French-born Patrick Pruniaux was appointed CEO of Kering-owned watch brand Ulysse Nardin in September last year after successful spells as vice-president of global sales at TAG Heuer and managing director for UK & Ireland for Apple Corporation where he was a senior director working on the Apple Watch project. It is a fascinating career path leading to the doors of Ulysse Nardin, and one that gives him a refreshing perspective on the challenges and opportunities facing his company and the wider Swiss watch industry, as WatchPro’s Rob Corder found out when he met the freshly-minted chief executive.
WatchPro: You took over as CEO in September 2017. What have you discovered about Ulysse Nardin since you joined the company that you did not know before?
Patrick Pruneaux: I discovered a brand with so many values and assets that are not known. I should have known more about the brand before I joined. It is nobody’s mistake but the fact is it is amazing to see that the brand has so many assets and strengths. It was incredible to realize that it is an undamaged brand. It has had a quite low level of marketing. The way that the brand talks about itself is so limited compared to what the company could be saying, which I see as a positive. Genuineness and purity are great assets for a brand today.
WP: Are you speaking about a legacy of products, such as bunch of movements and watch designs lying undiscovered in a draw somewhere?
PP: Yes, I discovered that as well. The other thing I discovered is a level of passion. The only other place I have seen the same level of passion and commitment was at Apple. That is very unique. Before joining I knew there was a mystique around the brand. I had been in the watch industry prior to Apple so I knew the brand a bit, but I quickly realised how little I truly knew, and how little is written about its history and achievements; that surprised me.
You could say, we are the industry’s best kept secret, which is fine. But I think we need consumers to know a bit more about us.
WP: So in some ways you have a blank canvas, but you also have some great tools, brushes, paints and ideas. What are you going to do with all of that?
PP: I like the way you put the question. I would say that all the colors are already there, we just need to decide what we are going to do with it. First, for a luxury brand today and a watch brand, history is almost a prerequisite. It is great to be able to tell a very contemporary story to a customer that comes on the back of 150 years of history and tradition. The second thing to say is that there has been some great work done by my predecessor from a product development point of view, so the number of collections from Ulysse Nardin is much bigger. There are five collections, each collection says something about us as a company. For example, the Diver is the sports watch that you want to wear with everything.
But the brand is largely unknown to anybody other than watch connoisseurs. These connoisseurs have high regard for the brand, but people that love watches and are not experts need to know more about Ulysse Nardin. We need to do a better job with that.
WP: I guess your model is shaped by the scale of your ambition. If you are looking to sell a small number of top end pieces to connoisseurs, than that dictates one style of business, but if you want to start challenging the bigger luxury watch brands, you will need channels, you will need to be working with the right retailers.
PP: You are right. We need to communicate with the right retailers and tell our story well. One part of our story that we are researching is that it appears we have been a significant supplier of timepieces to the British Navy for at least a couple of decades. We also discovered that we are probably one of a few suppliers, possibly the most dominant supplier, to the US Navy for 40 years from the start of the 20th century through to the start of World War II. But you are right that we need distribution. I do not think we need large distribution but we can work better with our partners.
WP: I’m interested in how your former role with Apple Watch has affected your view of the market, particularly right now when analysts are saying that Apple Watch outsold the entire Swiss watch industry in Q4 of last year. What does that mean to you in terms of how the Swiss watch industry should react?
PP: It was funny in my case to witness the change in perception of the smartwatch industry from the Swiss watch industry. When I left TAG Heuer to join Apple, I heard comments like, “oh, you are changing industry”. That was wrong, I was not changing industry, I was just going to another brand that is selling product that goes on the wrist. I do not think it is right to describe what Apple does as a different industry because there is only one piece of real estate, which is a customer’s wrist. Who is going to seize that wrist is the question.
Connected watches — and Apple has a very large share of that market right now — is a success, and it will be even more successful in the coming years. I have heard so many people in the Swiss watch industry saying that it is not working. They have to be blind to not see the success. I will not comment specifically on the numbers you are quoting, but it is working.
Maybe if you are in Switzerland, you will see fewer people wearing an Apple Watch, but if you are on the West coast of the United States, you will see it everywhere. I also think it is here to stay.
Having said that, the reason I came back to work in the Swiss watch industry again is that there is still a lot of potential for traditional watchmaking, but we need to adapt very rapidly.
Should the Swiss industry do smartwatches? I am not so sure. In our case I do not see what added value a company like Ulysee Nardin could bring to the consumer.
Where we need to evolve is that we need to speak to the consumer about the benefit that we are bringing. We need to explain to customers why it is very interesting to wear a traditional mechanical watch, the values behind it, what it says about the owner as an individual.
A connected watch or a phone will tell you the time, but it is only information. With a traditional mechanical watch, there is a level of emotion that is much higher. There is a desire in our world for authenticity, disconnection, and that is where the watch industry needs to do a better job of explaining ourselves.
Smartwatches could be a great introduction for people to start wearing watches again. It is a gateway product. Even if we get, as an industry, 10% of those smartwatch wearers turning into Swiss watch customers, that would be huge.
WP: I like the analogy of television not destroying theater. The theater experience is more high art, more real, more historic. It will never go away despite the convenience of television.
PP: This is an interesting analogy, and I will quote you because it is a good one.