Over the past few years, Audemars Piguet has gone from success to success. A hugely popular brand in the Middle East it has carefully developed a niche that allows it to be modern and exciting while not forgetting its true values and family history.
CEO François-Henry Bennahmias has been part of the “family” for many years. He started his career at Audemars Piguet in 1994 in his home country of France. In less than three years he was promoted to lead the brand’s operations in Singapore and took on the added responsibility for Audemars Piguet in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Brunei, Australia and Malaysia. Not long after this, he assumed the role of President and CEO of Audemars Piguet (North America), which was a key market for the company. In 2013 he became CEO of the brand and has been leading it ever since.
Bennahmias has seen the brand go from strength to strength. His close ties to the world of golfing (he was once a pro golfer himself) have seen Audemars Piguet closely linked to the sport, making it a globally recognised brand. In the Middle East, it has had particular success thanks to its appeal to a young, forward-thinking market.
Earlier this year Audemars Piguet launched the [Re]master01, a watch that takes inspiration from a watch of the past but reworks it in a contemporary and modern way – the first time the brand has undertaken such a task. At the same time, Audemars Piguet unveils the long-awaited opening of its Musée Atelier. A museum that will present the past, present, and the future of the Swiss manufacturer’s cultural universe. While the museum opening has been delayed due to COVID-19, the decision was made to go ahead with the launch of the [Re]master01 and the response so far has been extremely promising. To tell us more about the latest launch and the future of Audemars Piguet, a&e talks to CEO François-Henry Bennahmias.
What is the forecast moving forward at Audemars Piguet and are you changing any of the strategies of the brand?
The first thing is that yes, we are going to take a hit this year like everyone else. We don’t know how big the hit will be and we don’t know what’s going to happen, but there is no miracle. People are talking about the possibility of facing a second wave of the virus, so we have to be very careful and I don’t think our clients will be rushing to stores now. We have to play it one day, week, a month at a time and see where we are at. 2020 is already behind what we expected, but no matter what happens, we will not let any of the staff in the company go. We are protecting the integrity and the employment of our people. The second thing is, even if we sales drop, it’s OK. We are an independent company, so if the numbers go down it doesn’t matter too much and the things we have worked on over the last few years and the success that we’ve had means that we can weather the storm a lot better than some others. Right now, my focus is more on 2021 and 2022 because that’s how we are going to rebuild. I think it’s going to take a few years to go back to the numbers of 2019 and we are going to see changes in the way we address the clients moving forward.
What can you tell us about the brand the novelties for this year?
Right before the lockdown, we had a long list of launches for 2020. The most important one will now be launching in June. We were supposed to launch [Re]master01 Selfwinding Chronograph in line with the opening of the Audemars Piguet museum on April 23rd but this was postponed, so we decided to launch the watch anyway.
What can you tell us about this watch?
The idea of the [Re]master01 actually came 20 years ago. So it took us a long time to launch the concept, which gives life back to our exceptional watches from the past. It was when I was in New York looking back at the watches of the 20s, 30s and 40s that were at the time, super small watches. I discussed with my colleagues about how cool it would be to bring some of these watches back in normal sizes and give clients a chance to experience the timepieces their grandfathers or great grandfathers may have worn but with a contemporary update. That was always our goal – it took us 20 years, we moved very slowly! And when we finally did it, we realised that the best way to launch it was in line with the museum. With the museum design, we were bringing something with forward-thinking into the 21st century, it didn’t mean that we were completely replacing the past; it was in fact, the opposite. We used the past to make it relevant for today’s world and that was the same values as the [Re]master01.
How do you manage the balance of respecting DNA and heritage while being relevant for the consumer today?
We have seen many brands creating “Heritage collections” and I don’t think you can base an entire collection on the past. So you have to have a touch of the past and do something else that is modern. This is why we make only 500 watches. We wouldn’t want to make a heritage collection and every six months you see something different. That’s not how we do things. The first time we ever saw a watch made in multiple pieces at Audemars Piguet was in 1951. Before that, every single watch made was unique. So that is our DNA and we like to continue that to a certain point with the way we create watches.
What can you tell us about the opening of the museum?
We are now planning to open in June and then we are looking at a special event in November, but we have to see what happens.
What can you tell us about Audemars Piguet in the Middle East and why do you think it is so adored and respected in our region?
First of all our clientele in the Middle East are young. We have seen an arrival of youth in this region, which is unheard of. People as young as 15 or 16 love the brand! I do believe that the values that the brand has are very similar to the values of the people in the Middle East – looking at tomorrow, very forward-thinking and at the same time respecting true traditional craftsmanship. Two years ago I gave a speech at the American University in Dubai and I was stunned to see so many young people enjoying the fact that I was talking about a watch – and not a smartwatch. They enjoyed the idea of craftsmanship, history, exclusivity and I when I left they were asking so many questions. It was a real joy to share with them the passion that we have for watches.
What is a challenge that Audemars Piguet is facing today as a brand?
The number one challenge is based around the fact that over the last 10 years the whole luxury world took a huge bet on tourism and people travelling and buying watches. So we expanded our retail network, like many others and what we are finding out today is that we might have forgotten a little bit, the notion of local people. There are ways that you can work a lot more locally with people and I do believe that we have to re-work things a lot in relation to this. We need to analyse the markets more closely and decide what we aren’t doing today that we need to change things to raise the percentage of local people buying in stores like Dubai.
What have you not done yet at Audemars Piguet that you would still like to achieve?
Everything! When you run a business, you never stop and you never reach a place where you say, “it’s done”, because it’s an on-going thing. In January, nobody had any idea what would happen with COVID-19. China spoke about it for the first time in 2019 and then everyone thought it wasn’t something that was going to affect the rest of the world. Most of January was actually much better for Audemars Piguet than it was last year in terms of sales. Then, a month later, suddenly we realised that we are going to sell less, but the good news was that it gave us time to rethink better for tomorrow. When I say tomorrow I don’t mean next week or next month, I’m talking about 2023, 2030 – asking ourselves what we really want to be in the future? And the answer that I’m finding for this question is that we will succeed because there will always be an appreciation for craftsmanship and exclusivity and because of that, it takes time to build and we cannot take shortcuts.
In terms of brand tie-ups do you think the profiles of people that brands should be looking for in the future should be different?
What the world wants right now is for brands to be real, transparent and authentic. So if you get people in the sports world, entertainment world etc. to represent your brand and there is no real connection, the customer will not engage in it. So the choice of the people is very important, but this has always been the case. Our ambassadors have to pass a job interview with us when we start working with them. We don’t sign them, no matter how well known they are, without knowing that they fully understand what’s at stake and what we as a brand want to do. And I think this is something that’s going to be even more important now.
How do you manage the balance between physical stores and digital platforms especially with the current situation?
We always look at it as a new tool. Do I want to sell 40,000 watches online? Absolutely not! But do I want to use all of the tools I can to go after new clients and expose who we are and bring them to our family? Sure. But it’s a tool, it’s not an end and there’s a big difference.
What is a project that you would love to do if you had the means and the Ok to do it?
I would go and produce a Broadway show!
What makes the brand unique and what defines your client today?
What makes a brand like this are the fans. When a watchmaker works on his design, he doesn’t know where the watch is going to end up, his mind-set is that he has to make the most beautiful watch he can. Then we promote that product through advertising, interviews, presentations to clients etc. But the ones who are making the brand what it is, are you, the clients! What we’ve seen is so many people commenting on the fact that the brand is real. It’s OK to make mistakes, it’s OK to fail, and we are very human in that respect. The number one thing that people say when they buy our watches is that they never expected something like this. The thing that touches them is the passion of our people and the will to share it in the most familiar way. It’s one big family and our clients make us who we are.
What’s one thing that you would have done differently?
If I could go back, I would go back 20 years to when I became the CEO of the Americas. I used to have this mindset that I could never tell someone when they were doing great, I only used to tell people when they were doing bad or made mistakes. If I was to go back I would completely change the way I managed people because I think I’m a much better boss now than I was 18 years ago because the notion of caring and supporting has evolved for me drastically.
What’s in the pipeline for Audemars Piguet when we go back to “Normality”?
We have the new Automatic 34mm for women with a new movement and a few more launches towards the end of the year, but nothing will be a huge launch this year. We had something that was supposed to be a big worldwide launch, but that has had to be postponed. Which is unfortunate because I couldn’t wait for it! But it will be launched in March 2021 now. There is something that we are working on which is not an evolution at all for Audemars Piguet, it is something very different in the retail world that will go beyond the watch industry, but that’s all I can tell you now.
What message would you give the people in the Middle East?
What I want to share with all my friends in the Middle East is that when I can, I cannot wait to come back, and we are far from being done surprising you. It was during COVID-19 that we came up with an idea that is going to be completely insane. So we will keep surprising you, so keep the love and passion for the brand and I’ll see you soon.