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First wave forced Zenith CEO to order shut down of manufacturing from his hospital bed

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Julien Tornare

It is difficult to recall how terrifying the early weeks of the covid pandemic were, with every sniffle or tickle causing us to panic.

Zenith CEO Julien Tornare had more concerns than that when, after returning from a launch event in New York last March, he came down with classic covid symptoms.

“I got a cough and could not breathe well. I had a fever as well so I went to hospital on doctor’s advice,” he recalls in an interview with WatchPro to be published in May.

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“In early March last year I went to my final overseas event in New York to launch the Land Rover limited edition. On my way back, I stopped in London for a private gathering and came back to Switzerland at the weekend. By the time I got back the mood had totally changed in Geneva. We went from relatively normal to a very concerning situation,” he describes.

His symptoms prompted hospital doctors to keep Mr Tornare in overnight just as Swiss authorities were pressing the population to stay at home.

“They tested me and asked me stay in hospital so I had to make the call to shut down the manufacture from my hospital bed. That shut down lasted six weeks,” he says.

Thankfully, the covid test came back negative, and Mr Tornare confirms he has never knowingly had the virus.

Having been discharged from hospital, he immediately set about securing Zenith’s Le Locle facility and firing up a digitization drive to keep sales and marketing functioning as stores across the world started closing.

“From one day to the next we had to make plans for how we were going to work from home and how we were going to digitize our operations. That would be our new normal,l” he explained. “I have to say that my team has been incredible at adapting to the new environment.”

Manufacturing shut down for six weeks, but Zenith was already recovering before production restarted.

“April was the worst. Everything was closed. In Asia they were beginning to recover, but Europe and the US were a disaster. That was the month when the industry dropped by around 80%,” he reveals.

“That was the bottom, but we started to slowly recover from around mid-May. We went into a pretty OK summer and autumn and that was the year. We were like most of the brands, which were down 25-35% down, but to be honest we feared it would be much worse,” he says.

Mr Tornare’s story is reminiscent of the experience of Lisa Bridge, CEO of Ben Bridge Jewelers on the West Coast, who was recuperating after the birth of her first child in early March when covid hit the country and she too had to give the order to close over 100 stores from her hospital bed.

Ben Bridge CEO gave order to close almost 100 stores from her maternity bed

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