Keeping time with Audemars Piguet
AN INTERVIEW WITH AUDEMARS PIGUET’S CEO
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.
“INDONESIANS ARE ACTUALLY BUYING A LOT OF WATCHES IN INDONESIA– AND OUTSIDE OF INDONESIA. IT’S ONE OF OUR TOP CLIENT BASES.