Thierry Stern: “Patek Philippe wants to create another 200 more jobs”

Seen from the outside, this may seem quite innocuous. On the scale of the watchmaking microcosm, the event which will open its doors on March 30 in Geneva marks a revolution. Dozens of competing brands will meet, in the same city and during 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, Rolex, Patek Philippe, Chopard, Chanel and Tudor announced their decision to leave Basel to find their counterparts in Geneva, which marked 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, “memories of youth”.

Le Temps: How does this “next world” show look like?

Thierry Stern: It’s hard to say… Basically, the mission hasn’t changed: to have the right new products to present to retailers and journalists that we already know. On the form, yes, it’s new. I find myself like when I was young and I was doing my first Baselworld. Everything is new, and when I enter the hall I will have the look of a small child. It’s going to 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 that it’s not half price compared to Basel, it’s rather similar. These shows are still big machines and that’s what it takes to attract the 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 brands of the Richemont group used to hold salons almost alone, with a few independents. How did they react when they saw these new actors arrive?

It’s true: I imagine that for Richemont, seeing Rolex, Patek, Chopard, LVMH, direct competitors arrive, is a bit odd. The negotiations were not done 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 aligned on that, it went well. There were some tensions but no major fights.

Well, it must be said that the president 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: “When we all know that there is only one boss around the table, that limits conflicts…”

In fact, it is easier. The advantage with Rolex is that they are solid and have a very clear vision 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 well as possible 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 notably thanks to him that we all ended up working together.

Is this show a first attempt or do you already have a five-year roadmap?

Neither. But I haven’t validated anything yet for 2023. I’m waiting to see what will happen. In any case, I don’t want to be pressured into signing for next year. Well, the worst would be to use only multimedia platforms. The best, an appointment with everyone in Geneva. But there are plenty of options in between…

Let’s talk about Patek Philippe. In 2019, you were saying in these columns that you wouldn’t sell your brand even for 20 billion. Are you still on this line? Or, with inflation, have we climbed to 30 billion?

Read also: Thierry Stern: “I could be offered 20 billion for Patek Philippe, it wouldn’t change anything” (2019)

Twenty billion isn’t bad enough… No, but more seriously, I’m having a blast. I am surrounded by a great team; with the old ones I have the knowledge, with the young people, the motivation. We have great products, we are still very strong. I’ve already given my kids a few projects to do and it’s working. Clearly, 20 or 30 billion, it doesn’t make a big difference: keeping and perpetuating our independence remains my priority.

The year 2021 will have been marked by the serious accusations made by the unions against your company. How do you get out of all this?

Read also: New damning testimonials for Patek Philippe (July 2021)

I can’t promise that 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 inspection service) came to us and we took measures. And we continue to do so. With the covid, the war, people will perhaps be even worse and they will have to be taken care of. But I am the first to fight for my teams and sometimes I would like us to talk more about what we do to help our employees (training, support when they go through difficult times, etc.). Afterwards, the unions do their job and we need it, but Unia Geneva likes to attack the big ones, because it scares the little ones. It’s normal. They need to advertise. This great ramdam hardly impressed me.

What impacts your business the most today? War or pandemic?

The covid, we were afraid of it at the beginning, but now we live with it. We can manage it at the business level, it’s not really an obstacle anymore. On the contrary, I have quite a few customers who haven’t been able to travel or take vacations 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 constantly, and I guarantee you that the Earth is not 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 since you will change your 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 become the boss. But for the moment, the one affectionately nicknamed “Junior” is working hand in hand with Claude Peny, the current general manager. Managing Patek Philippe alone is heavy, you know.

Morgan Stanley estimated a few weeks ago that you had achieved a turnover of 1.530 billion francs in 2021 for 68,000 pieces sold. What do you think?

I say that their estimate is bad and that they should find out more.

But still? You said you produced 65,000 pieces in 2019…

Yes, we are still there. In recent years, I have mainly increased the average price, hardly the production.

And in terms of number of employees?

Over the last three years, we have made a lot of commitments, we have gone from 2100 employees in Switzerland (1700 in Geneva) to 2400 (1720 in Geneva). Today, Patek Philippe wants to create another 200 jobs. It is our new building that has allowed us to engage and develop these talents. What is hard to find are specialists.

What is also difficult to find are your watches. Do you find it normal that you sometimes have to wait up to seven years to buy a Nautilus?

Yes, I agree that it is really difficult. But what do you want? I personally receive between 50 and 100 emails a week from people who want a watch. 98% of them ask me for the steel Nautilus. And, when they end up having it, they complain because they think we make too much of it. It’s insoluble… Anyway, we’re at the maximum of our capacities, we can’t make a million watches like Rolex.

After the end of blue dials and then green ones, what dial color are you going to release this year for this steel Nautilus (reference 5711)?

No, I said that at the end of 2021, we were stopping this 5711. That’s enough, this time, for this reference, it’s over. We have a range of interesting new features and you have to know how to move on.

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