From the outside, this may seem quite harmless. On the scale of the watchmaking microcosm, the event that opens its doors in Geneva on March 30 marks a revolution. Dozens of competing brands meet in the same city and in the same week to show their novelties.
Before the pandemic, these presentations were split between two shows: in Geneva (SIHH, in January) and Basel (Baselworld, in March). But in April 2020,their decision to leave Basel to seek their counterparts in Geneva, signaling the beginning of the end for the demonstration on the banks of the Rhine. A pandemic later, it is this spring that this new model will see the light of day. A living room that reminds Thierry Stern, President of Patek Philippe, of “memories of youth”.
Le Temps: What does this ‘next world’ show look like?
Thierry Stern: It’s hard to say… Actually, the mission has not changed: to have the right new products to present to retailers and journalists we already know. On the form, yes, it’s new. I find myself just like when I was young and I did my first Baselworld. Everything is new and when I enter the hall I will look like a small child. It will be a great discovery.
What is the planned budget? More or less than at Baselworld?
I don’t want to give numbers but I can tell you it’s not half the price compared to Basel, it’s quite comparable. These shows are still big machines and that’s what it takes to attract press and retailers from all over the world. Our advantage at Patek is that we don’t have to house our teams on site like in Basel. That makes a big cost difference.
The Richemont group brands used to have almost all salons, with a few independents. How did they react when they saw these new actors coming?
It’s true: I can imagine it’s a little strange for Richemont to see Rolex, Patek, Chopard, LVMH, direct competitors coming. The negotiations were not completed in an hour, there were problems with hotels, places, reservations… Everything was put on the table. But I think all the big brands wanted to do something right, and since we were attuned to that, it went well. There were some tensions, but no major fights.
Well, it must be said that the chairman of the committee of exhibitors for this new show is the general manager of Rolex, Jean-Frédéric Dufour, who manages the brand by far the most important in the industry. Someone said to me: “If we all know that there is only one boss at the table, it limits conflict…”
In fact it is easier. The advantage of Rolex is that they are solid and have a very clear idea of where they want to go. In the very long term. Not to mention that they have such a large number of retailers that they have to plan everything as best they can to receive them. Mr Dufour handled it very well, but it was a difficult mission. Too often I hear people say, “Anyway, it’s Rolex, it works on its own.” It’s not true. If it’s that easy, let them take his place. He had to negotiate with Richemont, with us, with everyone and he spent hours finding the right scenarios and the words to present them. I take my hat off to him, because it is mainly thanks to him that we all started working together in the end.
Is this show a first attempt or do you already have a five-year roadmap?
Neither. But I haven’t validated anything for 2023 yet. I’m waiting to see what happens. In any case, I don’t want to be pressured to sign for next year. Well, the worst would be to just use multimedia platforms. Best, an appointment with everyone in Geneva. But there are plenty of options in between…
Let’s talk about Patek Philippe. In 2019, you said in these columns that you wouldn’t even sell your brand for 20 billion. Are you still on this line? Or did we increase with inflation to 30 billion?
Twenty billion isn’t bad enough… No, but seriously, I’m having a great time. I am surrounded by a great team; with the elderly I have the knowledge, with the young the motivation. We have great products, we are still very strong. I’ve already given my kids a few projects to do and it works. Obviously it doesn’t matter much, 20 or 30 billion: preserving and perpetuating our independence remains my priority.
The year 2021 will be marked by the serious allegations of the unions against your company. How do you get out of all this?
I can’t promise everyone at Patek is perfect, but I can promise you that when there are complicated cases, we do the right thing. Of course, this story shook us up a bit internally. The Ocirt (labour inspectorate) came to our house and we have taken measures. And we will continue to do so. With the covid, the war, people may be even worse and will have to be taken care of. But I am the first to fight for my teams and sometimes I wish we could talk more about what we do to help our employees (training, support in difficult times, etc.). Then the unions do their job and we need that, but Unia Geneva likes to attack the big ones because it scares the little ones. It’s normal. They have to advertise. This great ram dam made little impression on me.
What has the most impact on your business today? War or pandemic?
The covid, we were afraid of it in the beginning, but now we live with it. We can sort it out on a business level, it’s not really an obstacle anymore. On the contrary, I have quite a few customers who have not been able to travel or go on vacation for months and now want to treat themselves to a nice watch. War is a much greater danger. I used to fly around the world and I guarantee you the earth isn’t that big. A war somewhere will have an impact everywhere. But we have to live with it and focus on what we know how to do: beautiful watches.
The year 2022 will be important because you are going to change general manager…
Yes, but there is no deadline. We have indeed appointed a new deputy general manager, Laurent Bernasconi, former production manager, who will eventually be in charge. But right now, the one affectionately known as “Junior” is working hand in hand with Claude Peny, the current general manager. Managing Patek Philippe alone is tough, you know.
Morgan Stanley estimated a few weeks ago that by 2021 you would have had a turnover of 1,530 billion francs for 68,000 units sold. What do you think?
I say their guess is bad and they should know more.
But still? You said you produced 65,000 units in 2019…
Yes, we’re still here. In recent years I have mainly increased the average price, hardly the production.
And in terms of number of employees?
Over the past three years we have made many commitments, going from 2100 employees in Switzerland (1700 in Geneva) to 2400 (1720 in Geneva). Today, Patek Philippe aims to create another 200 jobs. It is our new building that has enabled us to engage and develop these talents. What is hard to find are specialists.
Also hard to find are your watches. Do you think it’s normal that you sometimes have to wait up to seven years to buy a Nautilus?
Yes, I agree that it is very difficult. But what do you want? Personally, I receive between 50 and 100 emails a week from people wanting a watch. 98% of them ask me for the steel Nautilus. And when they finally get it, they complain because they think we’re making too much of it. It’s unsolvable… Anyway, we’re at the peak of our capabilities, we can’t make a million watches like Rolex.
After the end of the blue dials and then the green, which dial color will you be releasing this year for this steel Nautilus (reference 5711)?
No, I said we were discontinuing this 5711 at the end of 2021. That’s enough, this time, for this reference, it’s over. We have a range of exciting new features and you should know how to proceed.