HAVING RACKED UP 30 years at Audemars Piguet, the last ten of which he spent as CEO, François-Henry Bennahmias must be emotional at the thought of leaving the company at the end of the year.

“Nope,” he shrugs. Really? Not even a flicker of sadness or nostalgia? “No,” he repeats, before letting out a chuckle.

“I announced my departure in July last year, so it’s been coming for 18 months. It’s my choice to leave and I’m going to spend the last few months celebrating my time here. I’m good.”

In an industry where CEOs can be rather straight-faced, Bennahmias is an exception. Known for his charisma, sense of humour and booming voice, the Frenchman is the Jürgen Klopp of horology’s premier league.

During his tenure, Audemars Piguet has enjoyed huge success, recording sales of £1.8 billion in 2022, a year which saw Bennahmias lead the 50th anniversary celebrations of the iconic Royal Oak.

He launched the polarising Code 11.59 collection and partnered with Marvel on Black Panther and Spider-Man watches, a deal he announced in 2021 by appearing in a mini movie in which he strolled around a Los Angeles mansion while sipping coffee with Iron Man actor Don Cheadle.

François-Henry Bennahmias

Bennahmias’s love of golf – he was once ranked in the top 25 in France – led to collaborations with professional players including Henrik Stenson, Viktor Hovland, Ian Poulter,
Lee Westwood and Tyrrell Hatton.

But perhaps most crucially of all, Bennahmias made Audemars Piguet cool – especially with younger people. He smiles, “One of the biggest rewards for me today is seeing a young generation of clients come to us and say, ‘You are the coolest brand.’ We have managed to inspire the new generation and establish Audemars Piguet as a watch brand that talks to them.”

Audemars Piguet’s connection to the younger demographic will no doubt be strengthened by its latest partnership with Matthew Williams, creative director of menswear and womenswear at Givenchy and co-founder of the cult fashion brand 1017 ALYX 9SM. Williams has lent his edgy aesthetic to two Royal Oaks, two Royal Oak Offshores and a limited-edition Frosted Gold Royal Oak. The minimalist watches were launched in August in Tokyo – Audemars Piguet’s second-largest market after the United States – which is where square mile is talking to Bennahmias.

At a party to launch the collection, Bennahmias hosted a charity auction where an additional one-off Royal Oak in yellow gold and stainless steel designed by Williams was bought for $1m by an anonymous telephone bidder. After topping up the money raised with a spontaneous personal donation of £60,000, Bennahmias made a speech. As he thanked his Japanese business partners for their help over the years, his voice cracked with emotion, which suggests his departure might be more on his mind than he lets on.

Jay-Z with his Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore
Shaquille O'Neal with François-Henry Bennahmias

“I’m proud of the relationships we’ve built, both inside and outside the company,” continues Bennahmias. “We have another big launch before the end of the year that I’m extremely excited about so I’m looking forward to these last few months. Honestly, I cannot wait to stop. No more emails, no more calls, I want to slow down and rest.”

His plan, Bennahmias explains, is to halt work “completely” for six months and “reboot the system” which means losing weight, sleeping and spending time with his daughter in New York. What then?

“I’ll tell you what I won’t do ever again and that is be an employee,” he states firmly before grinning mischievously, “I know what I want to do next, I have ideas cooking. And it will be big.”

Any regrets? “Zero. Absolutely zero.”

Time for a change

Audemars Piguet’s new CEO is Ilaria Resta. Formerly an executive in Procter & Gamble’s beauty and perfumery division, Resta’s appointment signals a bold new direction for Audemars Piguet. She will inherit a brand in rude health when she takes up the position on 1 January 2024.

“When I arrived, the company wasn’t in the shape it is now,” says Bennahmias. “The team changes and goes through challenges and we have had victories again and again. When Covid hit we lost a little bit of business but not much compared to other watch companies. The brand is resilient, which was my goal.”

From a leadership point of view, Bennahmias says his time at Audemars Piguet has taught him to be more receptive to opposing opinions. “This job is 360, it’s insane,” he laughs. “I’ve learned that you have to look at things from different angles. You’re exposed to so many different challenges. As you get older, you get wiser – wiser in the sense that all my perfect thoughts and perfect ways of doing things have been shattered many times.”

He’s also noticed a cooling off in his temperament. “I used to be a bull, going crazy, not listening,” he says, waving his arms. “But now I’m less aggressive and I listen more. I’m very curious and I try to get information from different fields that will help me.”

François-Henry Bennahmias

During our conversation, Bennahmias has gradually become a little more misty-eyed and eventually admits, “I’ve been reflecting. From the age of 10 to 18, my teachers told me I would never be good at anything, that I was basically a failure. If you had told me then that one day I would be CEO of a company with €2.5 billion revenue, employing 3,000 people having worldwide success, I would have said you were crazy.

“Sitting here now, it’s not a feeling of revenge, I don’t see it that way, it’s more of a ‘Guess what?’ Things are never written the way you think they are going to be written. With human nature today we have a tendency to think that people must check boxes. I want to tell the world it’s extremely cool not to check any boxes.”

The Swiss watch industry – which chalked up exports worth almost £22.5 billion in 2022 – will miss Bennahmias. Surely he’ll remain in the luxury industry, but such is his synonymy with Audemars Piguet, it’s difficult to see him pitch up at another watch brand next year.

For now, Bennahmias will continue his farewell tour, bathing in the adulation and respect earned from his transformation of Audemars Piguet. “A brand is never indestructible, but we’re in pretty good shape,” he smiles. “It’s been pure pleasure.”

See more at audemarspiguet.com