark from Yost, the now cultishly popular manager of the surging Royals.

The Yost story can wait — at least for a moment — because it’s probably best to start with the obvious question:

Who starts a watch company now?

Let’s begin with a full disclosure: I’m not a watch person. For pretty much every day for the last 29 years, I have not worn a watch. In my day job as a sportswriter, I have never found a timepiece to be too utilitarian, as one might say. I own a smartphone that tells the time and two naked wrists that can type away at a laptop without anything getting in the way.

As I began to do the research and reporting for this story — a story about watches in the 21st century — I figured most millennials were like me. The watch, I surmised, was a relic of the past, like a pager or an answering machine, a perfectly fine device with limitations in a post-baby boomer America.

This feeling is not new. For years, newspapers and magazines have been foretelling the death of the wristwatch. And here’s the thing: For Niall’s purposes, none of this really matters. As an American luxury brand, Niall isn’t targeting casual watch-wearers or is even too worried about the millennial cohort, at least not yet. As Wilson, a fringe millennial himself, sat inside Niall’s headquarters last month, he detailed the Niall mission: to be the American version of Rolex, the Swiss brand long associated with status.

“(We want) to be the prestige watchmaker that makes the best shit in the world,” Wilson says, “and we do it at scale, and we’re going to sell this to the whole world.”

To understand this, you need to understand watches and the industry’s audience of obsessives and diehards. There are people who wear watches, and then there are Watch Guys. Niall is trying to reach Watch Guys — and lots of them.

Watch Guys, Wilson says, are people who have a deep appreciation for the engineering, who understand the history and culture of watchmaking, and who, in most cases, have plenty of disposable income. The Niall One.3, the latest iteration of Niall’s signature watch, retails for $3,950. This is a timepiece for serious Watch Guys.

A Watch Guy spends time on the Internet, reading reviews of new brands and immersing himself in the very niche world of watches. An extreme version of a Watch Guy would be someone like John Mayer, the accomplished singer/songwriter who doubles as a blogger-reviewer for Hodinkee, one of the most influential watch sites on the Internet.

“I think you’re born a watch person,” Mayer told the New York Times earlier this year. “Even if you don’t own a watch for a while, you either get it or you don’t.”

Mayer is also a Rich Guy, of course, and in the world of luxury timepieces, this is not an unimportant fact. Not all Watch Guys are Rich Guys, and not all Rich Guys are Watch Guys, but Niall would like to tap both demographics.

Most of Niall’s buyers are 35 to 65, Wilson says, a combination of collectors and professional types. But if there is an ideal customer, Wilson imagines a man in his early 30s, a moneyed professional who has decided that it’s time to invest in a “big-boy watch.”

“I want to capture that entire category,” Wilson says, “that entire generation of people going: ‘I really need to get a big-boy watch. I need to go buy a Niall.’ We’re not going to sell a lot of watches to the 18- to 24-year-old market.”

Before he founded Niall, Wilson, too, was a Watch Guy of sorts. When he was a senior at Shawnee Mission South High School in Overland Park, his father bought him a TAG Heuer watch as a graduation present. The moment stuck with him, he says, and a few years ago he saw an opening in the American-made watchmaking business, which had essentially disappeared over the last three decades.

Wilson, who attended both KU and UMKC’s Bloch School, started a Web development company in his 20s. The company, Wavelength, was soon bought by Kansas City-based advertising and marketing agency Salva O’Renick, and Wilson went to work on his next idea.

“I was married, getting ready to have a child,” Wilson says, “and I thought to myself: I really want to work on something for the rest of my life. I don’t want to be the serial entrepreneur who jumps from thing to thing to thing. There’s nothing wrong with it, but I’d done that. From the age of 16 to my mid-20s, I’d jumped from idea to idea. I wanted something that would stick.”

That something, Wilson thought, could be an American-manufactured watch. He dug into the idea, researching the possibility of building a watch with American-made parts. He convinced Mark O’Renick, the CEO of Salva O’Renick, that there was an untapped opportunity in the luxury market.

“He gave me the numbers,” O’Renick says, “showed me where the niche could be in it. And we talked through what the model could be and determined it was worth taking a look at.”

The numbers, Wilson says, pointed to the luxury watch market, which is generally classified as any watch that sells for more than $3,000.

“When you look at a luxury watch, they’re buying art,” Wilson says. “They’re buying engineering. There’s nothing utilitarian beyond the value of, like, $800.”

By late last year, Niall had launched its first signature watch, the Niall One. Its first customer was Marc Andreessen, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist. In the early days of any startup, Wilson says, there are lessons to learn, setbacks to endure. In one of the Niall One’s first reviews, writer Ariel Adams of the influential watch site A Blog to Watch complimented the watch’s presentation and concept but sounded concerns about the price.

“I don’t doubt that getting the company started and the first watches made was extremely expensive for Niall,” Adams wrote. “It is a fact that nothing in the watch industry is cheap. However, given the features in their watches and the movements, there is a lot out there available for considerably less money when simply considering what comparable timepieces cost.”

Wilson says he heard the criticisms. In the last year, Niall has redesigned aspects of the Niall One twice. They altered the bezel shape — the watch dial’s frame — and they changed movements, finding a Swiss company that had never offered access to an American company. As for the price, Wilson says it reflects the cost to manufacture a watch in America.

The cost, though, did offer an early conundrum. Niall had presented itself as an American luxury brand, a company that wanted to sell an image and a lifestyle choice as much as a device to tell time. But as the company launched, it was still just a startup, operating out of a small space in the heart of Kansas City.

Wilson was still assembling the watches himself. Niall did not have a full-time watchmaker. The company still had to convince consumers that the Niall brand meant something.

Then came two breaks: On a day last fall, a Kansas City native named Justin Walters knocked on the front door of Niall. He had seen a story about the company in the newspaper, and he was intrigued. He was a self-taught watchmaker, spending his childhood taking apart his grandfather’s old Omegas.

“This is what I want to do,” Walters told Wilson.

The second break came in August, when Walters saw a story that Royals manager Ned Yost had been barred from wearing his Apple Watch in the dugout. To be specific, Yost had been barred from accessing the Internet while in the dugout. But whatever the case, Walters saw an opening.

“You see this story?” Walters asked Wilson.

“I think we should get Ned Yost a watch,” Wilson said.

For decades, luxury watch companies have been using celebrities to market their wares. The conceit is simple enough and perhaps best illustrated by TAG Heuer’s rise in the 1970s. In the 1971 film “Le Mans,” actor Steve McQueen donned a TAG Heuer “Monaco” watch. The role became iconic, and TAG Heuer reaped the rewards.

Niall has attempted to follow a similar guerrilla marketing plan, but on a startup budget with a Kansas City flavor. Niall found allies in Chiefs linebacker Tamba Hali, Royals Hall of Famer George Brett and the aforementioned Sock, a standout tennis player and graduate of Blue Valley North. But the biggest bump came when Wilson was able to land a one-on-one audience in Yost’s office in late August.

The meeting was not easy to set up. Even if you’re offering a $4,000 watch, you can’t just call the Royals and roll up to Kauffman Stadium. Wilson also wanted to present the watch in person, a tradition of sorts, he says. Wilson found a high school friend who connected him to legendary Royals scout Art Stewart, who relayed the message to Yost. Niall fashioned a special watch with a Royal blue dial, and Wilson headed to the K.

“Once we got it on his wrist, the phones just flooded with orders,” Wilson says. “It was just this weird coup.”

The Yost breakthrough came a couple of months after Niall began a partnership with local jeweler Tivol, which provided more validation for the brand, Wilson says. The company has seen a spike in revenue since June, and if the projections hold, Wilson says Niall should hit its first $1 million in revenue by the end of the year.

“We’ve laid a really, really good foundation and had success,” O’Renick says.

On a Thursday morning this fall, Wilson pushed through a doorway at 1810 Cherry. He wore a red T-shirt, dark jeans and glasses. Niall shares the Crossroads space with two other local companies: Alpha Clothing and Charlie Hustle, the growing T-shirt company. As Wilson walked through the office, he moved past a row of Alpha products hanging from racks.

“We’re all growing at different paces, but we’re all growing really damn fast,” Wilson says. “So it’s like a couple of brothers that grew up too fast. And we’re all in the same area. So it’s like: ‘Shit, we all have a little bit of money. Let’s go do something better with our space.’ So it’s like this weird, awkward middle ground for us now. What do we do with all of our stuff?”

In other words: What comes next for Niall? Wilson speaks of a “massive plan” for growth. He sounds optimistic about the numbers for next year. The company already has plans to add a second full-time watchmaker to the operation. There is no reason, he says, that Kansas City can’t be a place where an American watch company can thrive.

Standing inside that corner nook in the Crossroads, where Kansas City’s watch comes to life, Wilson points to the photos on the wall: Yost, Rudd, Hali and others.

Wilson is hoping to add many more.