Patrick Pruniaux Ulysse Nardin's boss tells Nick Foulkes why its future will be framed by its past
Times were good for Patrick Pruniaux. In 2013 he was in Switzerland as global sales director of TAG Heuer and things were going well, he says. So much so, in fact, that he caught the eye of tech behemoth Apple.
An eight-month “dating period” ensued for Mr Pruniaux that included trips to California and several interviews. He was offered the job-- though it had still not been made explicit to him exactly what he was being hired for.
“Even when I signed they never told me I would be working on a watch. Obviously, I was pretty much sure it was for the watch, because they would have made a terrible mistake by hiring me for my software development skills,” he jokes.
Mr Pruniaux spent a year in Cupertino, California, as part of the special project team working on the Apple watch. He was then offered a more operational role and moved to London to become the managing director for Apple's UKmarket. But before long, he caught the attention of another global luxury goods group: Kering. Last year, the conglomerate asked him to run one of its brands.
Mr Pruniaux typifies the new generation of executives entering the top levels of the watch industry: informal, with an open-necked shirt, training shoes and suit; and energetic, with an athletic physique.
He had no plan to leave Apple but “being asked to join Kering to turn a brand around was irresistible”, he says. So he now finds himself back in Switzerland as chief executive of Ulysse Nardin, once independent but since 2014 part of Kering, which bought the brand for a reported €760m. The parent group has about 20 brands including Balenciaga and Gucci-- which helped add about €3bn to group revenue in 2017, to €15.5bn.
Ulysse Nardin is not mentioned by name in an April announcement from Kering on first-quarter revenues; all that is said of it and stablemate Girard Perregaux is that “watches also turned in a good performance this quarter”. How good remains unclear, however, as the brand does not release its figures.
The years that saw Mr Pruniaux's ascent were not as kind to Ulysse Nardin. The brand's charismatic owner and chief executive Rolf Schnyder died in 2011. Then its traditionally strong market in former Soviet countries was dented by upheaval in Ukraine in 2014 and a recession in Russia--all of which compounded the effects of a downturn in the watch industry.
'You cannot ignore the fact there are now millions of new consumers coming to the watch industry, buying an Apple watch'
Mr Pruniaux is respectful of the management team that preceded his arrival. Under the leadership of Patrick Hoffmann, who was appointed by Schnyder to succeed him, the company transitioned from private to group ownership and weathered stormy international conditions.
Mr Pruniaux says the maverick spirit of Schnyder can be felt throughout the company, much as it is with Steve Jobs at Apple. “We're trying to respect the philosophy he had in business. Obviously things have changed and evolved, but I think that his approach is still extremely modern and necessary today.”
Schnyder's innovative approach is encapsulated in the Freak, a watch using silicon escapement components and designed with an aesthetic that stands out from the crowd as much as it did when it was launched in 2001.
The model changed Mr Pruniaux's perception of the brand. “I didn't know the brand well enough, even though I highly respected it. I saw it as a brand for people in the know.” However, he says that after studying the company he realised the scale of the opportunity before him.
There was a time, though, when he played things safer. Between 1997 and 2000Mr Pruniaux was working for drinks brand Guinness in Mozambique, trying to expand the business in a challenging environment. He was then dazzled with the offer of a more senior role, and accepted a move to the company's Chicago office.
However, the job centred on managing processes, he says, “not 'blank page' style growth”--so six months later he was on the move again, this time to Miami for what he describes as a “riskier” role at fellow drinks brand Moët Hennessy.
“The learning was obvious, I am good at doing things I truly like,” rather than chasing job titles for his CV, he adds. At Ulysse, Mr Pruniaux is focusing on three distinct price points: the market below SFr30,000 (€25,000); the SFr30,000-SFr100,000 range; and upwards of SFr100,000--the bracket that is home to the company's jacquemart watches.
However, it is in the lower pricing range where he sees the most potential. “I think we could still gain some volume in a segment between SFr6,000 and SFr15,000,” he says.
Like almost everyone selling anything, he is keen to reach millennials--and it is here that his experience at Apple may come in useful. “You cannot ignore the fact there are now millions of new consumers coming to the watch industry, buying an Apple watch,” he notes.
He views this shift as an opportunity to appeal to a new audience of watch buyers, rather than as a threat. “You need diversity and I think that's why it's a great time to be in the industry.”
For a man who has seen the future on the West Coast of the US, Mr Pruniaux has identified Ulysse Nardin's past as a tremendous asset. He has hired a historian to help develop the brand's narrative, which will feed into its social media output and new advertising campaign. For him, understanding the past is as important for those working in the industry as it is for young consumers. “We have a lot to say and we've been extremely discreet about our history in the past.”
However, Mr Pruniaux is equally modest about his own aims. “What I learnt at Apple is you should under promise and over deliver”-- if he manages this in his new role, Kering will have every reason to be pleased.
BY LINDSAY FORTADO -- PHILADELPHIA