The beginning of this year saw two new chief executives start their tenure at venerable Swiss watch brands Audemars Piguet and Zenith.

At Audemars Piguet, the departure of longtime chief executive François-Henry Bennahmias at the end of 2023 has been rumoured for a couple of years and was confirmed 18 months in advance — giving the board of the family-owned company plenty of time to pick a new leader.

And its choice of Ilaria Resta, a former veteran of consumer goods group Procter & Gamble, suggests a change of style for the company, after a decade of maverick management and polarising watch launches, during which revenue and operating margin doubled.

Resta’s appointment is particularly noteworthy not just because female chief executives are still a rarity in the watch business, but also because she was an industry outsider. Her previous jobs at Swiss perfume group Firmenich, where she worked from 2020 until joining AP, and at P&G across sectors such as batteries and haircare, bear little connection to horology.

We meet in her large, bright office at the historic AP headquarters in the Swiss mountain village of Le Brassus, where she disguises her lack of horological experience with a series of well-rehearsed rhetorical questions.

Resta sits inside the Audemars Piguet Musée Atelier surrounded by gold-coloured hemispheres on stands
The choice of Ilaria Resta suggests a change of style for Audemars Piguet

“There is this concept of industries that are self-fulfilled by the same talents over and over again,” says Resta. “My view of business is exactly the opposite. I’ve been trained to be managing businesses no matter what they are. If you ask me, ‘Can you assemble a watch?’ Absolutely not. But I don’t need to. ‘Do I understand watchmaking?’ I’m learning to because you need to master the product. But I don’t need to know how to do it when I manage the company. My mission is to preserve the company for the next generations of the family.”

One of her first objectives was to reaffirm the company’s independence and establish a clear future mission for the business, which at the moment produces 50,000 watches a year. “This company wants to remain an independent family company operating with the same level of quality and watchmaking excellence they’ve done so far,” says Resta.

Indeed, her brief and her approach appear to be more philosophical and conceptual, rather than being gauged by financial metrics alone. And, while careful not to criticise her predecessor, she signals a clear change of pace by choosing not to focus primarily on growth.

“Companies that focus on growth instead of on the ‘muscles’ don’t have sustainable growth,” she says. “So, I believe that there are stages: companies grow, grow fast, stop, consolidate, regrow again.”

The Audemars Piguet Code 11.59 with rose-gold case

Resta argues that she brings relevant skills to the watch industry at a moment of structural change. Her perspective as an analytical and intelligent outsider entering the industry is that, historically, it has been a manufacturing business with many sub-suppliers.

She is committed to expanding the network of AP Houses — the brand’s 21-strong private club-like concept stores, the first of which opened in 2017 — with a new opening in Miami planned for the end of the year.

And the opening of a new AP House in Milan, last month, coincided with the announcement that musician John Mayer had been appointed as a “creative conduit” — a nebulous title indicating a loosely defined role as a liaison between brand and collectors.

Resta plans to make the brand more open. “The story behind this industry is so precious and rich,” she says. “We need to open up the stories to more people, people [who] don’t necessarily buy watches.”

Stories are also important to another freshman chief executive, Benoit de Clerck, who took over at Zenith in January. “I was flabbergasted by the richness of the brand,” he says. “Whenever I am at the manufacture in Le Locle, I roam around with the people in charge of heritage of the brand and I’m discovering treasures. “We have 1km of archives. But, at the moment, we don’t have the time and people to go through them. And this is something that I will definitely dig into in the next couple of years to capitalise on.”

After 25 years in the watch industry, de Clerck’s excitement at being given control of a brand is evident. “I moved to Zenith because I wanted to have the 360-degree view and all the touch points of the role,” he says. He joins the LVMH-owned brand from Richemont’s Panerai, where he was chief commercial officer. “When it comes to having people from, say, the car industry, or aeronautics in the watch industry, I embrace it,” says de Clerck. “It’s great to have other people from different industries joining the watch industry, because it enriches it. But you still need experts as well; you will always need knowledge and expertise.”

De Clerck sits on a sofa beside a larger-than-life framed picture of a watch
One of Benoit de Clerck’s main priorities is to improve the supply chain © Alex Stephen Teuscher

While de Clerck declines to give exact figures, he indicates that revenues are a little below SFr200mn ($220mn) and that annual production is about 20,000 pieces per year. “It’s not a big brand and it’s not a small brand,” he says. “It’s like an adolescent brand. That is the way that I describe Zenith.”

De Clerck is also discovering that, while it may be a relatively small business, the brand has a distinct character imparted to it by its historical role as a movement manufacturer.

“Chronograph movements, such as the famous high-frequency El Primero, are much more complicated to assemble and regulate than a simple three-hand movement.”

Zenith’s Defy Extreme Diver

One of de Clerck’s main priorities is to improve the supply chain, to reduce the time it takes to manufacture watches. “We have a very inflexible supply chain,” he says, adding that integrating new technologies, including artificial intelligence, could be beneficial on that front.

“Manufacturing is another aspect. We produce a lot of parts of the movement in-house and we have around 40 engineers working on optimising existing calibres and working on new movement developments. This relatively high proportion of watchmakers and engineers was a revelation for me, and I want to make sure people know that Zenith will continue to be known for its movements.”

Clearly, his experience in the watch industry enables him to address such technical issues and identify where improvements can be made, but he believes that what won him the job was what he calls his “international aspect”. If nothing else — after having lived in the Middle East, America, Hong Kong and other Asian countries — he is a polyglot.

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