François-Henry Bennahmias, Audemars Piguet’s iconoclast

After eleven years at the helm of Swiss watchmaker Audemars Piguet, François-Henry Bennahmias is preparing to hand over the reins to Iaria Resta – ex-Firmenich – at the end of the year. Between 2012 – the year of his appointment as CEO of the Swiss manufacture – and today, he has succeeded in quadrupling the company’s sales.

 

An avid golfer, François-Henry Bennahmias, soon to be ex-CEO of Audemars Piguet, is an outlier in the hushed, conservative world of Haute Horlogerie.

 

He joined Audemars Piguet in 1994, and with his outspokenness, audacity, taste for pop culture and management methods, has not only made the Royal Oak highly desirable, but has also established the Swiss town of Le Brassus in the minds of luxury professionals.

 

Founded in 1875, the Manufacture produces around 50,000 Oak watches a year, mainly under the Royal Oak brand, at its workshops in Le Brassus. A drop in the bucket compared to Rolex, which produces around 1 million units a year.

Audemars Piguet is nonetheless the fourth-largest Swiss watch brand in terms of revenue. The average price of an Audemars Piguet watch is around 50,000 Swiss francs.

A golf defector in luxury

 

If there’s one thing everyone agrees on, it’s that François-Henry Bennahmias does nothing like everyone else.

Whether it’s appointing a woman as his successor – in a male-dominated world – and from outside the watchmaking world, multiplying collaborations with the pop icons of his adolescence, such as the Marvel Studios, or offering mentoring programs inspired by the Star Wars saga.

 

To grow from 500 million Swiss francs in 2012 to 2 billion Swiss francs in 2022, while preserving the brand’s rarity and appeal despite increased production, is a feat that few business leaders can boast. Except, that is, François-Henry Bennahmias.

Before revolutionizing the world of watchmaking for 29 years, the current CEO came up through the world of high-level sport – his hobby – and fashion.

 

From the age of 18 to 23, he was a professional golfer but, as he admits, “didn’t earn a very good living”: 10,000 French francs a year.

 

His destiny changed when a friend pointed him in the direction of luxury goods, a sector he never left.

 

He worked for houses such as Giorgio Armani and Gianfranco Ferré.

In 1994, he took the next step, joining Audemars Piguet, the Le Brassus-based manufacture, which at the time had a staff of 200 (compared with 2,500 today).

 

He rose through the ranks in less than three years, from brand manager in Singapore to market manager in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Brunei, Australia and Malaysia. In 1999, he became Managing Director of Audemars Piguet’s American subsidiary based in New York.

 

In 2000, Audemars Piguet faced a major change: the sale of Jaeger Lecoultre’s 45% stake to the eponymous Maison. From then on, the company had to find new sources of revenue.

 

In 2012, François-Henri Bennahmias was appointed Global CEO of Audemars Piguet.

 

The disruptive boss from Le Brassus

 

Under his leadership, Audemars Piguet changes course and becomes a leading retailer in the Haute Horlogerie market.

 

As he confided to Luxury Tribune in August 2022, Audemars Piguet’s real strategic shift over the last ten years has been from distributor to retailer.

 

The CEO recalls that the brand used to sell “once 400 watches” to a retailer, whereas today it sells “400 times a watch”.

 

The company is thus becoming resolutely BtoC, and at the same time rationalizing the number of its points of sale.

 

Product availability in boutiques is increased, while managing a clever scarcity effect. The brand’s production will rise from around 15,000 pieces in 1994 to 45,000 in 2021.

The brand’s wholesale network has also been reduced by 75% in less than ten years, from 470 retailers to 120 by 2021. This will mechanically increase in-store traffic.

 

At the same time, the brand is investing heavily in research and development, employee training and the recruitment of tech profiles.

 

François Henry Bennahmias is firmly convinced that investing in innovation remains the sine qua non for sustaining the growth of such a company and increasing its production capacity.

 

He introduces a new family of calibers totally designed and manufactured in-house: the Code 11:59. The small quantities involved enabled the brand to launch 3 new calibers – or six new watch references – in a controlled manner. Since then, calibers have been common to both product families.

 

The company is also reviewing the robustness of its watches, with a design capable of withstanding the wear and tear of time. And there’s no question of massive products: Audemars Piguet is committed to offering resolutely slim and even curved models.

Close to the younger generation and to his employees, he has set up an internal mentoring program enabling nine young recruits to be coached by certain members of the management committee. And the CEO personally looks after four of these “padawans” (Star Wars Jedi apprentices), as he puts it.

With them, Audemars Piguet stays on top of emerging trends. In return, François Henry Bennahmias doesn’t hesitate to ask them to accompany him on his business meetings, in order to train them and familiarize them with management.

 

A visionary, in 2017 he was one of the first to believe in the primacy of experience over the purchase of watchmaking products. This led him to develop the AP Salon concept of convivial spaces based on hotel codes. The brief was simple: “What would the company look like if Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet were 25 years old today?” It’s no longer potential buyers that the Maison welcomes, but guests wishing to have a drink or simply meet other enthusiasts.

These seemingly counter-intuitive spaces, free of any commercial pressure, allow us to triple the time spent on site and to establish a closer relationship with the end customer.

 

Another major project: François-Henry Bennahmias is clearing out the collections. He is phasing out the Millenary and Jules Audemars collections, which were not as successful as expected.

 

 

The Royal Oak maker

 

Realizing that he had in his hands a genuine watchmaking icon that was largely under-exploited and under-appreciated, he decided to concentrate almost exclusively on the Royal Oak range. To this end, he revived the founding marketing concept of this model, launched in 1972. Following the slogan “a steel watch more expensive than gold“, he decided to move upmarket, both in terms of price and quality.

To reinforce the legitimacy of the House of Audemars Piguet, he had a museum dedicated to the company’s history installed at its headquarters in Le Brassus.

 

With him, the communication of the watchmaking House becomes sharper and clearer on the values of the company linked to one of the cradles of watchmaking, the Vallée de Joux and its tradition of Haute Horlogerie. The 2021 campaign, “From iconoclast to icon“, sums up the road travelled since 1972 and the launch of the Royal Oak.

Finally, the CEO decided to open the brand up to universes parallel to the world of watchmaking, and in this respect, he’s not afraid of extremes.

 

As a pioneer, he dared to collaborate with Marvel Studios. The commercial success and buzz generated cut short the critics: the first APx Marvel timepiece was auctioned off for $5.2 million as part of a charity sale, while the 250 pieces of the limited edition priced at $165,000 sold out quickly.

 

An obvious future?

 

Its departure at the end of the year should result in a new production record of 53,000 watches.

While some already see François-Henry Bennahmias joining one of the luxury behemoths, such as Lvmh or Chanel, the man would prefer to reconnect professionally with his passion for sport.

 

In his exclusive interview with Luxury Tribune, the man who goes by the in-house name François makes no secret of his desire to “manage and coach artists and athletes“. He adds, “Imagining new solutions, improving performance by bringing together different worlds or industries that have nothing in common a priori, is a way of thinking that suits me.”

 

During the interview, he spoke of the strong bond between multi-medal-winning French biathlete Quentin Fillon Maillet and Audemars Piguet. “The culture of victory is a process that appeals to me, because it is directly related to the human being,” he declared.

As for the future of Audemars Piguet, François remains confident, stating that some fifteen calibers are currently under development between now and 2030, as well as several new materials.

Read also > FLORENCE ARTHAUD, THE LITTLE GIRL OF THE ATLANTIC

Featured Photo: © Audemars Piguet

Grâce à une veille accrue et à une excellente connaissance de ces secteurs, la rédaction de Luxus Magazin décrypte pour ses lecteurs les principaux enjeux économiques et technologiques de la mode, l’horlogerie, la joaillerie, la gastronomie, les parfums et cosmétiques, l’hôtellerie, et l’immobilier de prestige.

Tags

Luxus Magazine recommends

Luxus Magazine N°8

Now available