THIS FEMALE CEO IS BREAKING STEREOTYPES
Aug 9, 2022
Traditions & Transitions
It is common practice in professional and social circles to ask: “So, what do you do for a living?” Yet, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words, “Life is a journey, not a destination,” invite us to look deeper. The destinations—the places we call “work” and the job titles we
hold—are worthy of sharing. But the journeys are far more intriguing and reveal the best stories.
This series, Traditions & Transitions, explores the stories of watchmakers, clockmakers, technicians, designers, educators, industry leaders, and shop owners—but with a twist. Some will share traditions—tales of strong family heritages, of businesses that have been passed down through generations, or learning the trade from a beloved parent. Others will recount transitions—linear or circuitous paths that led them from a career as a teacher or engineer to a career as a clock- maker or watchmaker, or how they turned a treasured hobby into a livelihood.
This Female CEO Is Breaking Stereotypes
Abingdon Mullin is a licensed pilot who has logged more than 4,000 hours in 20 countries, in more than 80 different aircraft, from a Piper Cub on Floats to the Airbus A320. She is a scuba diver, race car driver, and a self-diagnosed adrenaline junkie. Her success can be attributed to her tenacity, creativity, and her larger-than-life personality. Her plans to grow her company continue to unfold amid her travels, her adventures, and her impact on current and future women leaders.
Discovering a Gap in the Market
Mullin was raised in California by parents who provided a solid foundation for her budding curiosity and sense of exploration. After graduating college and spending a year working for the Peace Corps in Africa, she earned her pilot’s license, which entailed some significant time in the compact Cessna 172, with its tidy but sparse panels of instruments. She wanted to reward herself with an aviator’s watch, so she could have additional flying tools handy, but all the aviator watches Mullin found were designed for men, and just didn’t fit her style or her smaller frame.
She became active in a local chapter of the Ninety-Nines, an international organization for women pilots. She also began having conversations about aviator watches with other female pilots and mechanics that she knew. “These women, who had been flying and around airplanes a lot longer than me, had given up on finding an aviator’s watch that satisfied them. They wanted a functional and versatile watch that was fashionable and made for women,” Mullin said. After her initial disappointment, she became energized by this predicament, and saw it as a challenge. Her vision became to create a watch designed for a woman’s ergonomics, but it also had to have superior style and convey something about the woman wearing it.
Mullin knew very little about how watches worked, how they were designed, manufactured, repaired.
What she was 100% certain of was her original vision. In her early 20s at the time, Mullin didn’t have preconceived notions of what might not work or any self-imposed boundaries. She attributes a large part of her can-do attitude to a job she held while in college. She explains, “I spent three years selling children’s educational materials door-to-door. It was brutal, but I learned a tremendous amount about how to read people, how to gauge their motivations and their sincerity. It’s one of the reasons I’m so determined and open to alternative ideas.” She also believed a market made up of female adventure seekers (pilots included) had a lot of potential.
In 2006, she created Abingdon Co., a maker of purpose-filled watches for women.
Eyes Wide Open
Mullin wearing the Marina Watch.
She absorbed everything she could about watches. On a whim in 2009, she used tweezers and her Leatherman to take apart several dud watches she had. It did not go well. Many years later, after detailed research on watch repairers, she eventually reached one of her many accomplishments. “I shadowed a really talented watch repairer who worked for my company. I had always wanted to learn how to put a movement to a dial and I wanted to learn from the best. As it turns out, he told me I had very steady hands, which are essential in watch repair.”
She met with countless manufacturers, learning the key players, the process, the tools, the complexity of production. Mullin also continued learning about horology and its many facets, including the associated offshoots of manufacturing and quality standards, plus the many sub-brands and categories of watches, clocks, and other timepieces. \
In 2006 she discovered one particular watch manufacturing company that had previously made watches for pilots. This company shared Mullin’s vision and her quality standards. She still works with this manufacturer and considers them an integral member of her team. It was the official beginning of Abingdon Co.
Mullin’s work at finding the right manufacturer paid off. She learned the importance of reliable and accurate tools, of fostering and maintaining trust in the team and the overall process. “For the first five years, I had a hand in every watch that went out the door, from start to finish.”
Mullin quickly absorbed the realities of the aviation industry (and many other industries), in terms of diversity in leadership and company direction. During many of those meetings with manufacturers, she was met with a lot of rejections and condescension, or was told there wasn’t a market for what she proposed. She attributes some of these early struggles to industry characteristics and market demands, while other challenges, she believes, came from displaced double standards. “There was definitely some sexism and ageism taking place, and a real lack of generational knowledge. I learned to distinguish platitudes from genuine interest. The people I wanted to work with were the ones who were listening, engaged in and thinking about what we were discussing.”
Abingdon Co. Takes Off
At the core of every Abingdon Co. watch are elements which Mullin believes are essential for the superior quality of the brand: surgical-grade stainless steel, sapphire crystals, Japanese and Swiss movements and genuine leather straps.
It wasn’t long before Mullin’s mantra became, “What’s the next watch for us? Who is it for and what functions does it need to perform?” To answer these questions, Mullin strengthened and expanded the relationships she had built with her customers, who live, work, and play in a variety of industries and geographies around the world. They are athletes, artists, military officers, mothers, scuba divers, corporate fleet pilots, race car drivers, equestrians, base-jumpers, students, cruise ship captains, and so many others. They are a member of the “Crew,” which Mullin says really is a global sisterhood. “In its roots and at its heart, it is a lifestyle brand that resonates with these women,” she said.
The Marina Dive Watch in Caribbean Green.
She once gathered seven Crew members—all divers—together for a think tank about what they needed in a diver’s watch. They discussed key features, including water resistance, automatic movement, and a world timer. “One of the customers talked about how she travels around the world to her favorite dive spots and likes to know what the time is in a variety of time zones. That made complete sense to me, and I knew we could make it happen.”
And it did. The Marina was created from the think tank and is one of the most popular Abingdon dive watches—along with the Nadia—due to the atypical screw-down crown, which creates a more effective water seal. The watch boasts water resistance to 660', a bi-directional compass, and a built-in ruler on the back. The Nadia is one of Mullin’s favorite examples of involving the customer in the process. She explains why. “It was tested in the waters of Fiji, Mexico, Australia, and Hawaii by various inductees of the Women Diver’s Hall of Fame, two of which are Cathryn Castle and Bonnie Toth.”
One of the watches developed for women pilots is the Abingdon Amelia, a dual time zone timepiece with a date window. For pilots, the Amelia also boasts a potentially life-saving feature for pilots—an E6B flight calculator—which is an essential back- up tool in case of instrument failure. Mullin has her own take on the Amelia watch, “It’s quite clever, as the unique slide rule bezel can be adjusted in either direction, and the watch can convert the from the Imperial or US system to the metric system.”
The members of the test groups for new watches from Abingdon Co. are integral to the design of each watch, a genuine, user-centric force helping to ensure each watch delivers functionality and, equally important, style. This approach aligns directly with Abingdon Co.’s slogan: “We make watches for women who do more.”
That’s a lot of women, and a lot of watches. In fact, Abingdon Co. offers 400 different combinations of watch cases and watch straps. In May 2022, Mullin participated in Macy’s Workshop Digital Pop-Up where a selection of her watches were available for purchase.
In another example, Mullin talked about the wristband options for some of her best-selling watches. “A man’s leather strap has several holes, but for it to fit a woman’s wrist, there is a lot of extra strap beyond the buckle. But we also know that not every woman’s wrist is the same size. Our straps aren’t as long and offer four extra holes for maximum sizing options.”
Mullin continued to expand the company’s product line of watches while also widening the circles of customers and vendors she interacts with. “If you want to find me, that’s where I am…with my customers, listening to what they want to see next in a woman’s watch.” The proof is in the repeat purchase rate, which is over 40%, compared to the typical 5% repeat purchase rate for online retail.
According to Mullin, owners of Abingdon watches are a loyal group. “It’s a fan club of sorts…people who wear Abingdon watches wave to each other…kind of like Porsche owners do.” Much of this is attributed to the post-purchase engagement. Each customer receives a personal email from Mullin welcoming the buyer to the “Crew.” Links to YouTube videos, along with a free cleaning with every repair and suggested care instructions for the watch are also included in the email.
Another fan favorite is the Jordan Racing Watch, which is available in three models: British Racing Green, Boulevard Black, and Americana. Designed “for the track and the streets,” it features an outer bezel tachymeter, a bi-directional dual time zone bezel, a multifunction stopwatch, and a Miyota FS20 Japanese quartz movement.
“The lifestyle brand of Abingdon Co. is important to me and to the company. A friend once told me, ‘I don’t even like to look at other watch brands; they all start to look the same.’ That’s motivation for us to keep doing what we do.”
Making a Statement
For Mullin herself and other adventurers, Abingdon Co. has always set out to design and create watches that would offer the tools a woman might need, while also signifying an accomplishment or a “rite of passage,” such as earning a pilot’s license, conquering a physical challenge, or being the best at whatever one’s passion might be. “I think we all pay attention or take notice of people, how they present themselves, how they make ‘their statement.’ It’s human nature. I believe the watch a person chooses to wear says a lot about them and how they see themselves,” she said.
Jordan Black Steel Analog Quartz Chronograph Automotive Watch.
Along with all of those critical, early lessons on manufacturing, selling, and assessing people’s interests, Mullin credits her continued success to valuing the power and the potential of the customer’s voice, and to nurturing her network of friends and colleagues.
“We regularly meet with women who have active lifestyles. Through these conversations, we can leverage their expertise and knowledge to create innovative products that meet their professional and personal needs. As an unintended result, Abingdon watches have become a symbol of empowerment,” said Mullin.
Abingdon Co. Crew members directly influence the product line. They also play a pivotal role in helping in Abingdon Co.’s mission to “be actively engaged in promoting and supporting educational opportunities for girls and women.”
Created in 2017, the mission of the Abingdon Foundation is to “empower and accelerate the female pursuit of more than just STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics) fields, either recreationally or professionally through conversation, education, outreach, sponsorship, and net- working.” In 2018, with the help of Crew members, the foundation began offering scholarships to women through its involvement with several conference events and associations, including Women in Aviation, Heli Expo, the SHOT show (outdoor-related careers), and DEMA (professionals-only event for members of the dive, action watersports, and travel industries).
Scholarship winners are put in touch with Crew members of whichever field of STEAM they choose, for an opportunity to be part of a network as they build their career path.
It is a 360° model that continues to work wonders. Relationships grow stronger through shared affinities and events. Crew members become commit- ted to the cause. Scholarship winners are folded into existing, successful networks so they can begin to build their careers. Tomorrow’s lineup of empowered women is in the making.
Mullin is a firm believer that the diversity and depth of this model makes the industry stronger, better. As Mullin explains, “Using these conferences as a back- drop, we are able to introduce our scholarship recipients to women of influence in their respective STEAM fields so that they can develop their own networks with groups of women who can help guide them on their respective paths. As women, we have the power to create our own opportunities,” Mullin maintains. “As knowledge is shared, connections are made, women’s lives are strengthened and a community is built.”
The Foundation also strives to engage and sup- port the generations to come. In 2021, the Foundation released a best-selling series of activity books, aimed at girls of all age groups. The books feature puzzles, games, and trivia pages, all with the aim of “entertaining, informing, and educating about STEAM industries.” This tenet is close to Mullin’s heart. “It’s so important to encourage these young girls to explore what they want to be. I was fortunate enough to be raised by parents who didn’t limit me. When one of these girls looks at you and tells you what they want to be, your reaction sets the stage for them to know there are no limits.”
A Time, a Place, (and a Watch) for Everything
Mullin and her team are avid story tellers, sharing so many of her team member’s stories, her customers’ adventures, and her own escapades, all via social media. It’s an entertaining and enlightening celebration of all that makes these women special. There’s Theresa the professional car painter who once taught Mullin how to paint a Ford Bronco and also took her off-roading. There’s Anita, Abingdon Co.’s longest- standing team member, who is a huge fan of the Elise watch. There’s Boss Lady Wynne Nowland, CEO and chairwoman of Bradley & Parker, who is a champion of trans awareness and body positivity.
Dianna Klein, in space, wearing the Katherine Watch.
One particular story highlights a customer-turned- friend relationship that led to Abingdon Co.’s debut on a popular TV show. Mullin was attending the annual EAA Airventure event in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to help a friend who owned a sunglasses company. During the event, Mullin met Ariel Tweto and they quickly became fast friends. When Tweto asked Mullin to teach her how to fly, Mullin agreed. The flying lesson was actually featured throughout the entire last season of Discovery Channel’s reality show, “Flying Wild Alaska”, during which a discussion ensued about the watch Mullin was wearing. It’s one of her favorites…the Jackie in Sea Plane Green, of course. The next year at the same EAA Airventure event, recognition of Mullin and her watches skyrocketed.
A more recent success story appeared on Abingdon Co.’s website, in the form of a customer providing a product review, as well as recounting her remarkable journey with the Foundation. Holly Gardel is the 2018 recipient of the Foundation’s It’s About Time Scholarship, and she attended the Heli-Expo in Las Vegas, Nevada. In her review, Holly noted, “The women of the AF went out of their way to introduce me to people, get me into networking circles, and make the conference extra special.”
Part of the scholarship benefit is getting to choose an Abingdon watch. Holly decided to wait on the release of the Jane watch (Mullin had hinted the new tactical watch was going to be out soon). Holly is thrilled with her new watch. “It was worth the wait. I already owned a Katherine and an Amelia prior to winning the scholarship, and I wore one of the two every day. But since I got the Jane, it has been my daily go-to. It is so lightweight and comfortable to wear that I sometimes forget it is on my wrist. I am a helicopter pilot working long days in the hot sun and I never even feel the watch is there. When I’m not working, I’m either gardening or playing outside, and it is the perfect watch for sports and working outdoors,” Holly said.
These days, you’ll likely need your own flight plan to find Mullin. She’s been known to wear her pilot’s uniform while managing the Abingdon Co. booth at a conference and adjusting watch bands for customers. Or, she might be en route to her next adventure.
To inspire your next adventure, consider starting with a pack of the stickers available on the Abingdon Co. website. The “Ladies, it’s time to…” stickers offer the adrenaline-pumping choices of: Code, Dive, Drive, Fly, Hike, Hover, Launch, Race, Ride, Torque, and Travel.
Follow Abingdon Co.
Go to www.youtube.com/c/AbingdonCo to scroll through more than 100 videos of Mullin and members of her seemingly endless network. You’re likely to get hooked on the home page’s feature video and introduction: “Weekly doses of empowering stories and bios of amazing women doing adventurous things. Adrenaline junkies may want to subscribe.” Abingdon Co. launched the channel in 2020. Expect to see high-energy and fast-paced outdoor activities, along with the takeaways from the challenges each adventuresome woman faced. You’ll also find many how-to videos by Mullin, including her early videos of basic watch repair.
Colonel Buff Burkel wearing the Marina Watch in Bahama Blue.
Tweets from Mullin include Fan Friday photos and shout-outs, like the one about Bethany J. Miller: “She’s an aviator, a business development manager, and an artist. She mentors others, helps build brands (person- al and company), travels, volunteers, and loves to read. In these pictures she’s rocking the Marina in Yellow Snapper.” @TheAbingdonCo is where you can follow Abingdon Co. on Twitter.
Find Abingdon Co. on Instagram at www.instagram.com/theabingdonco. Join the other 4,953 followers for an alluring scroll through these categories: watches, travel, driving, outdoors, flying, and of course, mermaids.
This article was originally published by Kathleen Cardwell in AWCI's Horological Times magazine.