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Away from the Fairways | TEE TIME




I’ve decided that François-Henry Bennahmias is an “anti-dementor”. Fans of the Harry Potter films will recognize the “dementor” – hideous creatures which literally suck all of the joy and warmth out of a room, then drain the passion and energy of their victims. To be an “anti-dementor”, you have to be one of those rare individuals who lifts any gathering simply by being there. Exuding bonhomie and charm, with a ready smile and booming laugh, François is in his element “working” a room. No-one ever forgets meeting the CEO of Audemars Piguet, and he energises everyone he comes into contact with – clients and staff alike. C a s e i n p o i nt : w e a r e m e e t i n g t h e morning after a large gala party in Shanghai, where guests were treated to a range of entertainments including an amazing classical dance performance and a stunning “Bjork”like set by local star Dadawa. Spectacular and, together with a superb dinner created by 3-star Michelin chef Alain Passard, sublime. Then, in a surreal moment, Bennahmias got up and somehow led the entire assembly of A-listers in a mass improvised dance routine. It was hilarious, enormous fun and lef t everyone laughing, gasping, energized and happily getting to know their neighbours at dinner... and suddenly, the evening is truly unforgettable. I’ve been invited to Shanghai to attend the launch of the latest AP horology and art project, an exhibition featuring collaborations with several top artists with the centerpiece an installation in the massive Yuz Gallery (see article in Dec HK Golfer – ed). The exhibition is outstanding, but if I’m honest the meeting with François is the main reason I’m here. Audemars Piguet not only have a truly special place in the rarefied world of haute horology, they have perhaps the finest group of ambassadors in the world of golf, and I’m keen to discuss both with the CEO - a professional golfer himself. THE PRO GOLFER CEO Charles McLaughlin: I’ve interviewed countless professional golfers, but never one who runs one of the most successful watch companies in the world! How did that come about? François-Henry Bennahmias: My parents started playing and, when I was a kid, I was 13 years old, they were dragging me along because I didn’t want to play at all. I was a rugby player, I was playing soccer, rugby, all these spor ts where you can yell and 22



everything, and it was golf where I couldn’t do anything. They really dragged me there. I didn’t want to play golf, but when I was 15 years old we were at a competition in Spain, and it was the European Junior Championship, where France won that year. I look at the tournament and I say, “One day I’m going to beat these guys.” Two years later, in a tournament in Paris, I beat the number one player from that team at that time. Then I became pro when I was 18 years old. I played on the French Tour, which was very small, and then with the European Tour but I was not a good player. I ranked 25th in France at that time. I was making less than 10k a year, okay? I was giving golf lessons, obviously, but I wanted to become the number one player in the world. I wanted to become Seve Ballesteros - at that time he was my hero - and one of my best friends told me that I would never be number one in the world and said, “Come and work with me in the fashion world,” and I moved to the fashion world. I’m still a member of the French PGA and I sometimes give lessons to people, because I’ve always been a good teacher. Not a great player, but a good teacher. AP AMBASSADORS CM: I assume that has been a factor in choosing AP ambassadors? FHB: That’s what it is, so I pick the players. I always look at what’s going on. The big, big breakthrough was when I met Chubby HKGOLFER.COM



Chandler in 2005, and we started to sign some of his players obviously, and I became very close friends with them, and slowly but surely we increased our roster of players. We have now 14 guys, who had a great year in 2016, with Danny (Willett, Masters) and Henrik (Stenson, Open) winning two majors. CM: Are you actively involved in selecting potential ambassadors? FHB: Sure, yes. I want to meet the guys and spend time with them. For example, the first time when we signed Vijay Singh, his reputation was that he doesn’t want to meet the sponsors until it’s signed. I said, “No, no, no, no. I want to meet the guy personally” and we were supposed to see each other for, it was supposed to be a very quick dinner for, like 45 minutes. We spent three hours together, and that’s when we became very close friends. Yes, I want to feel the guys. How they’re going to be able interact with our clients, what’s going to happen? We’ve had a great roster of players over the course of the years. When I think about the guys that we got and the number of victories that we’ve had on the tour, and majors, for who we are as a small company, we did good. CM: You’re making a huge investment in the players when you chose the one you’re going to back, essentially. You want them to reflect your brand, but as we’ve seen when they do something wrong it backfires to some extent. FHB: That’s a risk when you sign people, against signing events. If you sign an event you’re safe. If you sign human beings, there is always a risk. Always, and the higher you go the bigger the risk is, because of the exposure. That’s a part of the game. HIP-HOP HOROLOGY CM: You led the dancing last night! As well as golf, music is certainly a passion you’ve brought into AP, especially hip-hop. FHB: Yeah, Jay-Z, all these guys. When I became friends with Jay, and he wanted to make a watch with us. I said, “I’m going to sell that to the board.” 24


That’s going to be: sell a rapper, a hip-hop guy, to our board in Switzerland! So, I came to Switzerland with two pictures. A picture of Jay-Z with Prince Charles, taken a week before, and a picture of P.Diddy with William Lauder, when they made a deal with the fragrance. I say, “Guys, you have to understand. Hip-hop today is what jazz was in the ‘20’s. It started in the black world, and became mainstream. This is what hip hop is today. Hip hop is listened by everybody. Black, white, yellow, pink. Everybody.” “We should make this move.” I say, “I want to make a Jay-Z Limited Edition,” and they said, “Yes,” so we made a limited edition Royal Oak Offshore that was only for the US. Not for the world. We made only 100 watches, and they sold it out in [snaps fingers]... That opened so many doors for us. We got a younger audience that came to our world, because Jay-Z was mentioning Audemars Piguet in his songs. Beyonće as well, by the way. So we started to get into a completely different crowd, and a lot of athletes started to wear AP because of that, because of Jay. Before the games they were listening to JayZ’s music, and Audemars Piguet became something. Still today people talk about it. There was one Chinese client yesterday who is in the music world here. He was maybe 28, 29. I got introduced to him yesterday. He said, “You know what? I wear AP because of LeBron James and I love what you guys did with Jay-Z.” This is why I would listen to Jay-Z forever, because of when we worked together. We worked together three years. A true gentleman, and you really hope he does a lot of tours. AP FOR WOMEN CM: As well as reinventing the brand in new markets, you’ve said that the secret to longevity is to “grow slowly” and you’ve actually restricted production as others expanded rapidly. You also said that you wanted to expand the proportion of women who are buying watches. How’s that going? I think at the time it was like 75/25, male/ female? FHB: Yeah, now we’re at 70/30 and you have to understand when you say 30, that we don’t monitor women who are buying men’s watches. It could be more, because we see that more and more actually. Of seeing women buying men’s watches, but overall it’s getting there. CONTINUED ON PAGE 77... HKGOLFER.COM


There is a big launch in a few days in Florence, in Italy with a new treatment on gold (called “Frosted Gold”), which is going to be huge... I showed pictures to women at a dinner with 20 VIP’s in Hong Kong a few days ago, and I showed them pictures and the video of the watch that’s going to be launched and they were blown away. I think we’re on to something that’s going to make a real, real statement. I’ve been working for the brand for 22 years. I’ve never been so excited, actually, to launch a women’s watch. It’s not a new design, but it’s a special treatment on gold that basically makes the watch sparkle without a single diamond on it. That’s going to be sick. CM: Yes, and then you’re going to find men buying women’s watches… FHB: You know what? Potentially, because there are men who are looking at this and saying, “I want one.” We are not expecting that, but the watch is really “wow”, and that’s going to help us even bring in more women to the brand. GOLF SPONSORSHIP CM: Getting back to golf, I interviewed Stephen Urquhart (of Omega) and we discussed golf sponsorship. He was at AP of course. Did you work with him? FHB: Sure, yes. I started with AP in 1994, and he left in 1998. CM: Obviously he’s a big golfer as well and when I was speaking to him we discussed potentially sponsoring in Hong Kong or tournaments in China. It’s a lot of money but is that something you’ve considered? FHB: We’ve been offered several deals. We’ve been of fered the Hong Kong Open for, several times actually. We’ve been offered tournaments also from the PGA Tour in the US. It’s a huge investment, as you say. Not so much Hong Kong, but in the US. It’s a seven to eightmillion-dollar ticket no matter what, which is expensive for a brand like ours. Hong Kong is a different story, because also it’s a matter of where does the tournament fit in the season? How many of our own ambassadors will play the tournament? Actually, I’ve got again the offer on my desk. Not to be as a lead sponsor, because UBS has signed again now. They would want us as a second level sponsor. I’m not closing the door, but it would really depend on how many of our ambassadors we could secure to play the tournament, because if we don’t have any of our guys it doesn’t make much sense. CM: It’s a shame. It’s a perfect market I think. FHB: It’s a great market… in theory. HKGOLFER.COM



THE FUTURE CM: So, where do you see Audemars Piguet going forward? You’ve already mentioned keeping production at c.40,000 pieces per annum. What else do you see is going to be key for you over the next, say five years? FHB: We are living in a moment, right now, where the whole industry is shaking somehow, and I do believe we’re going to see some huge changes. Some brands will suffer, some retailers will suffer as well. We’re going to see a shrinkage overall, because we need to go back to basics. We watched a video yesterday [at the launch], with this notion of emotional luxury, and who knows? We are working on something that could actually be a complete game changer. Not only for the Audemars Piguet, but for the whole industry. I cannot tell you more, but the thing I can tell you is every time we as human beings are exposed to something which is difficult we get creative. In good times, we have a tendency to fall asleep a little bit, okay? To relax. That’s normal. When things get tougher, we have to wake up and find new ways, and the creativity becomes even stronger when we are somehow pushed to our limit. That’s where we are now, and I think we’re onto something that I say, that could be a game changer. Not just for AP, for the watch industry. CM: Any timing on that? If I publish this story next month will I look like an idiot, because 78


you’ve already launched? [laughs] FHB: No. [laughs] Ideally yesterday, but it’s going to take time. We’re not talking about years. We’re talking about one year maybe, at the most. CM: Can’t wait! You seem very excited about the future for AP. What about your future. Would you ever leave AP? FHB: I have to say I’ve not been regularly chased, headhunted since I took over, but I know why. I know exactly why. First of all, because people know that I am very happy where I am. I’ve got a great team, Audemars Piguet takes good care of me. I’ve said many times in many interviews that the day I leave AP I leave the watch world. I’ve been with Audemars Piguet for 22 years. I’m not saying no, that nothing could happen, because you never know in life, but… Also, I’m not a politician at all, and in these big roles you have to go through politics. I want decisions to be taken fast, and that would be an issue I know, in many places. I used to be hunted when I was in the US, by luxury companies, and I went far twice, just to test the water. And at the end even the headhunting company told me that they couldn’t put me in a box. You cannot put me in a box, and that was bothering them, because I don’t have a single diploma. I didn’t graduate at anything, but I can deliver success. CM: The actual brand itself, how often do suitors come after the company? FHB: Many times, but for the last seven, eight years less so, because we’ve declared our will of independence so many times. And yet, every time we hear stories: “Audemars Piguet being taken over…”. So, the last time that I heard the rumour, it was a year and a half ago: Someone said “Apparently Richemont is on the verge to buy Audemars Piguet!”, and I said [whispers] “No, no. You don’t understand? We are buying Cartier.” And they say, “What?!”. And I go “Yeah, we are buying Cartier,” because it kicks off another rumor. You like that one?! [laughs] Never a dull moment and all too quickly, it’s time to wrap up. As I get ready to head to the airport, smiling, I check my energy levels and sure enough, the “anti-dementor” has delivered again! Let’s hope we see him in Hong Kong soon, ideally presenting the winner’s trophy at Fanling - to an AP ambassador! HKGOLFER.COM

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