In 1996, a then fresh-faced 23-year-old Oliviero Bottinelli, who had recently graduated from the Business School Lausanne, was faced with a life-changing decision — come to Singapore or accept a spot on Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz's marketing team. The Audemars Piguet director had been introduced to Schultz by his father Pierangelo Bottinelli, a banker who had helped in the listing of Starbucks on the stock exchange. “His house was next to the late Kurt Cobain's and Bill Gates lived across the lake,” he recalls.
It was also around this time that he received a job proposition from Sunil Amarasuriya, chairman of the BP de Silva group (then distributor for the Swatch group and Audemars Piguet) and a personal friend of his late uncle Georges Golay, managing director and president of Audemars Piguet from 1966 to 1987. “[Amarasuriya] spoke about Singapore positively and it was a mystery I wanted to discover. He said Singapore was the place where things happened,” says Bottinelli, 43.
With two job offers in hand, it was by a pure stroke of coincidence that he came across a Fortune magazine cover story on the world's best cities for business. “The front cover was a picture of Raffles Place, and I remember thinking, wow,” he says. “It was strange. I didn't need much convincing,” says Bottinelli. Joining BP de Silva in Singapore, he was put to work with the group's Omega distributorship and its jewellery arm. Within a year, he was assigned to take care of the Audemars Piguet distributorship.
By that time, the Bottinelli family had amassed a substantial stake in Audemars Piguet through the shares that Bottinelli's mother Jacqueline inherited from Golay, in addition to those that Pierangelo had purchased. Audemars Piguet remains one of the last few independent luxury houses that is still in the hands of the founding families: The largest shareholder is the Audemars family; the Piguets and the Bottinellis own a similar share of the pie, while the Petruzzellos (who are related to the LeCoultre family) and the Amarasuriyas each hold a minority stake in the company. Today, Bottinelli owns all of his family's shares and sits on the board with the other four members from the different families.
Despite his background, job titles and recognition were never handed to him on a silver platter. Instead, he was made to work from the ground up. “My first job as a special projects executive involved counting the watches in the retailers' windows and even dusting the windows if necessary,” he shares. It took him 13 years before he became the managing director of Audemars Piguet Asia in 2009. On December 31, 2014, after devoting 19 years of his life to the brand's growth in the region, he stepped down from his executive role to focus on his duties as a member of the Audemars Piguet board of directors, which he has been part of since 2010.
“Stepping down was something I planned two years ago but it wasn't until the last three months of 2014 that I went, ‘oh my god! It's coming!' I was a little bit anxious but this anxiety disappeared very fast after a week…It doesn't mean that Audemars Piguet would disappear from my heart if I stepped down from my executive role,” he explains. On the contrary, he has spent the bulk of his time preparing for board meetings and keeping his finger on the pulse of the industry. As his Singaporean wife, Chin, says: “With everything that he does, work or otherwise, he approaches it with characteristic passion and dedication.”
In addition to working on 10-year plans for the firm, Bottinelli is also part of its strategic planning team and enjoys being involved in product development. Considering how the past year has been abuzz with developments in smartwatch technology, it is not surprising to discover that this topic has led the agendas of a number of his meetings. “Do you want to be connected all the time? I think it's going to come to a point that people will become so connected that they are going to go nuts. Then maybe they won't want to be connected at all and will come back to an authentic man-made product,” he says.
“For us, it is very clear that we will never have anything digital within the watch,” he adds. That being said, he reveals that a meeting has been set up with a representative of a Korean company that will shed light on the latest technology available for a watchstrap. “A watchstrap can be a screen or a battery. Anything is possible but everything is still a question mark,” he says.
He also shares that steps have already been made to reduce point of sales around the world. “Whether it's the product, service, distribution channel or how we work within subsidiaries, quality is our priority. We are lucky that as an independent company, we can do what we want without needing to rush,” he says.
With time on his side in more ways than one, Bottinelli intends to pursue other personal interests, such as expanding The Senso Group that he co-owns with BP de Silva. Senso Ristorante & Bar was opened in 2000 and the business has grown beyond the flagship restaurant to include five Spizza outlets (the newest one is located in the new Capitol Piazza) and two La Nonna restaurants. Acting on his Italian ancestry (Pierangelo is from Lugano, in the Italian-speaking part of Ticino, Switzerland), he has only opened Italian eateries so far.
“Competition is fierce these days and it's hard to find good staff. When I arrived in Singapore in 1996, there were not that many Italian restaurants: There were a few bad ones, one or two good ones and that was it. Today, there are more than 100 Italian restaurants. I have to open something else,” he adds. If his plans proceed without a hitch, he will be adding a Swiss restaurant to The Senso Group by the end of 2015. “Fondue and cheese is part of the Swiss food culture but there is so much more to Swiss cuisine than what most people think,” he explains.
The self-confessed foodie has a palate that spans from unpretentious home-cooked dishes (such as a simply made spaghetti aglio olio peperoncino and his mother-in-law's chicken curry and chicken rice) to the most elaborate culinary extravaganzas — two of his most unforgettable meals were in the three-Michelin-starred establishments (now defunct) El Bulli in Roses and Restaurant de l'Hotel de Ville in Crissier. He has been a regular patron of Restaurant de l'Hotel de Ville since the days of Fredy Girardet (who passed the reigns to his protégé Philippe Rochat and who in turn, was succeeded by Benoit Violier) and holds it in such high regard that he once flew all 21 members of its Brigade de cuisine to Singapore for an exclusive Audemars Piguet client dinner.
“I would have loved to be a chef. As a young boy, my grandmother used to ask what I wanted to be when I grew up. I remember telling her that I wanted to be a cook,” he says. But these days, Bottinelli can be found in the kitchen only on Valentine's Day, when he is most likely whipping up his specialty dishes such as pasta arrabbiata, pasta Bolognese, risotto or rabbit for Chin. “When I have time, and it could be soon, I would love to experience a bit more in the kitchen. It's a good pastime,” he says.
Even though his passion for food was one of the obvious reasons why he decided to do business as a restauranteur, it was also to inspire his younger brother Sebastien, who was then enrolled in a hotel management course in Lausanne. Sebastien has since abandoned his F&B ambitions and both brothers are business partners in Ahlia Holding, where Bottinelli serves as a director. Ahlia is composed of several Swiss properties and boutique property development firm BSM Casaling, which was set up by Sebastien. Together, the brothers are also two of the biggest investors in Gruyères, a quaint Swiss town known for its cheese, where they also own two hotels and a restaurant.
Business pursuits aside, his greatest luxury since stepping down from his executive position at Audemars Piguet is the additional time he gets to spend with his two-year-old daughter Ornella. “Before I stepped down, I wanted to be the first person in the office. Now I can take her to school every morning,” he says. He can barely contain his joy as he recounts each moment with her like it was yesterday — from when he first laid eyes on her in the hospital (“I remember counting her toes”), to her first sentence (“one more time!”), to the moment she responded with her first “Je'taime papa”.
It was a difficult wait for the couple, who have been married for 11 years. “We yearned so long for Ornella that seeing her every day is sometimes still unbelievable,” he says. Those years of waiting for their miracle baby was emotionally gruelling: “Going through that can be very tough for a couple. It either breaks you or the both of you come out of it stronger than ever before.”
Of his wife, he says their relationship was meant to be. “When I met Chin [15 years ago] it was her smile that did it for me. Somehow, everything came together naturally and it felt like we had known each other for a long time,” he shares.
For the family and their two dogs (an English bulldog named Ciccio and a brown Labrador called Belle), home is a two-storey bungalow located in a cul-de-sac in Holland Park. The property, previously owned by former politician George Yeo, has since expanded to include a new wing with more bedrooms, a big living area, study, pool and rooftop patio.
These days, Bottinelli makes it a point to be home by 5pm — the time Ornella wakes up from her afternoon nap. “He is a doting father and it is so incredibly endearing to see him and Ornella together. He adores her and is ever so ready to do anything with her,” says Chin.
“Parenthood has changed us completely…What I do now is for Ornella's future. There are projects that I want to do for her that I hope one day she will either continue or appreciate,” he says. He is upfront about his hope for her to join Audemars Piguet. “I would like her to be interested in the brand, the region and the environment,” he shares.
For a start, he has made plans to spend Christmas with his whole family at Le Brassus (Audemars Piguet's historical address) and in the same house where he spent his first 17 Christmases. “I learnt to ski in Le Brassus, went mushroom hunting with Uncle George in the summer and fell into the river by the house several times,” he recalls. Holding on to fond memories of Le Brassus is something he wishes his daughter would eventually do.
“It's a family business and I would like Ornella to be involved in it even if she doesn't work for it. At some point, she might be on the board,” he says. For now, it seems Bottinelli has little cause for concern. Even at her age, Ornella can recognise the iconic octagonal case of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. “Whenever I point to the watch and ask her what it is, she tells me ‘it's an AP watch!'” he says. Looks like the apple truly doesn't fall far from the tree.
PHOTOGRAPHER/ CHER HIM
FASHION STYLIST/ WILSON LIM
PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANT/ IVAN TEO
FASHION ASSISTANT/ MICHELLE KOK
HAIR ARTIST/ EDWARD CHONG from EVOLVE
MAKE-UP ARTIST/ ELAIN LIM using DIOR