Audemars Piguet has sometimes been the "forgotten prodigy" among the triumvirate
of great brands of Swiss High Horology. This has always been a mystery to me,
since AP has, as much as the other two Great Houses, continued without
interruption its long standing tradition of excellence and daring in design and
execution – aesthetically and mechanically well designed, executed to the
highest levels of quality and attention to detail.
I continue to encounter among private parties, and even among professionals in
the industry, many lingering rumours and half-truths about AP - old black marks
that, in my own experience as a collector and "friend of the industry" I find to
be out-dated or downright wrong. I hope the following interview with Mr.
Francois-Henry Bennahmias, President of Audemars Piguet NA, serves as an
informative update on some very exciting developments.
Thomas Mao, PsyD
TP178: Mr. Bennahmias, as President of Audemars Piguet North America, when did you take
over responsibility for the N.A. market?
FHB: In May 1999 when AP & Cie bought back the distribution from the
distributor to incorporate APNA as a fully owned subsidiary.
TP178: Please describe for us the conditions in the general high end watch market, and
specifically in regards to AP, when you arrived.
Whereas all the other high-end brands were taking off, AP was almost dead:
only $4 million in turnover in the last year, 650 pieces for some 85 doors! A
very unhealthy financial situation, discounting and gray market problems.
This certainly sounds like an unfortunate state of affairs for the company. How
has the market performance of AP in the NA market been since 1999?
2001 was the best year ever for AP worldwide. In the US, we have increased
last year our turnover almost fourfold since 1999, sold 2,000 pieces through
only 60 doors. Our financial situation is very healthy, and 2002 will be even
TP178: An impressive
turnaround! Now, specifically regarding the area of customer service, many consumers often
complain about the slow and often poor service provided by many high horology
FHB: All the high-end watch brands face today the same major problem, which is
the shortage of qualified watchmakers. A whole generation is missing.
Specifically to AP USA, the brand has (had) some bad reputation in the past, and
even today, there are lingering negative feelings and comments "from the field."
Would you please comment on this?
Apart indeed from the residual from previous service organizations, the
lack of well-trained watchmakers is specifically exacerbated in the US,
where there are virtually no good schools, in regard to the standards of
the high-end brands at least, and the brands compete against each other
for the few qualified watchmakers.
But long delays are sometimes not only our fault: as an example, after
9/11 until December, we had 750 repairs at the factory for which the
estimates had not been approved. Suddenly in January, everybody wanted to
go ahead and repairs were backing up. We can't do miracles. And I will
give you another example, although these are confidential figures: I have
today a stock of 93 pieces in the After Sales Service for which the
estimates have been sent out over 2 months ago! Whose fault are then the
long delays? But don't get me wrong: there is no doubt that we have to
make many improvements, we are not there yet at all!
In terms of quality, though, we have made quite some progress over the
last four years, if you consider that the return rate for new product is
today among the lowest in the industry!
Thank you for your candor. The old saying goes, "There are always two sides…"
but it is refreshing to hear an executive from a major luxury brand even
acknowledge that there are issues to begin with. The first critical step in
beginning to address an issue is to acknowledge that a problem exists…
What changes have been implemented to address these issues, and what are the net
effects in terms of improved customer service and satisfaction?
We acknowledge that the first concern of the clients is the delay, not the
price of the service. And except for the delays due to the fact that there are
only so many qualified watchmakers to work on a number of pieces, we believe
that we have identified strategies to considerably reduce other causes of
delays. One is the miscommunication between the customer, the retailer and the
brand, where the first delay typically originates.
We believe the best service is a delay that is acceptable to the customer. We
need to increase the number of truly qualified watchmakers in our Service
Center, and we are working on new logistics to streamline the whole process,
including a dedicated website where customers can check at anytime on the status
of their repair by entering the job number, similar to a Fedex or UPS tracking
service. They will exactly know where in the repair process their timepiece is:
if it's in quality control, in Switzerland, etc. Also, repairs for which the
estimate has not been approved within a month will systematically be returned.
This is fantastic! What an innovative and groundbreaking use of technology in
the haute luxe segment of the watch industry.
But most important, we have moved our Service Center from New York City to new
facilities in Florida, which will be operative on March 4th.
AP US Service
Manager G. Vincent; custom polishing machine specifically designed for the Royal Oak case
Florida? What an unexpected location for a service center. Why Florida? And
what are the goals of the new service center in Florida? Why this approach?
Florida is a very appreciated destination and it will be easier to attract
good watchmakers. We have created an exceptional facility for them, and we
hope to quadruple over five years our number of watchmakers working at the
new facility to 50 or 60. The goal will be to ultimately service the South
American and Caribbean Markets (for AP repairs only). In the meantime, we
will work on the above mentioned new logistics.
We will not, however, service any vintage and historical pieces there, due
to the very small number of specialists able to do this work, and who are
all in Switzerland.
So starting Monday, March 4th, all service requests should be directed to (and
will be handled from) the new Florida facility:
AP Techniques, USA, Inc.
1682 North Belcher Rd.
Clearwater, FL 33765
Tel: 727-467 0940 Fax: 727-467-4248
TP178: Back to a broader management issue, may I ask what your views are on development
of regional markets and global marketing and pricing strategies?
What do you
think of the popular management adage – "Think globally, act locally?"
FHB: This has been AP's strategy since we started to buy back the distribution
in the important markets. If AP now owns most of the distribution, and marketing
strategies are corporate, the individual markets have still a lot of freedom to
adapt theses strategies to their local market needs.
TP178: Any other changes in store?
FHB: We have been looking for quite a while for a location to open an Audemars
Piguet flagship store in the US. We may now have found an exceptional
space, which we are currently trying to finalize!
TP178: Now, to a subject that
is particularly timely, in light of recent major socio-political events - AP has a history of charity fundraising promotional programs, from the
smashingly successful NY and Singapore Time to Give events, to the AP corporate
sponsored Royal Oak Foundation Time for the Trees charity.
There was also the recent N'Sync charity promotional program – tell me about
FHB: In the aftermath of 9/11, many watch brands have spontaneously contributed
to relief funds in one way or the other. So did we. We have created a
limited edition of 200 ladies and men's watches for NSYNC, engraved with
their signatures and with a very original packaging. Half of the funds
raised through this program (an estimated $500,000) will be dedicated to a
special scholarship fund for children of victims of the WTC attacks.
Consistent with our focus on children, we have partnered with NSYNC
because they are today the most highly and widely respected role models
for children and teenagers in this country. They dedicate much of their
time and energy to raise funds for their charity "Challenge for the
TP178: I know that this special joint fund raising
effort was very recent. Are there still any pieces available from this
special limited edition? What models were released for this program?
Yes, at this time, there are still a few pieces available from this charity fund
raising limited edition. For men, there is the model based on the Royal
Oak, and for ladies, a model based on the Promesse. Those persons wishing
to help this very worthy cause, and acquire a momento of this effort, should
contact their local authorized Audemars Piguet dealer.
Audemars Piguet North America Inc. has given in 2 ˝ years of existence as
a fully owned subsidiary of Audemars Piguet over $2.5 million to American
charities, focusing primarily on children; a considerable amount for a
small Swiss company whose turnover worldwide in 2001 was $100 million!
have a very close relationship with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and have given
close to $2 million through various programs to his charity, the Inner
City Games Foundation, which funds after school programs for
underprivileged children in now fourteen major US cities.
At the Time To Give charity auction in New York in October 2000 in
celebration of the 125th Anniversary of AP we have raised $1.5 million in
one night, which entirely were donated to charity, equally split between
the Inner City Games and the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville. We are
also planning for 2003 another program with Muhammad Ali to benefit the
TP178: Thank you, Mr. Bennahmias, for your comments and insights. In closing, can you
share with us any sneak peeks at what is coming for 2002 and beyond? Something
for the loyal fans and supporters of AP?
FHB: 2002 is the year of the 30th Anniversary of the Royal Oak, the icon of our
brand, so naturally, this is an important year for us. In celebration of
the 30th Anniversary, we are corporately sponsoring the Swiss Challenge of
the America's Cup and will come out with a special Royal Oak America's Cup
Limited Edition, the "City of Sails".
More important, we will show in Geneva a truly revolutionary new Royal
Oak. As for a concept car, this watch is a projection into the future:
what could an Audemars Piguet complication look like in ten or twenty
years from now? It is really amazing.
In the US in the fall of 2002, we will also announce the launch of a new
ladies line, with an amazing promotion involving another world-renowned
luxury brand (not another watch brand).
TP178: Exciting news for AP collectors and fans! Again, thank you for your time, and
all of our best wishes for continuing success in the NA markets!
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