The day a firefighter grandfather inspired a new watch brand

Jonny Garrett tells Daniel Evans the story of William Wood watches

It’s not often you go to the pub for a Christmas beer with a mate and end up setting up a business with a turnover of £1million, but that’s exactly what happened to Jonny Garrett, Founder and CEO of William Wood Watches. The 30-something always knew he wanted to run his own business at some point, preferably in the luxury sector, but wasn’t quite sure how it would work.

Jonny picks up the story. “That was just over five years ago, and I was working full-time for Lloyd’s Bank in London. I was back home in the North East on Boxing Day talking to a friend in a pub and he told me about Kickstarter. I thought I would need a lot of capital to build a luxury brand, but when I heard about Kickstarter and the fact that there is no need to give equity in the business… well , it was the beginning of William Wood Watches.
From December 2016 to the following August, Jonny started building the brand from the ground up. He knew he wanted to dedicate the business to his grandfather – William Wood, a Newcastle firefighter for 25 years, gone – who was a huge role model in his life. “What’s beautiful about the evolution of the brand is that each of our collections is made from genuine recycled firefighting materials and we donate a percentage of our sales to firefighting charities. fires all over the world,” says Jonny. “And it all started over a beer with a friend at Weatherspoons in Hexham.”

A real turning point for the company came in 2018 when Jonny decided to enter a Dragons’ Den-like contest hosted by Esquire Magazine. “In 2017 it was all about creating the first collection, then in 2018 we realized we had to sell these watches, so we entered the Esquire Magazine Self Made competition,” Jonny recalls. “There were 60 different start-ups who all pitched their small businesses to a judging panel and we ended up winning it all, which was superb. We got a 12-month lease for four people from office company WeWork. We picked a spot near St Paul’s in London, and it won us £22,000.

Sustainability and upcycling are key elements of the brand. The watch straps themselves are made from genuine fire hose which has been in use for at least ten years by various fire services across the UK. Jonny explains: “When the fire hose reaches the end of its life, it is normally thrown away. Instead of that happening, fire crews across the country are contacting us. We then clean them, reuse them and put them inside our watch straps. We have different colors of fire hoses and different materials that we will use. Our most iconic is probably red. 90% of all UK fire departments use red. This was given to us by the London Fire Brigade and is considered our flagship bracelet.

“You’ve got the yellow which is from the West Midlands Fire and Rescue Service, you’ve got the blue which is closest to my heart because it’s from Tyne and Wear where my grandfather was a firefighter, and then there’s green which is used by the UK Armed Forces Fire and Defense Unit Our newest recycled strap is made from a fireman’s uniform Each of our watches has over 100 years of real British firefighting history inside because the watch case has an original 1920s British brass firefighter’s helmet. The helmets were melted down in London and we cast them in a mold which is then placed in the crown of each watch case.That’s why we say that each of our watches has a real firefighting story through every component.

At present, the company makes a turnover of around £1 million per year. From the start, Jonny wanted to grow the business without any investors, without any debt, so he reinvested the profits and seeks slow, sustainable growth. “I kind of have a 25-year vision because I have no intention of selling the business because I love it so much,” he says. “In five years, I want to have our headquarters in a converted fire station on a main street where customers can walk in and see the watchmakers in action and see our upcycling firsthand. Next year we will be converting a vintage fire truck into our removals shop so we can tour the UK and Europe promoting our watches and firefighters.

Jonny’s enthusiasm for running his own business comes through loud and clear. “I love being my own boss,” he says. “It’s total freedom. The autonomy you have is incredible – being able to control your own agenda; be able to put in your diary the appointments you wish to have; do what you want to do and enjoy it. It’s something I could never do in the corporate world. The best part of the journey for me is seeing our watches on the wrists of people who appreciate our history, history and values. They know that our watches represent more than just a timepiece, they are a statement of unity, respect and bravery that anyone who wears our watch can proudly feel and share with others.

And he has some advice for people who are considering going it alone. “Whatever the idea, you have to have a unique selling point,” he says. “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel – I mean there’s nothing new in a watch – but there has to be something unique about your business. I also think you have to be aware that consumers are changing and they want to know that the products are from ethical sources and that the company has a strong element of corporate social responsibility. If you’re considering starting a business, you need to think about ways to give back.

“The other key thing is that I think somebody who just quit their job and started a business is going to be in a very scary situation. I’m a big fan of building something on the side. You have to love what you do. This is a testing period to find out how much you love doing it. Can you see yourself doing it potentially for the rest of your life? I developed William Wood Watches while I was working at Lloyd’s and I didn’t go there full time until September last year so it took me four and a half years to build the business to the point where it was close to turnover £1million I wanted to make sure that when I became my own boss I wasn’t worried, that I didn’t think about the bills and that the transition was easy.

As the business grows, Jonny looks forward to a trip to America. “I’m flying to New York because we just got the green light to produce watches for the New York Fire Department, which is the largest fire department in the world. It’s pretty awesome. The watches are going to be stored at Rockefeller Center in the New York Fire Department store. Hopefully this will start a chain of events where we tackle cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago.

So let’s go back to Jonny’s grandfather, who died in 2009 but whose memory beats at the heart of this company. What would he say now if he could see the success of William Wood Watches? Jonny has no doubts. “’Holy shit!’ that’s what he would say,” Jonny replies. “It’s an expression he used to say all the time and I’m sure he would use it about all of this. I’m sure he would be super proud. I think he would be blown away because it literally lives in every watch we produce.

William Wood watches