It's one thing to be an entrepreneur in your twenties, it's another to be handed the reigns of an already established company to take charge of. It's even more of an accomplishment to then turn the direction and, in the process, the fortunes of that business around in the space of a few years. For most young people (notwithstanding the unfair and clichéd criticism that "millennials"/"gen z" are lazy), this'd be hard, if not impossible.
Not so for Luca Fontana, the young Italian businessman and fourth generation watchmaker who, at 27-years-old, was appointed CEO of heritage Italian-Swiss timepiece makers Terra Cielo Mare. The company has roots that stretch back to the Fontana family establishing a small business making watch cases in Cassano Magnago in 1921. It then grew through the 20th century to encompass watch components and, eventually, full timepieces. In 2011, the Fontanas took charge of the Terra Cielo Mare brand, 10 years after itself was first founded. Luca Fontana was appointed a year later in 2012.
Initially with a more military slant, Fontana helped Terra Cielo Mare pivot to a wider audience. Today, the label has a collection of timepieces ranging from the technical and more outdoor focussed pieces to the sleeker, urbane models aimed at the urban elite. Meanwhile, Fontana takes a hands-on approach, monitoring the creation and production of the watches, traveling the world with them, and testing them in all kinds of contexts and situations. The place and cultures he visits has a direct impact on what he does with the company, with the result that Terra Cielo Mare is getting noticed. Even Brad Pitt has gotten involved, sporting one of the company's Orienteering watches in World War Z.
We sat down with Fontana to find out what it takes to lead a company, as well as what he does to keep sane when he's not in the boardroom.
With so many tools readily available on a smartphone, including a clock, how do classic timepieces remain relevant and continue to interest future generations? Are they purely fashion items now or do they still have functional value?
Everything we buy now is about who we are. If you decide to buy a watch, you decide to be part of a long tradition. If you buy a Terra Cielo Mare, you also become part of a small club of people that share a sensibility and ideas about how to live life and be part of the world.
Are they purely fashion items then, or do they still have functional value?
Terra Cielo Mare timepieces also have important technical features. We do lot of research, especially into material and function. For example, my favourite, the Orienteering, is a watch made for explorers by explorers. When I travel in the cold wilderness and all my batteries have died from the cold, I use its patented solar compass to find my way and when I get home, I think how I can improve it. It's like wearing a pair of real running sneakers, you are showing people your sporty fashion personality, but you can also go for a run when you leave the office.
Talk us through Terra Cielo Mare’s history and what it looks like today.
Terra Cielo Mare was launched in 1999 and was managed by its founder for over 10 years, before he passed away in 2010. It was a military brand, inspired by Italian military history. When I took over the brand in 2013, I was fascinated by the original concept as Italy has a lot of history to explore, but I realized that in order to believe in and succeed in my work, I would need to change the brand, to make it more modern and similar to my ideas. l love exploring the world, cities and the wilderness. And that is how I realized that this explorer’s soul, already a part of the brand as shown by the Orienteering PVD worn by Brad Pitt, should become the driving force of Terra Cielo Mare. We kept the premise of making useful instruments, but we changed the focus from the military to the modern traveler.
How did you become the brand's CEO at such a young age?
I come from a family of watch case manufacturers. My great-grandfather started making cases for Swiss brands in the 1920s. We still have a factory that works for many of the best Swiss watch brands, but I'm the fourth generation—I wanted to create something new! So, when the chance to redevelop the Terra Cielo Mare brand arose, I immediately saw the opportunity to develop something new.
After four years leading Terra Cielo Mare, I can say without a doubt that you have to think differently.
What skills are vital for anyone wanting to be in your position?
When I started this job, I thought that luxury had to be conservative, from the mood of the company to the dress code, but now, after four years leading Terra Cielo Mare, I can say without a doubt that you have to think differently. You have to be like a pirate. If you act like everybody else, you will be overwhelmed and suffocated by the money and marketing of bigger brands. The only way to succeed is to find your own way. You also need to build a great team, because you can't do everything yourself and it is so important to find people that share your vision. And remember to have fun! If you enjoy what you are doing, you'll continue to improve. And if you don't like something, change it.
As a young businessman, what interests do you have outside of the company and watches that you find are the most beneficial to you and your life?
I love photography, exploring and healthy living. Photography gives me inspiration and focus. When I use my camera I can really clear my mind. I love exploring the world—I've often taken my tent to the cold wilderness because it really gives me the capacity to see everyday life from the point of view of an outsider. Plus, after camping at -20C (less than 0F), you're ready to face anything. I also really believe in my healthy lifestyle. I try to only eat organic food and I do a lot of sport: running, rock climbing and mountaineering. This lifestyle helps me maintain high energy and keep my mind clear from sugar, and other toxins.
Can you say which places have inspired you the most?
In the last two years, I've visited and climbed in Patagonia, Yukon, Georgia, Norway, the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, Japan and many other places. All these places gave me something, and they are now all linked inside me. When I stayed five days on the Yukon glaciers—the biggest in the world outside the Antarctic—with just a tent, ski, crampons and axes to explore with, I experienced total isolation. I stopped time, my life, becoming one with the icefield. This contact with the absolute cleared my mind, and I think back to that experience whenever I need to be focused.
How do you overcome weaknesses, setbacks and failures?
I try to look at things from outside, to see the bigger picture. Failures and weaknesses are something that happen daily, but when I see how much Terra Cielo Mare has changed since 2012, I see how much work we have done and know that a failure today will already be forgotten tomorrow.
You're already a company CEO, where do you see yourself in 10 years?
It’s not about what is happening in 10 years, the most important thing is what is happening today. I want to enjoy this beautiful moment and do my best today, giving people the chance to be part of it thanks to my watches. I’ll tell you where I’ll be in 10 years in 10 years.