François-Henry Bennahmias delivers a masterclass on what it takes to be a leader in the watchmaking industry.
François-Henry Bennahmias is not your typical high-profile CEO. I knew this before I ever sat down with him because his reputation precedes him, but it didn’t stop me from picturing what the encounter might be like ahead of time. I had heard he was gregarious, outrageous, and, most importantly, surprisingly honest. He is, to be certain, all of these things and more. Bennahmias carries himself with casual authority, as he should. After 29 years at Audemars Piguet (AP), 11 of which have been spent as its CEO, he has skyrocketed the luxury watchmaking brand to the top of the heap.
His uncompromising vision and his belief in “people to people” interactions – adding an authentic human touch to the sometimes absurdly snobbish realm of fine watch buying – have made him something of a legend. Without intending to, he has created a cult of personality simply by being himself. He has a magnetic presence, is quick to joke, and seems not to take it all too seriously. And yet, his tenure has brought AP to serious success. Furthermore, he’s got Jay-Z and Shaq on speed dial, and those guys don’t tend to spend their leisurely time with stiff, suit-wearing prigs.
He breaks into a story about Jay-Z as casually as one would mention a recent catch-up with a college buddy. “I was talking to Jay yesterday. Jay and I have known each other for 23 years. The first time I met him, he had 14 APs, including a triple complication, which is the father of the grand complication. He was very proud to own it because it is one of one. He talks about it in some of his songs. His watch gets stolen. Two years later, we got the watch back. Five years later, the watch gets stolen again. We were on the phone yesterday morning; he said, ‘François, the watch is back.’ I said, ‘Are you serious?!’ For 15 years, the watch has been gone. For him, it’s not about the value.” It makes me think about how the words Audemars Piguet don’t exactly roll off the tongue or rhyme well with anything, but if anyone is going to put elite watchmaking on the map with his lyrical acumen, it’s HOV.
The Jay-Z story might seem incidental, but the rapper’s friendship with the brand is one of the things that sets AP apart. In 2005, Bennahmias spearheaded a collaboration with Jay-Z to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of his music career and launched a limited-edition Offshore watch with the rapper that came in a box with a special iPod pre-loaded with a playlist curated by Jay-Z. High watchmaking and hip-hop collaborations were unheard of at the time, proving once again that AP has always been one step ahead – and it’s because of Bennahmias. Where gatekeeping is commonplace in the luxury realm, this CEO is always ready to try something new and daring. This kind of risk-taking has made AP a leader in the industry.
But now Bennahmias is on his way out, departing as CEO on his own terms and with the brand in glowing good shape. It’s not an easy reality for those who have come to love and trust him, but what better way to leave than on top? In this exclusive interview with Savoir Flair upon his visit to Dubai Watch Week, Bennahmias dispenses valuable insights – a veritable masterclass on strategy and building lasting success. You cannot put a price tag on this level of wisdom, but Bennahmias, in his signature mix of humor and wit, jokes that he’ll accept a $50,000 fee for it. Regardless, we’re bringing it to you now, free of charge.
When you look at SUCCESSFUL people or brands, at some point, they don’t bother listening to the POLLUTION OF OPINIONS. They write their own stories.
On His Legacy
Why are you leaving Audemars Piguet?
I’ve done my time. Listen, I took the decision in 2017. It’s not recent. I came to the board, and I said I’d love to leave in 2022, the same year as the 50th anniversary of the Royal Oak. I became CEO in 2012; 10 years is good. There are so many other things I want to do with my life. On top of this, I like when things are tough. I like it when things are complicated. If you look at what’s happened at Audemars Piguet over the last 10 years, the brand is in great shape. It can fly on its own. I want to go into many other fields.
There will be a day very soon when you will be untethered from AP. What does that day look like to you?
The plan is to relax and reboot my system. I want to do nothing for seven to eight months. Then, next September, we announce what comes next.
Your legacy is inextricably linked to several AP watch styles. What were some of your biggest successes, and on the other side, some of your biggest challenges?
I don’t see it as a successful launch versus a challenging launch. Even when we launched Code 11.59 and we got crushed, four or five years later, the collection is in place. We just won the 'Aiguille d'Or' at the Grand Prix d'Horlogerie de Genève with the Code 11.59 Ultra-Complication Universelle. Our collection has increased in percentage throughout the entire brand. We have a lot of new clients who aren’t buying Royal Oaks and Offshores but who are buying Code 11.59. You can say this watch is less successful, but in reality, we sold out. We sell out everything we launch. This has been going on for close to 11 years.
What are some of the boldest undertakings you have achieved in your time at Audemars Piguet?
When I came in as CEO in 2012, the industry’s standard for aging inventory was 36 months. A big part of our inventory was 'aging.' In 24 hours, I changed that to 18 months, and later 12 months. How many watches do we have right now in the world – in safes, production, stores – that are older than 12 months? Point two percent. Basically, zero. Successful or not? Our watches sell.
When it comes to watches, there are watches that I am more happy about than others: Code 11.59, Marvel, the Ceramic [range] as a whole, because when we launched ceramic for the first time, it was like, boom! I should also mention our collaboration with Jay-Z. That is still an important milestone, not only for AP but also for the world of luxury. It was the first time that culture and street merged with luxury. And we are launching something at the end of November in New York. That one is going to make some serious noise. I can say I’m going to go out with a bang on that one.
Your personality and your dynamic vision have made you something of a legend in the watch community. Some have even said you are irreplaceable. Do you share their point of view?
I am not irreplaceable. Do I leave a way of thinking, a culture, a funny way of doing things? Sure. That’s a legacy. But my number one reward as the CEO of AP is the connection I’ve made with people. It’s not the revenue. It’s not the record years. It’s the experiences I’ve had with people. This year, I’ve been all over the world celebrating my departure with our subsidiaries. At the beginning of the year, I was thinking about where it would hit me the hardest. But it happened in a country where I would have never expected it. In Taiwan, China, they touched me so much that I couldn’t stop crying. There’s something you don’t really do in Asia: employees and their bosses have no physical contact beyond a handshake. We were 60+ people in Taiwan, and everyone wanted a hug, and everyone was crying. That’s what I want to remember. That’s what’s irreplaceable.
On Defining Success
What does success mean to you?
Success for me is more than sales, by far. One metric for success is perceived value; how the brand is perceived today compared to what it was 10 or 15 years ago. Second, auction prices, and third, the happiness of the people working for the brand.
Not changing your strategy is important. If you change your strategy, it means your strategy wasn’t the right one. You can adjust and adapt to what happens in the world, fine. But, you do not change strategy. Our strategy was to do fewer points of sale, fewer references, more clients, more direct connections, and very exclusive distribution. We have been doing this for 11 years. It will continue the same for the next 10 to 20 years. Success is a mix of several things. Sales and revenue are the consequence of a well-executed strategy. If you chase revenue more than the strategy itself, you are going to put yourself at risk at some point because you cut corners, you take shortcuts, it doesn’t last. Success – to be real – must last.
How do you respond to the naysayers?
In many other fields, a brand might launch [a product] or an artist might launch a new song, and it might not be great at first. The Royal Oak was not well-received when it came out. At Baselworld, they said, 'Great job!' to our faces, but leaving the booth, they said among themselves, 'AP will die.' At that time, watches were very classical, round, and very thin on the strap. Then we came along with a stainless steel integrated bracelet at the price of a gold watch.
Consider the Offshore. Even Gérald Genta said, 'You killed my baby!' No matter what you do in life, you are at risk of being judged, denied, or bullied. At the end of the day, who is standing in the ring? Who is the last man standing? Many people crushed us on the launch of Code 11.59. Where are we five years later? The percentage is increasing in proportion to the rest of the collection, with outstanding results in sales, prices, and rewards. It's there.
I have to say, when you look at successful people or brands, at some point, they don’t bother listening to the pollution of opinions. They write their own stories. It’s not a perfect science. There is no given that something will be a success. If you just want to belong, that’s not the way you build outstanding successes.
But even if you do not listen to the noise and naysayers, you do listen to your clients and onboard their feedback.
Because clients – and even critics – can actually help. You don’t always master everything. I will adjust and change. I am a firm believer that – as strong as we are as a brand – we cannot ever go away from what the clients are telling us.
I'll give you an example. Three years ago, I was at a special dinner in Dubai where we announced Create the Extraordinary, attended by 30-40 top clients in the region. I listened to them, and they had a lot of opinions about what we could do differently. I said, 'Okay, next year, I am going to fly the entire design team [from Audemars Piguet], and not only are you going to work on special editions for your region, but if you do a good job, I’ll make special watches for you.'
I promised them this, but then, as it turns out, the only date we could do this last year in Dubai was June. Our local team said, 'François, everyone travels then; you’re not going to get anyone to come.' We got everyone. They made a point to be there, and what we generated in three days, plus the personal experience of it – many of them told us that there hasn’t been a single luxury brand that did something like this with them before – was completely unique. This is something so beyond buying or selling watches. We made them a part of it. They are going to see the watches come out and be able to say, 'I was there!' This is what we mean by 'Create the Extraordinary.'
What I would say to the industry is: STOP BEING SCARED.
On the Future of the Industry
I think younger generations – both working in the industry and as a consumer segment – are key to the industry’s future. But the industry tends to feel a bit “old-fashioned” in its messaging, which could be a turn-off for a young person. What can the industry do to ensure they are speaking to new generations in a way that makes sense to them, that relays tradition and heritage without being stuffy or pedantic?
Listen to them. Listen to their language. Listen to the way they communicate. You have to adjust the narrative accordingly. At the AP House in the future, we should actually cooperate with schools, and give once or twice a month watchmaking classes to young kids. You educate them, and you bring them into the watchmaking world early on. Who says that because you’re young, you cannot appreciate craftsmanship?
We are living in a world where young people feel the pressure to belong, like tribes, and judgment is all around because of social media. They are scared. The future is not always a perfectly blue sky. Compared to my generation? We had absolute freedom of everything. I don’t want to be perceived as an old person saying things were better in my time, but it was better in my time! We had so many opportunities. No internet, no phones, no social media. It was a matter of humans connecting with other humans. The pure freedom of creativity. Today, ouf, it’s a completely different story.
But what they do have is a different perspective. The industry can learn from this. The younger generation doesn’t look at watches as 'this is a woman’s watch' and 'this is a man’s watch.' They see a cool watch, and they wear it. The [industry] wants to play it safe because things are uncertain, but that’s exactly when you should not play safe.
If you were to impart any advice to young people who are curious about the watchmaking world, what would you say?
One, Be curious. Two, work hard. As stupid as it sounds, there is no lasting success without working hard. You can be successful by luck, but if you want it to last, you have to work hard. There is no other way. Three, spend less time on social media. Seriously. Build human connections. Young people are going too much away from that. They connect too much through screens. And four, never go too far away from love. At the end, that’s what matters the most.
No one on their death bed will talk about the business they’ve been successful at, the house they had, the art piece, watch, or clothes they had. They will talk about the love they gave or did not give. That’s it. They will go back to what matters the most. It’s sad that we have to wait for the end of our lives to understand this.
You've been critical of the way the industry operates before. As you are leaving Audemars Piguet after 29 years, what are some things about the industry you’d like to see change?
My entire life, people have wanted to put me in a box. Including my two ex-wives [laughs]. It’s true, it’s funny, but it’s true. I’m the absolute example of do not put me in a box. I’m a very competitive person, but I’m also very fair. I don’t mind acknowledging my failures. But I grow on people saying, 'You won’t be able to do this,' or 'it’s never going to work.' The more people say that to me, the more they feed the monster. This is where the game starts.
So, what I would [say to the industry] is: stop being scared. Yes, we are experiencing a slowdown. It’s not the first, and it won’t be the last. The world is not in great shape right now. Wars, huge environmental and social issues... You could look at the glass half-empty. But look at the Swiss watchmaking industry. In 2015, when the Apple Watch launched, everyone thought fine watchmaking was dead. Instead, we saw a rise in youth coming into the world of watchmaking. This young generation has done more for the watchmaking industry than anyone else, and it wasn’t planned. In boardrooms, they said, 'We must go after the young generation,' but no one actually did. [Young people] came anyway, and they revived the whole thing. They are the ones teaching the parents and elders in that regard.
It’s an industry that is so far from reaching its potential. There are 8 billion people on the planet. You take the one percent of people who can really afford expensive watches. That’s 80 million people. Take even a quarter of that. 20 million. We are making 50,000 watches. Patek Phillipe is making maybe 60 or 70,000. IWC is making maybe 80,000 watches. Altogether, there are maybe 600,000 watches being made per year. Against 80 million people? How should I look at this industry? Should I cry? No. That’s something I want the industry to feel more confident with.
What are your thoughts on Dubai Watch Week and its importance to the wider horological community?
Dubai Watch Week is a must. People look at it with more respect every year. What the Seddiqi family did is beyond feeding their own businesses. The money they’ve invested, the passion they put behind the project, and the reach that Dubai Watch Week has far exceeds a simple watch fair. We have to give them a lot of respect and credit for supporting the watch industry beyond the borders of the Middle East. They should be recognized for that.
[The watch industry] must be in Dubai. It’s the region where the youngest crowd appreciates watchmaking. Everyone is here. That’s a statement. It’s going to keep getting bigger and better.
When COVID came, the word that came to everyone’s mind was localization. We are doing exactly that. Recently, I got to meet Omar Al Olama, the UAE’s Minister of Artificial Intelligence. We connected instantly and became very close friends. I gave him a challenge for his lab. I said this is what I want for the watch world. I gave him two challenges. One didn’t work, the second does work. We’re going to release something from Audemars Piguet for the entire watch industry. Somehow, I’m so happy that it doesn't come from Switzerland. I want 'Swiss-made' to be respected, but I love that [people] from different places in the world have come up with something that AP could not have done alone. That’s cool.