Audemars Piguet has always had a close relationship with sport and in particular golf. CEO-Henry Bennahmias was, in fact, a successful golfer himself in the past and his keen interest in the sport and the way it’s closely entwined with the Audemars Piguet brand is clear to see. On a recent visit to Dubai the luxury watch brand partnered with the DP World Tour Championship. Audemars Piguet had nine brand ambassadors taking part in the international golfing event and the watchmaker invited some of its VIP clients to come and share the experience in Dubai.
As part of the event, François-Henry Bennahmias travelled to Dubai to meet with clients and share the brand experience with the local market. Bennahmias is known to interact closely with customers and when we meet with him in Dubai his relaxed approach is infectious and he tells us it’s also something he is very proud of when it comes to motivating his team. Since becoming CEO in 2012 the Frenchman has moved the brand forward slowly but surely. The Swiss brand is proud of its exclusivity (they still continue to limit their watches to around 40,000 per year), but Bennahmias’ approach has allowed him to open up the brand to the world, while still managing to keep the element of exclusivity and luxury. After a very successful year for Audemars Piguet, we sit down with Bennahmias to discuss the brand’s relationship with sport and his big plans for 2020.
We are here today as part of your partnership with the DP Championship in Dubai. Of course, you have a background in golf so how does this influence your choices and alignments for the brand?
All of our brand ambassadors have to pass job interviews with me! I really want to know who they are. If they are just good at golf and nothing else then they cannot work with us. They have to have a specific character – I want them to be easy going with people and passionate about many things other than golf. If you’re only going to talk to our clients about golf then it’s not going to work. So I want to know what they know about the world.
Why do you think golf works as an alignment for the brand?
First of all, golf was the first sport that we ever got close to back in 1989 with our first brand ambassador Nick Faldo. Golf is a sport that wealthy people play a lot worldwide and it’s also a sport where you have a lot of time. When you go to play golf for four hours it often becomes a business meeting. In what other sport could you get four hours with the CEO of a company for example? So it’s a great place to do business and it’s the sport in my mind, where you never know what’s going to happen so it’s exciting.
What is the biggest challenge you are facing currently with Audemars Piguet?
Very honestly – our team of 2,000 people is going to end the year very tired. We have grown so fast, we have shifted our business model so quickly and it can be draining for people. It’s tough and we keep pushing because I know that we’re on a roll and that’s when you have to even potentially pick up more speed. So that’s about managing the people and keeping them motivated without pushing them too far. That’s my biggest challenge.
How do you do that – what is your technique for motivating your staff?
It’s a mix of several things but I really care about people so I pay attention. We do a lot of fun things outside of the normal office environment. I always have my door open for when people want to talk and share their issues. I spend a lot of time coaching actually!
What about the perception of the brand in the Middle East – how do you think it is seen here and what is the reaction from customers?
Audemars Piguet is booming here in the region. We had lunch with clients yesterday and what I find unbelievable is the youth coming into watchmaking – both men and women – who are coming to the brand. We’ve been hearing for so long that the young generation doesn’t wear watches anymore or they only wear smartwatches and we are really seeing that this isn’t the case. I recently gave a speech at the University of Taiwan. 160 students attended and sixty per cent of them were wearing watches but only one was a smartwatch. So the notion of the fact that watchmaking doesn’t appeal anymore; it’s not the case.
Why do you think the younger generation is showing an interest in mechanical watches?
I really believe that it doesn’t matter what age people are for them to appreciate the craftsmanship. From our side, it’s a case of offering them to be part of what we do and allowing them to understand that. The generation of people who grew up with screens and speed also have much more of an understanding of slowing down and taking time to appreciate – to them this is a luxury.
Are there any particular buying patterns in the Middle East that differ from the rest of the world?
No, I would say that our stores and patterns are the same in almost every place. We have actually evolved by watch industry standards incredibly fast. We have grown by around 11 per cent. What I can say that we see here in the Middle East is that the average age of our customers is shockingly young. In a good way. When I meet people I feel like they all want to take selfies! People think it’s really cool and it’s very interesting for me to meet and interact with them.
You know the younger customer is there and they are coming to you but how do you focus on that customer but still appeal to the existing clientele?
We don’t focus especially on any customer. What we do is adapt to the new world. Social media, of course, is now a very important platform. We need to consider the language we use – we cannot be delivering long boring messages. We have to adapt and be appealing. We are a serious brand but we don’t take ourselves seriously. We don’t want potential customers to feel that we are inaccessible or too stuffy for clients to approach us. We want to be welcoming and inclusive. We are working with a number of industries including sports, art, music and these are our three pillars of communication that talk to people.
Some of your newer brand ambassadors are quite young – is this also a method to help you connect with a younger audience?
They are young, yes but we don’t sign them to touch a young clientele – it is more because if they are young there are more expectations for them to succeed.
You will be opening a museum at the Audemars Piguet headquarters next year – what can you tell us about that?
It’s almost done! By April next year, we will open. I was there two days ago and it’s really impressive and beautiful. I think people will really appreciate what goes into our watchmaking and the craftsmanship. Also the craziness of the architecture. There are no walls to the building which is very unique. We have roughly 1600 watches in total as part of the museum but we will not expose them all at the same time. They will be on rotation – there will be special events and themes and we will also be launching a specific watch for the opening of the museum.
What is and what can Audemars Piguet do to support sustainability?
First of all sustainability at Audemars Piguet started back in 1992 with Jasmine Audemars when she created the Audemars Piguet Foundation. She had a vision back then of becoming green as it was something very important to her. We were the first factory to be built under the Minergie-ECO Label which was something very complicated to achieve. Our hotel and museum are also built in the same way, as will our new factory be. But that’s only one part. In the watchmaking industry, we are working with products where we have to pay attention – diamond, gold, leather – so we have to ensure we are receiving materials in the right way and we have to follow changing guidelines. For example, California is banning exotic skins as of 2020 so we have to work as fast as possible to find other options. This is the kind of thing we are going to see happening more and more. And then we have the third part – the lab rolled diamonds which everyone is talking about – so that’s something we have to keep in mind as who knows what’s going to come next? Sustainability is also how our people go to work so there are many aspects we need to consider at the same time.
What can you tell us about what’s happening in regards to women’s watches at Audemars Piguet and the industry as a whole?
Five years ago we had an 85/15 split of men’s to women’s watches. Right now it’s 65/35. So we have increased a lot in the women’s world, and knowing that many women are also buying men’s watches which we cannot keep track of, it’s likely that this number is even higher than we know. I do believe that it’s going to go a lot further than that. Women are starting to pay more attention to watches and it could go completely crazy.
How important do you think the store experience is today and how are you managing the increased demand for an online presence?
First of all, we are not selling online and if you look at all the companies selling online from low end to high-end luxury, they are all losing money. But for us, it’s not about making money. I look at online potentially to be another tool to facilitate an encounter between the brand and the people. We don’t want to be selling watches online but we want it to be more of a tool either to tell people where we have stores or discover more about our watches or allow customers to understand the brand or to get in touch with us. I think we learn every day about this subject and we are really looking at what could be best for our clients as an online experience. Every day something new comes up so we have to work really fast and look at it really carefully.
How important is the store experience today and are there any plans to re-vamp your stores?
Yes, we are looking at a whole new brand identity. It’s a long process that we’ve already been working on for a year. We are in an industry where things are really difficult in terms of displaying products in the right way. We are selling very small products so it’s hard to present them in the windows for customers to see. The depth in a watch is in the details – how can we show the details in a store? So we have to think very carefully about that. The second point is what do we do when we don’t have any watches left to sell? Why would people come to our stores with no watches in there? So there are a lot of questions that make us think about what we want from Audemars Piguet retail 2.0.
What do you want customers to feel when they come to your stores?
We want them to feel like they are in a dream world but that’s not the case yet. I want customers to leave our stores thinking ‘wow, now I need to go visit their store in another city.’ The reason why is because we are completely done with having the same stores everywhere on the planet. It doesn’t work anymore. You cannot have the exact same brand identity across the world. Of course, you have to have a common ground, but you need to adapt yourself to the local cultures, you cannot just copy and paste your stores in every city.
What is the watch that you’re wearing today?
A white ceramic perpetual calendar. We launched the black ceramic three years ago which was a big success but it took much longer to make the white. This is because, as silly as it might sound, to machine white ceramic is twice as hard as black. At the beginning it starts as a powder, it’s then heated, moulded and it passes through many phases before it becomes the final watch. With white, you see all the impurities in the material that you can’t see in black so it’s not unusual to actually have to throw away fifty per cent of the ceramic made. It’s a real trial and error process and there is a lot of waste which is unavoidable. We also can’t create ceramic in many other colours because it is so difficult to do. Many brands have been using ceramic for a long time but it has been mono-finished in the sense that it’s either brushed or polished. Ours is a mix of two finishes which makes it very complicated.
What would you still like to achieve with the brand?
If I could I would go back twenty years with the knowledge that I have now. There is so much more to achieve, we are far from being done.
What is the professional motto that you live by?
Do or do not, there is no try.