june 2017
may 2017

François-Henry Bennahmias, CEO Audemars Piguet

Cut and Thrust

Laurent, for the last few months you’ve been very open with me about your desire to see someone new in charge at Audemars Piguet. 

 
Laurent Picciotto:
That’s true. They’ve been waiting for a new boss, or even just a boss, for a long time now. I’ve seen several people come and go, each of them appointed in a similar fashion. At the end of the day it pretty much resembled a relay race; simply passing on the baton, whereas for my part I was convinced that a completely different approach was called for – provided by someone capable of laying down a clear, rational strategy, and able to see things right through. The thinking was already in place there. Now we’ll have action too.
 
François-Henry Bennahmias:
I’m certainly not afraid of admitting that I’m a man of action. That’s my job; it’s what I’m paid for.
 

That said, you’ll be moving from a 70-strong organisation in the United States to one with twelve hundred people located worldwide. It’s not the same kettle of fish!

 
François-Henry Bennahmias:
Of course not. The decision-making chain will be longer and the process may sometimes be slower. Many things are going to change, but I don’t intend to do a U-turn. I’m now at the helm of a huge vessel, one that I feel is going rather too far too fast. My objective is to bring some stability – and that can’t be done in just a few metres or minutes. I’m giving myself two years to stabilise our speed and direction, after which we’ll be making a gradual shift to a strategy that will be easier for our partners and clients to understand.
 
Laurent Picciotto:
Plenty of CEOs are saying the same thing, but very few know how to implement it. François, however, has already walked the talk on the American market, even though it’s one of the most atypical. If anyone can pull this off for an entire brand, it’s him.
 
François-Henry Bennahmias:
As things stand, all our partners have got behind what I’m saying. I’ve travelled virtually all the way round the world in three months to meet them, and I haven’t come across any reservations at all. It’s a question of method: I’ve been careful to involve our best partners in the strategic thinking from the beginning. I’ve established a guiding principle and adjusted it in line with all their feedback. Once everything’s been nailed down, I’ll get them together again to confirm that we’re all headed in the same direction. That might seem obvious, but the fact remains that this wasn’t how things were done in the past.
 

Cutting back on an offering means less choice for retailers and clients, doesn’t it? 

 
Laurent Picciotto:
Not when there have been items coming out faster than you could count them – while at the same time some end customers were having to wait several months or even years to get a watch simply because the brand was offering more than it could produce.
 
François-Henry Bennahmias:
We need to have the best possible offering, with the help of the best possible partners.

How do you recognise a ‘best partner’? 

François-Henry Bennahmias:
By their commitment. We had too many retail outlets and our distributors were carrying too many brands. We owe it to ourselves to choose the best; similarly, we’ve encouraged our partners to make a more stringent selection in their brands.
 

Both of you aren’t afraid of telling it the way it is – that’s quite a change from the carefully worded statements that are widespread in the exclusive world of watchmaking. Did having that in common play a part in bringing you together? 

 
François-Henry Bennahmias:
Perhaps it did (laughter)! Our friendship goes back a long way. We’ve known each other for nearly twenty years.
 
Laurent Picciotto:
Eighteen to be precise!
 
François-Henry Bennahmias:
I began in 1994. It’s very simple to explain. I wasn’t originally from the world of watchmaking, so back then I came to learn from Laurent. Few people really have a grasp of the extent to which he has had an influence on watchmaking.
 

It was as a result of this relationship that together, you opened the very first Audemars Piguet store outside Switzerland. 

 
Laurent Picciotto:
That’s exactly right. It was an intense, passionate experience – a first for both Audemars and myself. It was 1997 and we were starting out from scratch with everything to be accomplished. The adventure lasted 10 years.
 

So it’s more about people than brands…

 
François-Henry Bennahmias:
Precisely! Our whole business is about people! I don’t work with Chronopassion because it’s Chronopassion, but because the boss is Laurent. And that changes everything. It’s the same relational approach that you need to maintain with end customers. You can make all the plans in the world, but if you don’t manage to get your end customer on board, none of it’s any use at all.
 
Laurent Picciotto:
Once again, François practices what he’s preaching here. Recently we’ve seen the price of certain gold models come down.
 
François-Henry Bennahmias:
Despite that being unthinkable in the world of luxury goods – some people seemed to think it was a treasonable act!
 
Laurent Picciotto:
Perhaps – but in the short term, at the day-to-day level, it was becoming virtually impossible to sell some watches in your collections because they were unaffordable, in spite of all their qualities. We are on connoisseurs’ markets; people buying an Audemars Piguet are not to be treated like some random customer.
 
François-Henry Bennahmias:
Of course. They read up, make comparisons; sometimes they’re even familiar with the price of gold. If you are too expensive, you’re putting yourself out of the game, as Laurent says. It makes no sense at all. I was vilified for doing what I did, but today orders for these gold timepieces are taking off again and I’m getting calls from competing brands asking me for my point of view on the subject. Which just goes to show…
 

So it’s all looking good for now. Is this just a honeymoon period?

 
François-Henry Bennahmias:
I know that just as after a presidential election, an appointment such as mine leads to a sort of temporary, post-election state of grace. I’m being watched and my strategy examined. It’s a little like a president’s first 100 days.
 
Laurent Picciotto:
You’ve wasted no time getting in touch with your partners during those first 100 days, though. To put it in a nutshell, the risk-taking is mutual. People are evaluating, committing, signing up and then acting accordingly.
 

Is it as simple as that? 

 
Laurent Picciotto:
It should never have been any other way. Audemars Piguet is a brand with capabilities and untapped potential.
 
François-Henry Bennahmias:
It won’t stay that way for long, believe me!
 
Laurent Picciotto:
In any case, don’t worry, I’ve signed up already (laughter)!
 
Journalist : Olivier Müller  (03/2013)