François-Henry Bennahmias is just finishing his breakfast as I arrive for our meeting. He dabs the corner of his mouth with a napkin, stands up, holds out his hand, and in the dulcet tones of a man who’s not quite sure what time zone he’s in says simply, ‘François.’
I’ve been looking forward to meeting Bennahmias, Audemars Piguet’s new CEO. I’ve come across him a number of times before, usually in his former capacity as a mouthpiece for the brand’s American arm, but this is the first time I’ve had the chance to pick his brains one-to-one. He’s a man who likes the stage, and I’m expecting him to be frank, funny and full of talking.
As it turns out, he doesn’t disappoint. During the course of our conversation he will charm the PR girl, pass a mock priestly blessing over me and lambast the industry for some of its antediluvian practices. Practices he has plans to consign to history.
Bennahmias was officially announced as Audemars Piguet’s new CEO just before SIHH in January, but he’d already completed six months as interim chief last year, and was given the job proper at the end of November. It’s now late March, so he’s had almost a year to find his feet – and to start making his mark.
Fewer, bigger, better
How’s the new job? ‘Good?’ he says, with an ironic look that will be familiar to those who’ve seen him in action. ‘Challenging,’ he adds, this time more affirmatively. ‘A lot of long, sleepless nights.’ He does sound a little short on shut-eye, but considering he’ll be 50 next year, he looks young for his age.
Part of that is in how he dresses. Today, he’s wearing a roll-neck and navy blazer, with those now trademark black-rimmed glasses and tight-cropped hair completing the look of a man who reads the fashion pages of high-end consumer magazines with interest.
So, about those challenges. His current preoccupation, he says, is preaching his vision for the brand to the company’s 1,200 employees, a two-year task he says is half complete. That vision, he says, can be summed up in three words, ‘fewer, bigger, better’.
‘That is true luxury,’ he says, aware his words will need some explaining. ‘The watch industry, including Audemars Piguet, has made the mistake of growing too fast and too far, and in too many directions. There are not as many people out there who can deliver the message as we think there are. Now it’s time to reassess.’
That reassessment – or at least the ‘fewer’ part of it – is already well under way. Bennahmias has started reducing the number of Audemars Piguet points of sale around the world, which will fall from more than 500 a year ago to under 400 next year, maybe as low as 350.
On top of that, his plan is to drastically cut the number of references in the collection. Today, that figure is about 230 – by 2014, says Bennahmias, it will have plummeted to under 100.
Stock to share
When I suggest this all sounds a bit trigger-happy, he assures me it’s a simple case of supply and demand. ‘If we take our top 20 best-sellers, every single one of them should be on display at any given time in at least 350 doors,’ he says. ‘Let’s say that you have to turn that inventory three times [in a year] – one of each of those best-sellers every four months. So 350 times three, that’s 1,050, and times 20 references, that would be 21,000 watches. At the moment, we produce 11-12,000 [best-sellers]. That means our retailers cannot get them on time. So we have to make choices. It’s basics – blackboard basics.’
Executing that strategy will require new facilities and new resources, as well as reapportioning the brand’s existing capacity. There’ll be a new case and bracelet factory in Geneva next year (building has already started) and the ambition is that come 2015, when new Audemars Piguet models are launched, stock will be available in numbers for distribution to retailers immediately. ‘In the past, we have never done enough for the launch of our watches,’ admits Bennahmias. If he can pull this off and introduce a model of simultaneous launch and distribution, the industry might be on the verge of a sea change.
This, surely, must be good news for retailers who remain in favour, but a bit of a kick in the teeth for those who’ve fallen foul of the new strategy? ‘It’s not a matter of being bad news,’ says Bennahmias. ‘The business was no good for those retailers either. It’s like when a couple reaches no man’s land – are you going to stay together and look at each other’s face every night and cry? We want to support our partners and for them to say that Audemars Piguet is a great brand to be with.’
Not everyone knows the Rules – yet
Bigger, he says, refers to the brand’s presence and not, as I suggest unconvincingly, larger watches. ‘We want to be more visible in the stores we’re staying with; we want more presence in advertising and with our events. We have to focus on few fields.’
Bennahmias inherited the brand’s Rules advertising campaign, which is now 18 months old. He’s happy it’s made a steady if unremarkable start, citing a need to give it time it to grow – ‘these things don’t happen instantaneously.’ At SIHH, he announced that a parallel series of ads focusing on ladies pieces would launch in April, but this has now been pushed back to September.
And better? With much of the brand's activity happening behind the scenes as it prepares a stock of watches to accompany future launches, it will be a couple of years before we see the full impact of better.
Although he won’t be drawn on the details, he constantly alludes to big things on the horizon. He says that in 2015 there’ll be a new watchmaking record and a never-seen-before mechanism in the men’s collection, and that the year after the brand will launch an all-new ladies collection that has no relationship to any of the existing men’s pieces. I probe him for details, but all he’ll say is that the latter is part of a strategy to grow the business so that ladies watches account for 35 per cent of sales by volume, up from 20-25 per cent today.
It’s intriguing stuff. The vision Bennahmias casts won’t just affect Audemars Piguet – if it works, it will demonstrate that some of the age-old inadequacies of the whole industry can be corrected. He says the $30bn the industry is worth today is peanuts compared to other luxury industries and that there’s so much more to come. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?