In an exclusive interview with Men’s Folio during his stopover in Singapore, CEO of Zenith Julien Tornare spoke about how far Zenith has come since taking over in 2017, the need to move on with times as a contemporary watch manufacturer, and many more.
First off, how nice is it to be back in Singapore since Zenith held the “A Star Through Time” exhibition here in 2019?
It’s a huge pleasure. As you know I used to live in Asia for seven years until 2017 when I left to join Zenith in Switzerland so it’s a great feeling. I love Singapore for many reasons but when you love watches you have to love Singapore because the watch culture is probably the strongest in Asia.
1st May 2022 marks your fifth year being at the helm of Zenith. What was one major goal you set for the team when you first joined and how close are you to it currently?
The first objective was to fix the brand because Zenith wasn’t doing well when I came on board in 2017. When you are running a company, it has to grow and generate profits every year and needs to have a growth perspective ahead of it. That was the objective. From 2017 to 2019, we put the fundamentals back in place for marketing, product, strategy, etc.
At the end of 2019, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the El Primero and felt it was the start of something good, especially with the strong start we had in 2020 with the Dubai Watch Week and was taking in the best orders ever. Then Covid struck. We had to manage the crisis and that’s what we’ve been doing — continue working hard to gain market share. We’ve been one of the most active brands in developing our e-commerce platform and new ways to communicate with our customers online. We’ve been gaining market share to have a strong rebound in 2021.
What I can tell you is that the turnaround of Zenith should’ve happened in 2020, got postponed by a year because of Covid, and in 2021 we reached a record year for Zenith — reaching a three-digit turnover, double-digit profits, and being back to a strong brand growing healthily.
Between being tasked with revitalising Zenith by Jean-Claude Biver and steering it during the pandemic, which was the tougher challenge among the two?
That’s a good question. I had done my due diligence when I took the job so I knew what the strengths and weaknesses were and why the brand wasn’t doing well. I knew the direction we needed to go but I needed time and I was given time by the LVMH group so I could do it step by step.
Covid-19 was more challenging because it was totally new and unexpected; you had no idea how long it would last, or how big the impact was going to be. No one ever imagined that we had to close the manufacture as we did. There was a lot of turbulence and we had to immediately become good managers in the moment of crisis. It’s easy to sail when the sea is calm but when the storm comes, then you’ll know who the good captain is. The fact that we’ve been gaining market share and reinforcing the brand was a very challenging but also very rewarding experience.
Over the past five years, which project do you feel brought Zenith to the next level?
It’s difficult to say because there are so many but probably the comeback of Chronomaster is the most important thing because the Defy collection was already starting when I joined. It was the contemporary aspect of the brand and was very important that we rejuvenate the brand. However, the Chronomaster is the essence of Zenith. Everybody knows Zenith because of the El Primero and its high frequency.
Everybody knows Zenith because of the tricolour sub-dial. Succeeding the way we did last year when we came back with the Chronomaster Original, the Chronomaster Sport and now with the Chronomaster Open was key for me. If we failed in these, then we would’ve failed the entire project. We couldn’t fail and I’m very proud of that.
Zenith is picking up where it left off in 2021 with strong showings at LVMH Watch Week and Watches & Wonders Geneva. How do you ensure your team maintains momentum without being burnt out?
You have to share with your team that the success is there, it’s important to communicate that. There was a lot of work attending LVMH Watch Week in January and then Watches & Wonders Geneva after. With 2021 being the best year ever, we celebrated with the team because we had tough times in the past so we took the time to celebrate, reward, and thank the people properly.
We showed them 2022 will be busy as with the coming years but it was for the good and not for the bad. The guys had a rising motivation and that’s the most important. I’m someone trying to transmit my energy and passion to my staff, I think this is something they appreciate.
We also leave a space for them to be entrepreneurial, it’s something I’m doing every day.
Zenith made a bold move to remove gender tags for its watches. Has there been a notable change in customer demographics since that decision was made?
It’s too early to judge because that came into effect last winter but I would say it’s a logical step for a brand that wants to be contemporary. We’re living in the 21st century, launching modern products so in today’s world, who are we to say this watch is for a male or female? It doesn’t make sense. We make beautiful watches in different sizes, some have a feminine touch while some have a masculine touch. Men can have a feminine touch and vice versa.
We’re in a world today where we should not make separation by gender, that’s part of the past. I always use cars as an example. 30 years ago we would hear these are cars for men and those are for women. Today, who would ever say that?
In watches, I believe we are the first to remove gender tags and I’m very happy about it because I think that’s the future.
Zenith’s foray into sustainable watchmaking sees the brand team up with Nona Source for upcycled straps. Are there plans to use recycled materials in other parts of a watch such as the watch case or movement?
Yes, of course. We are in the research phase currently, we have to do things right and also step by step in a proper manner. Why? Because we focus a lot on authenticity and I don’t want to create a big marketing claim while making two and a half watches with recycled materials and nothing more. If we are to go into it, we do it seriously and I don’t believe today there’s been an example of a watch made in a fully sustainable way at an industrial production level.
I think that takes time and we’re working on it. At present, we are taking some initiatives to start changing the mindset.
With digitalisation happening faster than ever, where does Zenith stand in terms of venturing into the metaverse, adopting cryptocurrency payments, or experimenting with NFTs?
Again, we can’t say we are in the 21st century and ignore it. A good example is our e-commerce platform — we kicked it off very quickly and are moving very fast. But you can’t do everything at the same time. Before going into e-commerce, I’ve been observing and learning how we can do it the best way. Today we get proposals and offers for NFTs every week, there are good ones and very bad ones. So we need to do it the right way.
Same for the metaverse, I’m convinced that we can improve client experience with metaverse, getting them immersed in the brand in different ways. Again we will move into it because we are a contemporary brand; not today, not this year but it’s coming.
Green and Tiffany blue are the hottest colours at the moment. Any bold predictions as to what is the next trendy colour?
I wish I could because I’d be a trendsetter in terms of colours. I think pink is probably going to be an interesting colour to follow. It’s been seen in the past as a very feminine colour because we tend to say pink for girls, and blue for boys. This is another example of an old fashion thing.
We’ve done a few attempts here and there with pink dials and they’ve been very successful. I think pink is coming back, a nice elegant maybe slight pastel pink could be a very cool colour to come.
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