Keep­ing time with Aude­mars Piguet



Parisian François-Henry Ben­nah­mias started his ca­reer as a pro­fes­sional golfer in France– and has ended up as the chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of Switzer­land-based Aude­mars Piguet, one of the world’s most lux­u­ri­ous watch brands. Ben­nah­mias pre­sides over a 141-yearold firm that crafts around 40,000 lux­ury time­pieces each year, such as its mas­ter­piece, the CHF800,000 ($US817,548) Grande Com­pli­ca­tion, which takes a sin­gle watch­maker up­wards of nine months to make. De­spite this year’s re­ported slow­down in lux­ury watch sales, for Ben­nah­mias, it comes down to num­bers. “How many peo­ple on the planet, out of more than 7 bil­lion peo­ple, can af­ford th­ese watches in the­ory? I would say 35 to 40 mil­lion, he says. “Thir­ty­five to 40 mil­lion po­ten­tial clients. Is the glass half full or half empty? I want to look at it as the glass half full.” J+ caught up with Ben­nah­mias dur­ing a re­cent visit to Jakarta to talk about the watch com­pany, mar­ket­ing to mil­len­ni­als and com­par­isons to three-Miche­lin-star restau­rants. Here are ex­cerpts from our in­ter­view, edited for clar­ity.

Any fall­out from the Asian slow­down?

Asia is a bit more than a third of our sales–not by de­fault, but by choice, in the sense that we’ve al­ways wanted our­selves to be well spread across the globe. We are in 75 coun­tries and we per­form pretty well ev­ery­where, which is what we want.

Last year, in our price cat­e­gory, sales went down over­all by five to seven per­cent. We went up by 15 per­cent. We were com­pletely against the wind. [Given] what we are see­ing now, es­pe­cially with China and Hong Kong, we know that we are not go­ing to be af­fected the same way.

What’s go­ing to make [a cus­tomer] buy a watch? At that level of lux­ury, there is no per­fect for­mula. I was liv­ing in New York on Sep. 11. On Sep. 12, we sold one Grande Com­pli­ca­tion for $800,000 and one for $500,000 the day af­ter. They told us: “It could have been me. I have the money. I’ve been think­ing about that watch for quite some time. I’m go­ing to buy the watch.”

This why we have to touch peo­ple through many, many dif­fer­ent points of en­try. I al­ways want to look at the world giv­ing us a lot of pos­si­ble op­por­tu­ni­ties and not look­ing at our busi­ness and say­ing “Oh, we’re very sad.” Not us.

How does the In­done­sian mar­ket mea­sure up?

In­done­sians are ac­tu­ally buy­ing a lot of watches in In­done­sia–and out­side of In­done­sia. It’s one of our top client bases. It’s not only that they buy ei­ther in Sin­ga­pore or in Kuala Lumpur: They buy in Paris, they buy in Mi­lan, they buy in New York. The brand is well-ap­pre­ci­ated here. We see a clien­tele that is re­ally young. We had an event with 25 of our VIPs [in Jakarta]. The av­er­age age was be­low 40. It’s a young coun­try with a lot of ap­pre­ci­a­tion for watch­mak­ing.

What’s your strat­egy for mil­len­ni­als?

It’s not the same lan­guage or en­try points. For a 50 year old, maybe we’ll ex­plain that we are a brand that started

in 1875 [and that] the way we make our mech­a­nisms is done by hand. I would play it a bit more con­ser­va­tive.

For a 20 year old? It’s go­ing to be, “Woah, I saw your watch worn by that ath­lete or in that movie. Or I heard that singer talk­ing about it or wear­ing it. You know what, I want to be a part of that world! And that is why I’m go­ing to wear it.”

In the end, he knows that it’s high end and that it has good value, but he’s not go­ing to “click” for the same things. I have a 20 year old daugh­ter. I can’t talk to her the same way I talk to some­one who is 50. If I talked to them the same way, I’m go­ing to lose them. So we have to adapt.

What makes Aude­mars Piguet dif­fer­ent?

We’re the first to take chances. We’ve al­ways done things slightly dif­fer­ently com­pared to others. One the best ex­am­ples is when we launched the Royal Oak in 1972. At that time, the watches that were sell­ing were round, oval or square–but only in pre­cious met­als and on straps. Then we came: Stain­less steel, oc­tag­o­nal, in­te­grated bracelet for the same price as a gold watch on a strap. At the [Basel­world watch show] in 1972, peo­ple looked at us and said: “Great job! Fan­tas­tic!” Then they were leav­ing the booth and say­ing: “They are never go­ing to make it! They are dead! They’re go­ing to go bust!” Forty years later, here we are–and in bet­ter shape than ever.

Do you worry about smart watches?

Peo­ple call them “smart watches”. I al­ways ask the ques­tion, “Does it make our watches stupid?” They are go­ing to make watches by mil­lions. Ev­ery­one gets the same watch. It’s fast con­sump­tion.

When you buy watches like th­ese [points to his watch], it’s a com­pletely dif­fer­ent story. That’s the three-star Miche­lin [restau­rant]. As a hu­man be­ing, can you go to a fast-food restau­rant and a three-star Miche­lin? Sure. Ab­so­lutely. But we are not in the same bas­ket.

How many seats do you think there are on av­er­age at a three-star restau­rant? Let’s say 25 to up maybe 60. And if one of them was go­ing to go from 25 or 60 to 300? Gone–not ex­clu­sive. They would lose in two sec­onds. It’s two dif­fer­ent worlds.

How did you break in?

[I was] a very bad stu­dent in school [and a] pro­fes­sional golfer when I turned 18–played on tour for five years. I couldn’t make any money, be­cause I wanted to be No. 1 in the world and failed dras­ti­cally. [He ex­ag­ger­ates, hav­ing been ranked as France’s No. 25]. I moved to the fash­ion busi­ness for seven years. I didn’t think I’d ever work for AP [Aude­mars Piguet]. I met some­body in St. Bart’s in the Caribbean in 1993. I be­came friends. He was dis­tribut­ing Bre­itling for the French mar­ket. I re­mem­ber that guy told me do you want to run Aude­mars Piguet. He told me “you’ll do OK”.

Any ad­vice for lux­ury watch new­bies?

Do what you think is right. When you reach a cer­tain level, it’s much more which [watch] gives you a cer­tain feel­ing. There are some watches that I would never buy for my­self, but are very suc­cess­ful–and there are watches that very few peo­ple would look at and I would say I love them. Taste is al­ways very sub­jec­tive.

How about your fa­vorite watch?

It’s like ask­ing me who is my fa­vorite child. I’ve got roughly 50 or 60 watches. The fa­vorite one could al­ways be the next one. At the same time, there are watches that we will be launch­ing in the next two to three years that I can­not wait to put on my wrist. It’s an on­go­ing story.


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