Hubert Burda Media

Interview: CEO of Audemars Piguet

François-Henry Bennahmias, CEO of Audemars Piguet, believes his company’s focus on craftsmanship and consistency will see it through the slump currently affecting the timepiece industry.

François-Henry Bennahmias

Fifty-year-old François-Henry Bennahmias was born in Paris. He began his career in sport and was once ranked number 25 on the French golf tour. Before beginning his career in haute horlogerie, he worked in the luxury fashion industry. He started his career at Audemars Piguet in 1994, in France. In less than three years, he was promoted to lead the company’s operations in Singapore. He took on added responsibility for Audemars Piguet in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Brunei, Australia and Malaysia. In 1999, he assumed the role of President and CEO of Audemars Piguet North America. Bennahmias played an instrumental role in establishing the company’s flagship boutiques on New York City’s 57th Street in 2003 and at Bal Harbour Shops in Miami, Florida in 2006. He became CEO in January 2013. In an interview with Chris Andre and Handayani Tanuwijaya, Bennahmias discussed the current downturn affecting the timepiece industry, the smartwatch phenomenon and the importance for AP of remaining an independent family business. Highlights:

The timepiece industry is in a slump. How is Audemars Piguet coping?
When there’s a crisis it’s not like everything stops. There are hundreds of watch companies, but I do believe today that we’re among three to five brands that are actually still performing well. In markets like Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, I’m amazed to see the youth of some of the new clients that we have. So, in life you have to choose whether to see the glass is half full or half empty. I want to see the glass as half full.

Why the emphasis on bright colours and yellow gold in your 2016 novelties?
For the last five years we’re only see black and red, and that’s become boring. I said: “Let’s make something cool because people want to have fun.” If you bring a little bit of fun to the collection, people will think: “Well I’ll put my black and red watch away and change it for something else.” We haven’t seen yellow gold watches since seven or eight years ago, so we’re going to bring them back. The good news is that people are talking about AP. Give them something new to talk about and they say: ‘That’s cool, I want one.’ you say on your website that the Audemars Piguet manufacture excels in engineering, craft and design over other watch manufacturers.

How do you justify such a claim?
Because I do believe that today we have some of the best watchmakers on the planet - and R&D guys. Wait until you see what’s going to come out in 2017, when we will have something very special to offer. And in 2018, we will have further new watches. In the next three to five years, there will be a revolution in the watch world. This is not a claim, this is a fact. You’ll see. 

Talking of revolutions, what do you make of the smartwatch phenomenon?
There’s always a lesson to learn when there’s a new player in town. When there is something new you have to look at what’s happening. What could it generate? At the end, it’s two different things. Because smartwatches are connected devices. First of all, they are completely mass-market products and like fast food. They are throwaway things. Meaning, when the iPhone 5 came out, the iPhone 4 was gone, and so on. You throw things away. I mean, I didn’t keep my Motorola or Ericsson phone from 20 years ago. I have a 20-year-old daughter and she throws things away every day, because that’s mass consumption. I do believe that these connected watches are very close to fast food. And that’s fine. I don’t judge fast food. I can go to a fast-food place, but I also can enjoy a threestar Michelin restaurant. Could it affect the bottom part of the watch world? Yes, sure. It depends on what do you want for your money. For US$500 or $1,000 or $1,500, you get more from connected watches in terms of brand perception or even the technology than what you get from a conventional watches of the same price. But to compare connected watches and Audemars Piguet - I don’t think so. There is room forMichelin restaurants and also for fast food. Always.

How important is it for Audemars Piguet to still be an independent family business?
Extremely important. First of all, when a good idea comes up, the time it gets to me and then to the family takes seconds. So we move quickly. Today in business, you don’t have to be the biggest but you do have to be the fastest. Because the world is moving fast. Nobody is waiting for anybody. So the advantage is that we have the speed. The second most important thing is that we don’t care about quarterly reports. We have a longer term view on the way to bring the business to a whole different level. I can really forecast and work on projects for the next five to 10 years.

What steps is the company taking to ensure that it remains independent?
First of all, we say no to everyone who want to buy our company (laughs). One of the most important things is to keep the company in good financial health. Basically, we’re going forward. Jasmine Audemars (President of the company) and Olivier Audemars (great-grandson of co-founder Edward Auguste Piguet) live very simple lives. They’re not fancy people who fly around in a private jet. Because we still want to be around for the next 50 or 200 years. It’s not always about making money or how much money we can get, but it’s about being consistent. Because consistency will ensure the long-term future of the company.

What steps are you taking to attract young people into the industry?
We have an internship programme and right now we have 33 apprentice watchmakers working for us. Our employees range from 15 to 67 years old. In the workshop where we make our Grande Complication the youngest watchmaker is 32 years old and the oldest is 59. We know the importance of bringing new blood on board on a regular basis. We train these kids for the future. Hopefully, there’s going to be a bright future for the Grande Complication as well.

What’s the most important thing that you’ve learned in your 22 years in the industry?
No matter what you do, whether it’s business or sport or anything, it always comes back to people. And
one of the most rewarding things is when people come to Switzerland and they say that our people are very humble. They are passionate
about what they’re doing in a very humble way. And they are very thankful every time they see people who are interested in what they do. That’s the number one strength of our company. We have a lot of good people. My job is like being the conductor of an orchestra. I’m not the best pianist or drummer, and I don’t know how to play guitar or anything, but I can conduct. As the conductor you have to be able to make people play together. They know their music, they know it. But how well they play well together, that’s a different story. So that’s the most rewarding thing for me – bringing people together.