Audemars Piguet’s Francois Bennahmias on how the iconic Swiss brand maintains its lead

On my recent visit to Le Brassus, the home of luxury watch-maker Audemars Piguet, I had the privilege to interview the company’s CEO, Mr François-Henry Bennahmias. With a daring and unconventional approach, in less than 2 years since taking over as CEO, François (as he likes to be called) has been re-writing rules within Audemars Piguet

We met in his office, a statement in itself, an informal space, typical for an Artistic Director of a fashion house rather than a top executive of a heritage watch brand. Later in our discussion, I realized there was not a single watch display or poster in the office and his smart casual attire intentionally reflected his ‘out-of-the-box’ management style.

His vision of the brand is reflected in the way he regards the Audemars client: ‘’Our clients are alive! They are young and they are primarily seeking a special experience. They like to be challenged’’. Speaking about how the brand related to luxury lifestyle, Bennahmias insists relevance is a key strategic approach.

Speaking about the company’s performance in 2012 and his expectations for the full year 2013, Bennhamias said ‘’I am very pleased with our performance and we expect growth in 2013 across our key markets.’’. He also added that, despite challenges and the fact that the company has had to shut down stores, China will continue to be a very important market for Audemars Piguet in the long term. ‘’We need to have a well-balanced strategy in China. Our top three markets globally in terms of sales are: Hong Kong, followed by the U.S. and Switzerland.’’

As for retail expansion, Bennahmias overtly expressed his preference for mono-brand boutiques. ‘’Today, we have 11 directly operated mono-brands boutiques and 19 mono-brand boutiques operated in franchising. We aim for a total of 40 boutiques by the end of 2014 and 60 by the end of 2016’’ he added.

When addressing the issue of product development, Bennahmias said ‘’We currently manufacture approximately 33.000 timepieces per year and we have no pressure to increase production no matter what. The potential for future development is tremendous, currently only a fraction being covered. There are 15 million individuals globally worth over 1 million dollars.’’’

Besides recent associations such as with sports icon Lebron James, but also major events such as Art Basel Miami, golf, or the Bolshoi Ballet I wondered whether Audemars Piguet would consider a brand association with fashion, especially given the growing ladies’ watches market. ‘’The door is not closed. We have to identify a collaboration that would bring us together with a brand we share key DNA elements with’’ Bennhamias said.

For the 2013 edition of Art Basel Miami, Audemars Piguet has supported one of the most spectacular exhibits – a Swiss chalet conceived by French contemporary artist duo KOLKOZ, in partnership with  Perrotin Gallery. Symbolizing the conquering of new territories,  the snow-covered chalet was presented floating in the middle of a watery stage, being composed not of wooden logs and a shingle roof, as expected, but of an inflatable structure.

Since 1883, Audemars Piguet has been creating exceptional ladies’ timepieces, the collection being enriched yearly with new models. Watch here Audemars Piguet’s latest dedicated ad campaign for ladies watches.

Oliver Petcu in Le Brassus, Switzerland