The Man Who Went From Professional Golfer To Luxury Watch Brand CEO

By Sophie Stevens
07 January 2019
François-Henry Bennahmias, Audemars Piguet, Watches
Illustration: Andre Carrilho
As a former pro-golfer, François-Henry Bennahmias brings rigorous sporting discipline to his watchmaking role.

Okay, what do golf and luxury watchmaking have in common?

“Two things, very simple,” François-Henry Bennahmias answers without missing a beat. “One, attention to detail. Two, no matter how good you are, if you don’t work on your basics, you will lose the swing at some point.”

These are the lessons learnt by the charismatic CEO of Audemars Piguet, who reached number 25 on the French golf tour before trading professional sports for haute horology.

“I stopped because I wasn’t good enough,” he says. “It was because of this lack of attention to detail. One example: in the game of golf, you have a 10.5cm diameter hole. The goal is not to put the ball near the hole – not good enough. The goal is to put the ball in the hole. No matter what.”

Going through the list of minute details that any professional golfer needs to consider on the course (“what is the weather like today? How is the grass? Is the sun out?”), he concedes that he “wasn’t even thinking about half of them.” It’s a mistake he won’t be making twice: “In business I look at everything. Everything.”

This 360-degree scope includes a burgeoning collector base in the Middle East, where Bennahmias particularly notes a younger demographic of avid Audemars aficionados.

“I can’t tell you exactly why, what touched them, or what made it happen,” he says, “but there is a real appreciation, knowledge and understanding there that we sometimes don’t get from other places. I have just found a generation that’s open-minded to what we are doing.”

Despite a decade-long presence in the region, he credits not pushing “too far, too fast” as a key to success. With a production of just 40,000 watches per year – and no immediate plans to increase this – it may be that Audemars Piguet have little other option.

“But I believe that such exclusivity resonates in the minds of people there,” Bennahmias says. “They don’t want the watch that everyone else has.”

Calling the brand the “Apple of the watchmaking industry”, Bennahmias is confident in its ability to bring the thrill of the unexpected to the horological arena.

“Remember before the iPad came along?” he recalls. “Everyone was saying that no one is ever going to use something that’s between a phone and computer. Now look at its success.”

So what has he built at Audemars?

“Craftsmanship and talent of course, but that’s the same as many beautiful high-end brands even older than ours. So where are we going to make the difference? By bringing something unknown, the most unbelievable experience a customer can get, and to share what we’ve been doing for 143 years.”

Despite the Apple link, Bennahmias quickly disregards any mention of the smart watch as an imposing threat to the watchmaking industry.

“The difference is like that between McDonalds and a three-star Michelin restaurant,” he responds. “It’s not one or the other, it’s one and the other. We will always find people who enjoy craft and the time to make beautiful things that you cannot find anywhere else.”

Such examples appeared earlier this year at SIHH in Geneva, including the Royal Oak RD#2 – the world’s thinnest automatic perpetual calendar at 6.2mm – and the classic Royal Oak Chronograph, fully crafted in platinum for the first time. But as important as innovation is to Bennahmias, he knows that Audemars collectors remain the backbone of the brand.

The company is still family-owned despite vast international success, a trait that clearly appeals to its loyal customers.

“Sure, an Audemars Piguet is a status symbol: for people who know, they know,” Bennahmias says. “But we always say ‘welcome to the family.’ We are very proud of the company and so are our clients – they push for it and bring their friends, so they are our ambassadors too. It’s an ongoing story of belonging to our crazy tribe.”