Older, male, and typically clad in fabulously expensive Italian suits – this is the stereotype that consistently described the watch brand bosses of yesteryear. And perhaps because of their strict adherence to tradition, luxury watch brands have been slow to keep up with the trends and the times. This, however, is all changing; a paradigm shift brought about by Johann Rupert, the chairman of the Richemont Group, who told shareholders that he was tired of “grey men” running his companies, which include the likes of IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre, and Piaget.
Consequently, a new generation of luxury watch brand bosses have emerged – a breed that is younger, more tech-savvy, some even female, and ready to pivot on their heels according to the demands of the people, rather than the product. They are innovators with a finger on the pulse of the industry and their audiences, and who are persistent in their quest for evolution and inspiration.
Meet sneaker-wearing Patrick Pruniaux
Tall, tanned, and athletic Patrick Pruniaux is the perfect example of this new breed. At 47-years-old, the former TAG Heuer exec and Apple brand manager has been seduced into the role of chief executive of luxury Swiss watch manufacturers, Ulysse Nardin and Girard-Perregaux, both owned by the Kering group of luxury companies. Instead of grooming for the role of older male boss with more panache than James Bond, he’s teaching the Swiss a thing or two about having a youthful and dynamic ‘Apple’ frame of mind.
“There are no silos at Apple,” says Pruniaux. “I’m trying to favour empowerment and autonomy at Ulysse Nardin. The typical watch company doesn’t work in this way – it would be very hierarchical. I believe in order, but also in disorder. Encourage people to express themselves. Every idea is a good idea. Do not discount an idea because of the title of the person within your organisation.”
Out with the old, in with the new
Pruniaux’s appointment to CEO in August 2017 came on the heels of launching Apple Watch in the United Kingdom. It’s his experience with the ‘smart’ brand that informed his approach to the role, rather than his knowledge of the watch industry: “Apple was very demanding and very professional,” he says, referencing Apple’s talent for creating overnight global conversations about new products. “Everything is done top-notch. In the luxury business, we need to be obsessed with that.”
Until now, Pruniaux has been concentrating primarily on Ulysse Nardin, replacing the previous wholly forgettable marketing campaigns with animated new messaging and artwork that creates a powerful sense of brand identity and personality.
The Freak neXt concept watch
On a more technical note, Pruniaux is stoking the fires of conversation around Ulysse Nardin’s pioneering role in silicon watchmaking technology; a role that was almost entirely forgotten thanks to brands like Patek Philippe and Zenith doing a better job of telling the story. And he’s doing this by debuting the brand’s new concept watch, the Freak neXt, an exciting new timepiece that features a high-frequency regulating organ called a ‘flying oscillator’.
Pruniaux is also setting up a very different organisation to the one that existed before the Apple exec took over the reins, creating a more egalitarian environment that promotes collaboration and contribution. “I don’t want to say anything negative about the previous organisation, but a lot of decisions were one-to-one based, the CEO and someone else. I don’t believe in that,” he says. “It’s much more interesting if there are ten other people giving their view, but when a time comes to make a call, I will make it, no problem.”
Next generation watches, next generation leadership
The confident, energetic, yet pragmatic leader is a prime example of the new leadership percolating through the management of luxury watch companies. And because of this, the giants of the timepiece industry are finally paying attention to their audiences and developing a more intriguing personality and story. Concluding with a sentiment that could be the motto for this next generation of watch brand bosses, Pruniaux says simply: “I like to think I’m participating in something which is going to be built for all time.”