Francois­-Henry Bennahmias

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 November, 2014, 5:34pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 November, 2014, 5:34pm

The maverick chief executive of Audemars Piguet is a breed apart in the watchmaking world and not just because he's fond of sneakers and scarves. The former golf pro and fashion industry executive tells us why avoiding business speak and teaching the world to fist bump is the way forward.

"I've been working on the commercial side of watches for 20 or more years. I recently spent three months with the production guys, seeing what they do every day, really learning. I was completely immersed - they put me on the bench trying indexes on dials. It's incredible what they do and we don't even communicate 10 per cent of that true artistry of what these people do. When we tell people how these things are really made, they are going to go crazy. We don't do it enough. We could do so much more with high-end watches - there's so much potential.

I'm a glass-half-full kind of guy and I think if we work on educating people more, in Asia, for example, explain what we do and how we do it, then the upside is huge. There are a lot of watchmakers, and people who don't know about watchmaking might think we're all the same. But if you ask these watchmakers to put their movements on the table, the difference becomes apparent. It's one thing to talk about making movements, it's another to actually do it, and I feel we do it very well. The watch industry is very conservative. I might seem different, but that's because I don't follow, and I try myself, and through the company, to create our own path.

I'm very straight-forward: in a good way and in a bad way. If I don't like someone I'm not going to play nice - I don't care. I respect people, of course, but if you cross my path and don't behave the right way, no matter who you are, I'm going to tell you. One of my biggest rewards in life, indeed passions in life, is putting people together, creating an environment for people to realise their potential. That's my thing. I also love making people do things that they would never normally do. Especially in Asia.

I took the job of CEO two years ago and on my first trip to China I had dinner with all the company executives. There's 17 of us around the table, the majority of them older Chinese and very proper. We were having dinner at an Italian place. It was nice, but I thought that we could get them to loosen up a bit. At the end of the dinner, I asked the top executive to stand and taught him how to do the US way of greeting. You know, like a fist bump and the athlete hug. So we did it. He loved it. It's funny, I arranged for this executive to meet my friend Pierre Hermé in Paris and when we saw each other he greeted me that way.

I've been using that greeting to loosen things up a little in China, Japan, Korea, wherever I go really … with executives, politicians. It's a small thing, but I love to break down barriers.

My style is more relaxed, sure, but it is because I think we are lucky to be working in this industry. I don't use jargon or business speak - I don't try to avoid it, but it's just not who I am. Yes, I am the CEO of Audemars Piguet, but people will buy the watches regardless of whether I give corporate speeches where I mention the brand name every few minutes. The best selling tool is a 'not selling' tool. By that I mean you should never have to show that you need to sell for people to buy your watches. Enjoy the person's company; whether he buys today, tomorrow or in a few months from now is irrelevant. We can do this because we are not a public company, there's no shareholders constantly asking questions. As a family company we can think long term. And this structure allows us to build closer relationships.

That's how we get people such as LeBron James, Lionel Messi, Sachin Tendulkar - the top people in their field - to work with us. They don't care about the money, it's beyond the money for these guys. The money they get from these people is nothing compared to what they could earn, and do earn, elsewhere. They want a relationship, someone who talks to them as a person, not as the star. They love the fact that it's not the corporate pitch all the time. Golf was my life when I was younger, but I don't play any more. I brought creativity and moving things faster. Of course, some of the production stuff you cannot speed up, but with window displays, interiors, events, marketing and so on we have become a lot faster. I like to go faster, maybe too fast sometimes."