We caught up with Julien Tornare, CEO of Zenith recently when he was in Singapore and he gave us some interesting inside look at the grand maison.
We have known Julien of quite a while, and familiar with and admire him for his very pleasant style of leadership. We first met him as when he was Vacheron Constantin’s Asia chief and host of the Overseas launch events in Kyoto and Tokyo in 2016. And kept in touch with him through his journey in Zenith. We published our chat with him not long after he was recruited by Jean-Claude Biver to restructure and revive the then staid Zenith. And what a job he has done! Since taking over the helm, Zenith has seen triple digit increase in sales with double digit improvements in profit margins.
In conversation: Julien Tornare, CEO of Zenith
Julien was pleased to tell us that sales has doubled from when he took over 5 years ago, and doubled again in the last 2 years. And from a loss making outfit in 2017 to being highly profitable in 2021.
Has 2021 has been tougher than 2020 and 2019.
Yes, 2020 was a tough year. It was a year in crisis management, with the worldwide pandemic putting a damper on many of the maison’s plans. However, the pandemic hit all countries and all brands equally. We took this opportunity to move ahead with a consolidation and investment strategy. We developed a strong digital strategy, which my team implemented very successfully. We did not immediately see the results in 2020, but reaped the benefits in 2021, when Zenith had a record year – both in sales turnover as well as in profits.
So yes, I would say I think it has been a very satisfactory past 2 years. But we have more ambitious goals. I want Zenith to be in the Top 15 brands in terms of turnover, and we have the strategy and will put plans in place to achieve this by 2025/25.
What specifically did you do in 2020 which set the stage for this impressive growth pattern?
We started e-commerce in 2020, with a 1.5 year rollout plan which began in June 2020. Due to the lockdown conditions worldwide due to the pandemic, we saw immediate success. Rollout was complete by July inEurope and the rest of the world followed quickly. We now have 21 markets which Zenith is able to do business electronically. The rollout plan is still in motion. And we are scheduled to be able to do e-commerce in Singapore by the end of this year.
But we are not abandoning the boutiques. This is very special and important place for luxury products like watches to be experienced directly in a brick and mortar boutique. Our digital platforms are high-tech set-ups allowing us to communicate and show our products efficiently but nothing compares to being able to see, feel and experience these watches in person.
Who do you see as your main competitors?
Interesting question. We benchmark ourselves with IWC, JLC, Panerai, Omega, Breitling and also Rolex. These brands make excellent watches, but we are equal or better in arenas. We have excellent heritage, superior technical know how as well as distribution and market reach to match and beat them. I am quietly confident of the prospects of Zenith.
What are Zenith’s strongholds and how is this changing?
Zenith’s strengths are primarily two fold. First our heritage and history is outstanding. The second is our technical know-how. We have been making watches as a true manufacture since 1865. We are proud that every watch with Zenith on the dial carry an in-house manufactured movement, created in our facilities in Le Locle. We have many, many interesting watches which we have created in the past, and which continues to inspire us every day.
But I would like to think we are also contemporary. As an example, take the collaboration with Filipe Pantone. One of our young Zenith staff – a 25 year old – suggested we do a collaboration with Pantone, who was by then already a celebrated street artist. In my generation, graffiti was frowned on, and the so called artists were put in jails because they were seen as defacing public property. But the younger generation loved street art, these creators are viewed as great artists. So I was introduced to and met Felipe at the Manufacture and we clicked! I loved the guy – he is fantastic, so we decided to do a collaboration.
We took a risk, and I gave him had a free hand at the design, and he could do anything he wanted. I t was a calculated risk, as I knew he had great respect for watches and loved the brand. But was still pleasantly surprised at the level of involvement Filipe put into the project. He was very firm about the fact that it was his art that he was putting into the watch, and he was very keen on seeing the rendering and every stage of the design. I liked his approach a lot. The result, as you know was a runaway success. The USD 19k watch has in backorder from almost at launch day!
So do you see the customer demographics change over the years?
Absolutely. The average age of the Zenith watch owner has dropped from about 45 years old when I took over to about 35/36 years old today. This is a significant shift, and I am very happy to see that we are being relevant to a younger demographic than ever before.
Are you satisfied wiht the current product lineup? The emphasis has been the image of Zenith as Master of Chronographs, which by the way is a brilliant campaign as the El Primero has been there since the dawn of the automatic winding chronograph in 1969. But what about the high watchmaking releases, like the Academy Favre-Jacot and Christophe Colomb released some decade ago?
My plan in the beginning was to consolidate the product lineup with a view to simplify. We had too many product lines, and it was frankly very messy. But over 2017 to 2019, I think we have cleaned the lineup very well, and I am quite happy with the current lineup. Quite complete now, with distinct identities in the Defy, Pilot and El Primero families. I have not quite decided on the Elite family yet. I do see the need for an entry level, classical line, but the line may need a good rethink.
But yes, Zenith will return to high complications. I am letting the cat out of the bag, but you will see haute horologerie offerings return to the Zenith catalog. Yes, tourbillons, double tourbillons in chronographs and chronometers. Fusée and chain creations, and we are also working on a minute repeater. But complicated high horology movements take time, and we are looking at a 3 year development cycles or more. But watch this space. It is going to be exciting!
And with this flutter of the heart and little excitement, we conclude our chat with Julien Tornare. Our sincere thanks to Julien for being candid and forthcoming with the replies.