François-Henry Bennahmias: “I am very interested in coaching artists and athletes”
François-Henry Bennahmias, head of the Audemars Piguet manufacture for the past ten years, will leave his position at the end of 2023. In an exclusive interview, he outlines his plans for the future, shares his vision of a successful transition and explains his views of the watch industry.
By Cristina D’Agostino25 août 2022
During this scorching month of July, as the Audemars Piguet workshops have already closed their doors for the summer break, calmness is not what it seems at the brand's headquarters. The management teams are busy working on projects that still need to be launched before the year resumes. In this exclusive interview with Luxury Tribune, François-Henry Bennahmias outlines his future plans for the first time, talks freely about the passions that drive him, and explains how, in his opinion, the watchmaking industry can continue to improve.
In June, you confirmed your departure from the Audemars Piguet brand, after several months of rumors. What were the reactions?
Finally (laughs). More seriously, I have received many messages, most of them very touching. Some regret, but understand, and implicitly validate my desire to move on to other horizons. The suppliers know that there is a transition period of eighteen months, which is long enough to meet with them and answer their questions. The goal for me is to leave the brand in very good shape, including with them. Internally, we had some emotional moments when Jasmine Audemars and I visited the three Swiss sites in Meyrin, Le Locle and Le Brassus. We wanted to share a strong and reassuring message to the teams, which is why it was important to do it in person.
Did you feel your teams were destabilized?
No. Audemars Piguet is a family-owned company. Our strategy is very clear and in place for the years to come, it is an evolution, not a revolution.
What is your mission for the next 18 months?
To coach and help the teams during this transition, thanks to our "open door" policy, which allows any employee to come and talk to me.
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Five years ago, you already announced that you wanted to leave in 2022 and that you didn't want to lead the brand for more than ten years. Is this the limit that should not be crossed?
Not necessarily. This belief comes from my personal conception of how to run a company. It also comes from the fact that I am passionate about different areas that I want to explore further.
Do you have examples for the future?
Without naming names, I am very interested in managing and coaching artists or athletes. Imagining new solutions, improving performance by intertwining different worlds or industries that have nothing in common, is something that speaks to me. Quentin Fillon Maillet, for example, the French biathlete that Audemars Piguet supports, holder of five Olympic medals, is a champion that I helped in his development and that I follow closely today. The culture of victory is a process that I enjoy, as it is directly related to people.
So, are you going to set up your business?
Nothing has been decided yet. Many meetings will take place over the next eighteen months. So we'll have to keep an eye on it. But I will also need to recharge my batteries in between.
What limitations have you had to face, in terms of structure, management or simply mindset, over the years?
Limits exist everywhere, many people tell you that what you ask for is impossible. A company without limits does not exist! They are an integral part of the game. They can be destructive or productive by forcing you to challenge your beliefs. In short, life is made of limits, which I feed on.
Two years ago, you expressed the wish to create a foundation with other Swiss watchmaking players to work on safeguarding the industry's know-how. Are you still frustrated?
No, not anymore. I just think the lack of interest in this subject on the part of industry players is a shame. The idea was to build a large-scale project that went far beyond Audemars Piguet. This desire was not shared. I accepted it.
Are you disappointed with the watch industry?
No, never! I will have spent 29 years in the watch industry when I leave Audemars Piguet. I can't be disappointed with the industry; it has given me a lot. But would I like to shake it up? Yes, I am convinced that I can help it to improve. But I am not disappointed at all, on the contrary. Every day I look at it and think that we are still far from having explored all the possibilities...
What kind of watch industry do you imagine?
In 2021, the industry as a whole will have had a total export value of 22 billion francs, i.e. almost 50 billion francs in turnover. That's not even a third of the turnover of Mercedes, for example! This is nothing compared to the public's interest in watchmaking... and this includes the younger generation who were wrongly categorized as uninterested in traditional watchmaking. But we need to change the way the industry promotes itself...and stop criticizing certain innovative strategies...
Swatch and Omega. Their collaboration is a great idea, which does not affect the integrity of Omega at all, contrary to what you may have heard. Why is that? Because it educates the younger generation about the icons of watchmaking.
What capabilities are you aiming for in terms of number of pieces produced per year at Audemars Piguet over the coming years?
The industrial structure that we are currently building could bring us to 70,000 watches per year long term. In 2022, we will certainly reach 50,000 watches, and in 2023 we may increase by 5%, but we are not in a rush. We first aim at creating our production capacity.
How much is invested for the construction of these new units?
Hundreds of millions.
What strategic changes do these developments require?
The biggest strategic change for Audemars Piguet over the last ten years has been the transition from distributor to retailer. Before, we used to sell "400 watches once" to a retailer, whereas today we sell "400 times one watch". It's not the same thing. We are moving from the bench to the end customer and consolidating the network with fewer points of sale. Five years ago, no store sold 1,000 watches a year. Today, we have ten points of sale at that level. What do we need to achieve this? Supporting professions, such as IT. And there is a lack of capacity. Therefore, we must be organized differently, which means limiting production. For a brand like Audemars Piguet, which is family-owned, this does not have much impact. You must be open to explore new ways of working, to go and find the best talents and potentially relocate certain departments that do not touch the product, such as IT. But watchmaking is not ready yet.
Is there an industry that stands as a role model in this area?
No. But the issues are known, such as in the fashion industry. One of the questions is whether we should accelerate our presence in Asia, because in this area, brands make very different choices.
Are you going to change your strategies in certain markets?
No. Audemars Piguet knows exactly where it wants to go at least until 2030. We have about 15 calibers in development between now and 2030, as well as several materials.
For the past month, a drop in demand has been noted in boutiques, for example in the United States according to some sources, and prices on the secondary market are falling. Your analysis?
You want my analysis? (He shows an Excel file of sales by market): in the US, we currently stand at +56.5% mid-July, compared to the same period in 2021 and we are even at +12% compared to the budget... Another test? (He looks for the price of the reference 16202, the Royal Oak Jumbo steel 50th anniversary, on a resale platform), the watch is worth 28,900 francs at retail price, and is listed at 180,000 francs...
These prices are unreal! We simply want the value of an Audemars Piguet watch to be sustainable and not to lose 50% of its value a few months after purchase, which was still the case for some models five years ago. Look at the figures of luxury houses in 2021, and those of the first half of 2022. This is proof that many customers want to treat themselves.
So there is no problem to be foreseen in macroeconomy?
Not in that sense. The watch industry is still in its beginnings when it comes to success. And this is neither the first nor the last crisis.
What is your definition of a successful transition?
(He thinks long and hard) I can think of several. The first one is quite verifiable: when someone leaves a job like mine, there is a three-year inertia in common grounds before you start noticing the first changes. If everything continues to improve during this time, the transition is successful. But the reality of Audemars Piguet goes far beyond the man, because the brand has existed before me, for almost 150 years, and will continue after me. I am just one link to the chain.
A link that has doubled its turnover in 10 years...
(He corrects) It has quadrupled! When I arrived at the head of the company, the brand had a turnover of 500 million francs. In 2022, we will exceed 2 billion. In terms of volume, in 2012 we produced 32,000 watches and in 2023 we will reach 53,000 pieces. But to return to the definition of a successful transition, we must continue to improve without making burdening the structure or risking losing the corporate culture.
Do you regret projects that you are launching and will not see through?
Many! One of them is a watch that will be released after I leave, in 2024 or 2025, which I've been expecting for ten years...! It drives me crazy (laughs).
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