Interview: Francois Bennahmias for Audemars Piguet

Audemars Piguet CEO Francois-Henry Bennahmias cuts a fine figure as the newly minted leader of the storied watchmaking brand. He demonstrates his penchant for showmanship and slightly wicked sense of humor for us. He also shares his vision for the brand, and of watchmaking in general

Interview: Francois Bennahmias for Audemars Piguet

Audemars Piguet is one of the last family-held watchmaking firms in Switzerland and it is certainly one of the leading lights of haute horlogerie itself. In that latter rarefied constellation, the Le Brassus-based brand finds itself in the company of Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin. Like those and other storied Swiss names, Audemars Piguet arose from friendship (Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet) and evolved into the institution it is today. However, of all the brands operating at this level in watchmaking, Audemars Piguet is the most resolutely contemporary; there is a certain 21st century energy about not only the watches (the Royal Oak Offshore and the Millenary for example) but also in the resolutely professional management of the firm. One might call it something like the finely beveled and angled edge of the movement’s bridges.

The best example of this, in terms of people, is the subject of our attention today: Francois-Henry Bennahmias, the recently appointed CEO of Audemars Piguet. Previously responsible for the Americas (basically the western hemisphere), Bennahmias is a veteran at the company, having spent 18 years now in the world of fine watchmaking as embodied by Audemars Piguet. What is perhaps more interesting is that Bennahmias is not Swiss (he’s French) and he is, first and foremost, a leader but one with the common touch; a man others are willing and eager to follow not because he has the rank or even the know-how and charisma but because he leads from the front.

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The iconic Royal Oak celebrated 40 years of success last year, which surely makes it a classic

When we met Bennahmias at the Four Seasons in Singapore, he was the interim CEO and was in the midst of doing press for the Royal Oak Exhibition. Called dynamic by other magazines that have had the pleasure of speaking with him, Bennahmias indeed radiates a certain sort of energy. Some might call it a nervous sort of buzz but we think it represents the will and spirit of a man who yearns to leap into action. You get the feeling that he is constantly prepared for challenges and likes nothing better.

At the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie 2013, we get a demonstration of Bennahmias’ will, and his robust sense of humor. He reveals that the ‘interim’ part of his title has been dropped and he is now simply the CEO. He does so with a degree of irreverence that is undercut by the seriousness of his posture.

 

During the press presentation for Audemars Piguet, where Bennahmias did the introductions, several journalists who were late gave us all a demonstration of the CEO’s wit. He takes one journalist by the ear, as a parent might an errant child, and leads him to a seat. Still more journalists arrive and he mimes stabbing them in highly entertaining and exaggerated style. It is almost like German expressionist acting from the era of the silent screen. Bennahmias wants the spotlight and is certainly not at a loss at what to do with it once he gets it.

Clearly, Bennahmias is so cocksure that even in his introduction as CEO to regional press he feels no need to stand on ceremony. In our conversation with him, he demonstrates his willingness – eagerness even – to simultaneously hurry to crux of his point while finding time to somehow engage in a bit of improvisation. Indeed, Bennahmias is not the sort of CEO who sticks strictly to prepared talking points; a person who stays on message as if nothing exists other than the message.

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Bennahmias, Sarah Blaskow and Oliviero Bottinelli, Audemars Piguet Managing Director, Asia at the Royal Oak Exhibition in Singapore

We begin though with a message from Bennahmias in his own words, delivered at the Audemars Piguet presentation of 2013 novelties.

First of all, let me say something very slowly… you will understand why I say slowly. Audemars Piguet has a partnership with Art Basel… Art Basel… Not BaselWorld! Somehow there was a misunderstanding at the press conference about this and it is important for us to say that we are not showing at BaselWorld; that we are staying in Geneva at the SIHH. We are very proud and happy to be at the SIHH. My first act as CEO is not to move our exhibition to BaselWorld!

Secondly, we are always hearing about Audemars Piguet being sold. Yes, Audemars Piguet has been sold… to Apple… and Samsung… both of them. They will share the company.

No, it is not true, we have not sold the company. We are not contemplating a sale to anyone. We are doing everything that we can to stay independent.

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Audemars Piguet remains one of the last family-owned watchmaking firms in Switzerland

How important is it for Audemars Piguet that the watches it makes cannot be mistaken for something from another brand? The Royal Oak is of course one example.

Sure, absolutely. You know there is always this quest to do watches that are instantly recognizable; this is that ultimate wow factor of course. This is what all watchmaking companies are looking for, of course and yes we have the Royal Oak but this is not all. We are coming with something that will be as recognizable as Audemars Piguet as theRoyal Oak is. This is a classical collection we are showing at the SIHH 2013. People will look at this watch and feel that it is perfectly and harmoniously Audemars Piguet.

The watch in question is the new cushion-shaped Traditional, which is inspired by an archive piece but will become a new collection entirely, which Bennahmias strongly implies is Audemars Piguet’s new classical offering.

 

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New for 2013 from Audemars Piguet is the Tradition Tourbillon Minute Repeater Chronograph

Speaking of classical pieces, although introduced as a luxury sports watch, can we call the Royal Oak a classical piece today?

Absolutely! Well, after 40 years of not changing very much, I think we can call the Royal Oak classical! I mean what else can you call it? Well, it is certainly a classic for Audemars Piguet. You know after all that time – and being successful – it has to be called a classic. Also, the collection has inspired many imitators over the years and is today an icon of watch shapes. It is copied on a regular basis, to this day, in one way or another.

On the other hand, some watches are intensely personal pleasures, like the 4101 Millenary we saw last year. Is it a part of the plan to make watches that are personal alongside broadly appealing classics such as the Royal Oak and Royal Oak Offshore?

I don’t agree in the case of the 4101. Give the 4101 some time and I think it will be as recognizable as the Royal Oak. When you launch something new you have to give it time before you know how it is accepted… You know of course that the Royal Oak also took time to become a success and when it did, it was a great success. The Millenary is the perfect example of something that I do believe will be recognized for the mechanism but also the shape.

Tell us about the evolution of the Millenary watch. We know Audemars Piguet has oval watches in its archives so was it based on an archive piece?

Actually, the guy who designed the Offshore also did the Millenary design (that would be Octavio Garcia, Group Artistic Director Audemars Piguet). It was based on the coliseum in Rome. It is a totally new concept for us and is not based on anything in our archive. This watch doesn’t please everyone but that’s what we want. We want to provoke a reaction no matter what. What we want is for people to say I love it or I hate it. We never want to be in the middle; so-so or just ok. The Millenary is the perfect example of this kind of love it or hate it type of watch.

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The Royal Oak Offshore Grande Complication is new for 2013 and makes the case for Audemars Piguet's mastery of high complications

Thinking about the Royal Oak, the bracelet in particular, the attention to detail here is lavish. How important are these sorts of details in watchmaking?

The details are everything. Everything we do is about details. When we do something we cannot compromise; when you have a mechanical movement, you have hundreds of components so if you don’t pay attention to all the details you will be in trouble. I think in this case it is not even watchmaking if you don’t pay attention to small details.

Do you consider how different markets might react to the watches? Is this something that affects your strategy at all?

It does and it doesn’t. Our main goal is to launch products that are global; that have a worldwide appeal. We understand the tastes of different markets but we cannot launch specific watches only for specific markets. If we do this, we lose the message that brand wants to communicate to the world, (negatively) affect the integrity of the brand and even the (reputation) of the brand with the owners (of the watches). So even if there are inevitable special pieces for special places our core collection has to appeal to the world.

So then the idea that a brand must come with a strong offering in round classical watches in Asia is not a consideration for Audemars Piguet?

First of all it is not Asia, it is China that you mean, to be precise. Japan is different, Singapore is different, Malaysia is different… Even though for China they say more classical watches sell better, we tracked online searches coming from China about (our) watches and do you know what we found? It was the Royal Oak. The 40thanniversary edition!

Before we know exactly what China wants, we have to take a step back to examine what the Chinese want while respecting the integrity of the brand. It will take time in order to do this properly.

What we do not want is Chinese people looking at 40 watches in our boutique in Beijing and then looking at different watches when they are in Europe, for example. It has to remain the same.

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The sky is the limit for Audemars Piguet's watchmakers, if Bennahmias has his way

Would Audemars Piguet perhaps acquire another brand to add another dimension to its offer for customers?

If we were to acquire another brand, it would not be to increase production and sell more watches (another a different line). In fact just with Audemars Piguet we could do much, much more. A lot more. I look at it always that we can grow higher, get better and stronger… We could even increase our volume. Maybe not overnight but we can do 50,000 where we are doing 40,000. I don’t see a problem with this. If we do everything correctly, in terms of products, communications and distribution, we could grow our sales drastically, just with our existing Audemars Piguet watches. We have so much potential. This is how I see it.

What about this argument about exclusivity? You know, keeping the volume low to preserve exclusivity.

No I am absolutely against this. I love it when business people talk about how they don’t want to grow the business! You know, completely against doing more business. There is always a chance in life that at one point that you will reach the limit of production capacity or the market is saturated and such but in terms of watches, we are far from it now!

Anybody who would say they would limit production in the current market to preserve exclusivity, well, if I heard this I would have to call them on it. You know, like a poker game, I have to call on statements like this. So for example, if five years ago a brand was doing 5,000 watches and they are still doing 5,000 watches and don’t plan to increase this in future but they invest in new facilities, in new staff and new markets… I mean come on!

Let me put it to you this way: If the world would wake up today and have the same passion for watches as it has for cars or for fashion, we could not supply it. Never. This is why I say the sky is the limit

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Audemars Piguet

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