Zenith Watches CEO Benoit de Clerck On What Is Next For The Swiss Maison

Lara Mansour   |   15-05-2024

Over the past few years, Zenith Watches has undergone an impressive transformation. Under the guidance of its now-former CEO, Julien Tornare, the 160-year-old brand has relaunched, catapulting it into the forefront of the watch industry and reigniting the beauty of its heritage as well as its key pillars of innovation and craftsmanship. 

Earlier this year, the brand’s new CEO Benoit de Clerck took over the helm with a vision of continuing the success. Picking up at a moment where the watchmaker is excelling in many markets across the world, while his task is not easy, it is certainly an exciting one. 

De  Clerck comes to Zenith with many years of vast experience in the watch industry. He has led global sales in the luxury watch market across four continents working across many brands including Panerai and IWC Schaffhausen. His solid watchmaking expertise, deep knowledge of strategic international business development and his ability to connect with consumers to truly understand their evolving desires in an increasingly digital and faster-moving environment have allowed him to tailor many successful strategies. Something which he will surely implement in his new role at Zenith. Here we find out more about what he plans to bring to the shining star of watchmaking. 

Congratulations on the new role, what is your vision and direction for Zenith moving forward?

First of all, what has been done for Zenith so far is amazing. Julien Tornare did an amazing job, the way I like to say it is that he has awakened the beauty of the brand. My job now is to take that beauty out of bed and to encourage her to stand up, walk and eventually run. That’s in a metaphoric way but in terms of strategically, what I want to do is continue to capitalise on our basic models. We have beautiful models that are doing extremely well, but most of the time we are running out of stock. This is unfortunate as it means that for one week’s business is great, but the following week it’s slow. Overall, we have very strong pillars within the brand – Chronomaster, DEFY Skyline etc. The DEFY Skyline that we just launched at Watches & Wonders, for example, is already breaking records in terms of sales and we have not launched it completely across our network yet. 

The third pillar is the celebration of 160 years of Zenith next year which is an important milestone for the brand. Not a lot of watch brands can celebrate this and most importantly, very few can celebrate 160 years within the same Manufacture. This is something we want to communicate with the world. 

That sums up the major strategic acts that I want to capitalise on. I’m not going to reinvent the wheel. Today, we are notorious and famous for our El Primero movement, and I will also continue to capitalise on that. 

What is the biggest challenge as you begin this new role? 

With every challenge comes many opportunities. We are 100 percent house-made and that allows us to explore in terms of movements etc. There are many challenges and many opportunities simultaneously. One of which for example is related to the supply chain. I would love to improve the supply chain of the company. But there is no magic wand – this is a process that will take three to five years. Then I would like to capitalise on distribution. Today our partners globally are amongst the best, but I would like to do more and become a priority for them. Stronger partnerships are very key for me. We’re not a small brand but we need to become more important. We are limited by the quantity of watches we produce, so we sell what we produce and despite the fact that we have some markets being a bit slower than others, some markets compensate for the others. The beauty of Zenith is that we are strong in Asia, Japan, America, Europe, and the Middle East. So, we are well balanced in terms of sales. 

What can you tell us about Zenith in the Middle East and what’s in the pipeline for the region?

We have very successful boutiques in Dubai Mall and Mall of the Emirates and we are capitalising on that. We have great projects in the region be it Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and Lebanon and we are very proud of the partnerships we have there. We will continue to develop the brand with those partners who are amongst the best in the world, and we want to keep that momentum. 

Zenith has fostered great relationships with partners and friends of the brand. Do you feel it is important to continue this, and what are the common codes you look for when naming friends of the brand?

Yes, we will continue but it must make sense and be meaningful. Secondly, if a friend of the brand wears Zenith watches already, then the chemistry is very easy because we don’t have to explain the brand to them. It will be a natural partnership. We are obviously being approached by numerous people and we cannot work with everyone. We select our partners and friends of the brand very carefully.  We recently signed a well-known up-and-coming golfer Chris Kirk in the United States, and this came about very naturally because he already owns five or six Zenith watches. For me, each partnership has to be meaningful and there has to be a natural chemistry. We are not in the business of pushing people to wear our brand by force, they have to like the brand. 

Zenith’s motto, “Time to Reach Your Star,” has been the backbone of the brand for some time. How do you plan to continue this theme moving forward?

It’s a great tagline, and of course, we are going to keep it for now, but am I looking at options? Yes, I am. It was a great slogan to wake up that sleeping beauty, but now if I want that sleeping beauty to stand up, I need it to be more emotional and to remind people what Zenith stands for and that we are 160 years old, meaning a brand with a legacy. So yes, I am contemplating other options, but nothing has been decided yet. 

Where is the lady in the universe of Zenith?

We made it a point to be genderless at Zenith and we want to maintain that, but the reality is that we still see a lot of women wearing Zenith watches and the women’s segment is increasing even though our watches are unisex. We are not going to focus exclusively on women but we are going to be paying close attention to this sector. At Watches & Wonders, we had a counter only for women and I can tell you, it was the busiest area. So, women are very important in our environment. We have programmes like “Dream Hers” which we are going to continue with. I love this initiative which needs time, people, and ideas to nurture it. Women play an important role and we need to give them a voice for that. I think this concept is particularly relevant in the Middle East. 

How would you assess the watch industry today?

The luxury segment is growing. The watch industry is probably going through a certain turmoil—that’s undeniable—but that’s not the case worldwide. That means that you have pockets of growth in certain areas. For example, in Europe, we have a few pockets of growth. Japan is doing very well for us. Growth is moderate, but it is still there. 

How would you describe Zenith in one word?

Heritage. I was flabbergasted by the brand’s heritage. I thought I knew Zenith, but the moment I arrived at the factory, I realised it was unbelievable. Zenith’s founder was always ahead of his time. He was a visionary—that’s another word I would use, and innovation as well. 

How challenging is it to balance respecting heritage and legacy while remaining relevant and modern?

It’s a very artistic move. The beauty of Zenith is that we don’t need to create any marketing gimmicks. It’s there already – we have more than one mile of archives of the brand and not a lot of brands have this. At Watches & Wonders, we launched the Revival which was exactly the same as the watch that we launched in 1968 but it was much better in the sense of improvement, and performance, but we used the heritage to push ourselves into the future. It’s legitimate. It’s a natural evolution. So, it’s not difficult per se because we have the history and the heritage, what is difficult is how we put it into perspective. 

What watch are you wearing today?

The DEFY Skyline in Blue that we just launched at Watches & Wonders. It’s a beautiful watch. 

What is a message you would tell our readers and the fans of Zenith in the Middle East?

Be curious. We have loads of things to share with you so stay tuned.