Bulgari could be the new Cartier when it comes to its watch business, and the company’s incoming managing director, Antoine Pin, has the experience to build it into a far bigger wholesale brand with a different strategy to the boutique-driven jewelry side of the business. WatchPro’s Rob Corder caught up with the executive just a week into his new role and discovered a disruptive streak and a passion for working with the world’s best retail partners.
Antoine Pin has been working in the upper echelons of the global watch industry for 25 years, much of it with LVMH brands, beginning with TAG Heuer as a junior sales manager in 1994 before moving to Boucheron in 1998 as the jeweler’s marketing director and then five years as Zenith’s marketing director from 2002 to 2007.
His career has taken him around the world including three years as managing director of LVMH Watch & Jewelry in the UK, general manager of TAG Heuer in Japan and managing director of Bulgari for Greater China and Australia.
He was revealed as the new managing director for Bulgari Watches earlier this month, and sat down with WatchPro for his first interview after taking the job. Far from taking his time to get his feet under the desk, Mr Pin came out firing and fizzing with ideas on what is needed to keep the world buying luxury watches.
Bulgari’s chief executive Jean-Christophe Babin said in an interview in March with Swiss business title NZZ (Neue Zürcher Zeitung) that he plans to reduce his points-of-sale from 600 to 300 over the coming few years, with a higher proportion of monobrand Bulgari boutiques. The remaining 300 stores now represent 85% of sales, he revealed.
That strategy appears to apply only to the opulent jewelry side of the company, and not to watches, because the newly appointed Mr Pin sees wholesaling to multibrand retailers as vital. “Bulgari does have a reasonably large wholesale business world-wide for watches. We have slightly more wholesale accounts than owned stores. This is excellent. We have to face our competitors, we have to face the feedback of retailers when they tell us that, for example, a particular watch is too expensive or not expensive enough. That is very important feedback. The very important thing is to really value our retail partners and not to be tempted to give priority to our own direct retail network. The temptation is there because the financial structure is different and we may believe we have stronger influence over our own sales staff in stores. That may be true, but that would be like backing away from the challenge,” he says.
“There have been changes over a long period when it comes to our approach to working through wholesale, building our own retail stores, our own website. Some of the groups are moving quite far in that direction. What we see today is that the customer experience remains physical. If we agree that working with retail to deliver a physical experience is key, the next question is does it work only with our own distribution [Bulgari-owned shops]? Having worked in my career with owned retail-oriented brands and with brands more focused on wholesale, I fundamentally believe that the exposure of product against its competitors is key. Customers need to be able to compare, and that is what [multi-brand] retailers deliver,” he insists.
In a staunch defence for working with multi-brand retail partners in physical stores, Mr Pin says it is vital for Bulgari watches to succeed in that environment. “When you compare, you put performance in context. A customer might look at two watches and one may be heavier than the other, it might be less comfortable to wear. You might be able to read that on the web, but you will not be able to feel it unless you compare watches in stores. Customers in directly-owned stores cannot get that experience. They cannot compare,” he says.
And he suggests that major groups have gone too far and fast in opening their own physical and ecommerce stores rather than supporting their retail partners.
“We as an industry may have underestimated the great importance of this transparent approach that I feel is so vital today. I strongly believe in the future of the wholesale industry, probably organized differently, but I think the demand will come from customers because they will want to compare and try on different watches. They will not want to visit a whole street of shops to get that experience. They will miss the exposure to multiple brands,” he concludes.
If Bulgari’s distribution strategy for jewelry and watches diverges, it would not be an entirely unique approach. Cartier watches, for example, are sold in far more multi-brand stores than its jewelry, a strategy that has propelled it to be the third biggest watch brand in the world behind only Rolex and Omega, according to estimates by Morgan Stanley research that put its turnover from watches in 2018 at CHF 1.66 billion.
Bulgari Watches has some way to go to challenge Cartier. Morgan Stanley estimates watch sales for the business at CHF 413 million last year. Swiss bank Vontobel thinks sales were a little lower at CHF 394 million, equating to around 15% of Bulgari sales as a group. It believes 73% of turnover is jewelry, and the remaining 12% accessories and fragrance.
Mr Pin refers to that fragrance business in relation to how Bulgari has successfully managed more than one distribution strategy for different product lines. “We are extremely successful with Bulgari perfume, and that is very different to jewelry and watches. It has massive distribution. The same will be true for watches. We want to maintain our wholesale business. I will not answer on behalf of jewelry, but I will say that every category from Bulgari has its own specificities,” he asserts.
While jewelry looks likely to be sold through far fewer stores world-wide, Bulgari Watches could grow its wholesale accounts, although more likely it will press to sell more through its existing partners in the short term. “We have great partners, but we have rather limited distribution. There could be opportunities that we would certainly not say no to. Dynamic management of the network is the same for wholesale and our own stores. We close some and open others,” Mr Pin suggests.
He mentions India as a country that could open up far more to brands like Bulgari, while mature markets like the UK, the United States and Germany will be scrutinized differently. Paradoxically, an existing partner doing super-strong business could trigger Bulgari opening additional doors for watches. “The only reason to open new accounts in mature markets is that your existing partners are doing extremely well. There is no reason otherwise. It implies that demand is so strong that your current network cannot answer it. Your current network would have to be super-performing,” Mr Pin explains.
“Opening an account when it simply competes for the same business with an existing account means more work, less profitability and more complexity for the two accounts and for the brand as well. Clearly, we must first concentrate on optimizing productivity in the existing network before we look at any new accounts in mature markets,” he clarifies.
Another measure for the health of a brand is the secondary market where, if demand exceeds supply, prices will rise as we currently see for unicorn watches from Rolex, Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet and Omega. Here, Bulgari faces a challenge, with its flagship Octo ultra slim watches for men available brand new on the grey market at considerable discounts to the full retail prices. Even the iconic Serpenti ladies jewelry watches are on sale at knockdown prices. Retail partners will need to see the oversupply that feeds this discounting addressed.
The product should not be the problem and Mr Pin is confident Bulgari has statement pieces across the portfolio. “I really like the line-up today. There is clear differentiation between men’s and ladies’ watches, but they come from the same place, which is our background as a jeweler,” he says.
On the men’s side, Bulgari has poured investment into the Octo Finissimo family, breaking records for how thin its movements and finished watches are. The slim square case layered with a circular bezel and an inner octagon framing the dial is an instantly recognizable architecture, especially for watches that can be only 5mm deep. It has been given myriad treatments: skeletonized dials, ultra-light materials, minute repeaters, automatics are all in the collection. Many are little more than proof that Bulgari has mastered such complicated watchmaking techniques, a shrewd move to elevate the brand, but retail partners will want bestselling bankers as well.
“Finissimo is a natural born success. Sometimes you need several stages of development, but it is a stunning watch that will appeal to a lot of people as a milestone. It is clearly stunning,” Mr Pin suggests, while admitting it may take time to find its market. “If you think of the day the Monaco was created. It was out of the norm. If you think of the Royal Oak, it was out of the norm. Today they are milestones. These milestones are disruptive. The question is, will they eventually be adopted? That is what we are working on with the Octo and Finissimo. We have here an achievement in terms of design and watchmaking techniques. Yes it is daring, but so was the Monaco and Royal Oak. That is what we like. Bulgari should be happy to work outside of our comfort zone,” Mr Pin suggests. “Of course it is a challenge, but I am glad we have this product. We love the strategy of giving the people what they never knew they were hoping for,” he adds.
The ladies range is more settled and accepted, but Mr Pin believes there should be investment in making smaller mechanical movements for future lines so that women have the choice between quartz, hand wound and automatic watches. “An area in which we can go further is using our expertise in watchmaking and movement manufacturing and using that more for ladies’ watches. Huge things have already been done, and might not have been noticed as much as in men’s watches, and I want to see more done to incorporate second-to-none movement expertise into the jeweled watches for ladies,” he hints.