ORLANDO, Fla. — Amid the Spanish moss and manicured lawns of the Lake Nona Golf & Country Club, François-Henry Bennahmias was in his element during Audemars Piguet’s golf tournament.
The chief executive of the Swiss watchmaker, himself once ranked 25th on the French Golf Tour, held court in April with more than 70 clients from around the world who had gathered to play alongside what the brand calls its “dream team” of golf pro ambassadors.
As well as competing in a convivial atmosphere with the likes of 2016 Masters winner Danny Willett and 2016 British Open winner Henrik Stenson, guests enjoyed the company of Serena Williams, another brand ambassador. The “Black-ish” star Anthony Anderson, described as a friend of the brand, also attended. (He frequently wears one of its Royal Oak timepieces on the ABC sitcom.)
Mr. Bennahmias said he believes that this kind of money-can’t-buy experience has been key in Audemars Piguet’s record of annual growth since 2009, despite challenging conditions in the global watch market.
“We have something truly special in terms of connection with our clients,” the 53-year-old executive said during an interview at the Waldorf Astoria in Orlando, which was host of the event.
Client experience may be the luxury industry’s phrase du jour but Mr. Bennahmias said his approach is at the core of the brand’s approach to both sales and after-sales.
“I answer every single client’s email personally,” he said by way of example. “I want them to feel that they don’t have to go through many doors before getting their answers, or speaking to whoever they want to talk to.”
The strategy appears to be paying off. While signs of the watch market’s recovery have begun to be seen this year, the market’s 2016 totals showed a sales decline of almost 10 percent in 2015 totals — while Audemars Piguet’s revenue was up seven percent, to almost 900 million Swiss francs, or $937 million.
Mr. Bennahmias is as competitive in business as he is on the golf course. He has ambitious plans to increase revenue by almost 50 percent, to 1.3 billion francs, although he has not disclosed a timetable. “How do we do that? What we are doing here this week is one thing and there are many others,” he said. “We need to connect more and more everyday to potential buyers, in any way, shape or form.”
If establishing an authentic connection with the customer sounds like it came from a sales handbook, it is not surprising that the French executive describes himself first and foremost as a salesman. “I could pretty much sell anything,” he said with a laugh.
Before joining Audemars Piguet in 1994, he worked in fashion distribution for the likes of Giorgio Armani and Gianfranco Ferré. It would be accurate, however, to say that he started out in croissants.
It was as an 8-year-old in Paris that he spied his first business opportunity, enlisting his 6-year-old brother as partner. “We were living in a residence where there were 15 buildings with three floors each,” he said. “I got the idea that if we could bring them breakfast, instead of them going to the bakery, that we could make money. So we made a deal with the local baker.”
The enterprise however was short-lived. “My brother wouldn’t wake up, he was too lazy and I couldn’t carry the whole thing myself,” he added. “We went bankrupt pretty quick.”
At Audemars Piguet, however, he became responsible for building its American business in 1999. The territory remains its largest single market today.
In January 2013 he became chief executive, and immediately began making changes to the business, which is still owned by the families that founded it in 1875. “We decided: fewer, bigger, better,” he said. As well as shrinking the watchmaker’s range from about 300 styles to a more manageable 140, he also reduced its number of retail partners.
“Less references, less doors,” Mr. Bennahmias said. “It meant more quality at every level: quality of the collection, quality of the distribution network, quality of the training of the retailers, quality of the training of the staff in our boutiques, and quality of the client experience.”
Another popular decision announced about two and a half years ago was that the company would produce no more than 40,000 watches a year for at least five years. “A lot of clients loved that,” he said. “The notion that we wouldn’t chase revenue just by increasing the quantity of watches made.”
He credits Audemars Piguet’s continued status as an independent watchmaker, a rarity in today’s conglomerate-heavy market, for his ability to make quick decisions. “There are things we’ve done as a brand in the last five years that if we’d belonged to a big corporation, would never have seen the light of day,” he said. “It would have taken too long to get a yes.”
Another area that has been overhauled since his appointment is Audemars Piguet’s women’s offering. “Five years ago, we were selling roughly between 15 to 20 percent of our watches to women,” he said. “We’ve now reached 30 percent.” (Partly through such introductions as the Royal Oak Frosted Gold, a 2016 version of the brand’s popular style for women.)
As well as making its communications and its retail spaces less masculine, the company has honed its watch range to suit a female customer who buys for herself.
It was Mr. Bennahmias who demanded a high jewelry collection that broke the mold of the diamond-encrusted flowers and butterfly-decorated timepieces that have long dominated the market. “I said, ‘Show me high jewelry from the 22nd century. I want to see tomorrow, not yesterday.’ ”
The resulting Diamond Trilogy succeeded in attracting not only press attention from around the world for its aesthetic daring and considerable craftsmanship, but also in increasing the brand’s high jewelry market from just one country, Hong Kong, to six or seven.
The overall retail strategy is now in Mr. Bennahmias’s sights. As well as increasing revenues by shifting away from wholesale partnerships in favor of its own boutiques, the company is preparing to open the first of what it calls its “lounges,” above-ground-level retail spaces where the focus will be on a premium customer experience rather than costly build-outs for showcase spaces with premium rents. The first are scheduled to open in London, Munich and New York by the end of this year.
Innovations like these, as well as searching for a solution to the thorny problem of online watch retailing, are required, Mr. Bennahmias said, to serve a new generation of consumers. A generation that includes his daughter, who recently received her first Audemars Piguet on her 20th birthday, and who is accustomed to plentiful choice and immediate gratification at the touch of a finger.
“We have to be pragmatic and deliver what they want. And what clients want today is to be able to trust in the brand they’re purchasing from, to know that the service is going to be good after the purchase, and the speed of the whole thing,” he said. “We are not there yet; we have a long way to go.”