CEO of Zenith Julien Tornare Shares New Insight into the Brand’s Past, Present, and Future

As Zenith celebrates the 50th anniversary of El Primero, CEO Julien Tornare shares new insight into the brand’s past, present and future with DAMAN’s Joezer Mandagi.

Chatting with Zenith CEO Julien Tornare is always an electrifying experience. Few people in the industry are as passionate and lively as him—except, perhaps, for Jean-Claude Biver, chairman of Zenith, Non-Executive President of LVMH’s Watch Division and the very man who brought Tornare into the fold of Zenith. So far, Tornare has shown that he is truly a disruptive element, but in the best possible way.

This year, as Zenith celebrates half a century of the the legendary El Primero movement, Tornare has further opened the brand to the world. Quite literally, in fact, through the Le Monde Étoilé experience where the brand’s manufacture is opened to the public and with the start of the A Star Through Time experience which made its debut in Singapore back in August 2019 and will continue to tour the world in 2020.

DAMAN: Last year, at Baselworld 2018, we talked about your leadership style, especially about the way you injected a “startup spirit” into Zenith. How is that going on today?
Julien Tornare: It’s still totally there. The reality is that it is a continuous process. We still need to change. When I came onboard, the situation was not so easy for Zenith and I had to send a positive message from day one. You know, many leaders in companies, when they first come, the first thing they do is they fire three quarters of the people and they bring in people they know. I decided to do the opposite. When I came onboard, I told everyone: “Listen, I’m not going to fire anyone, I’m going to show you where I want to go and what I want to do with the brand. The new boat will stop and if you want to be with me, jump on. Join my values, my style. And one of the aspects of this is, yes, to become dynamic. Just because it’s in Switzerland, it’s in the Swiss mountains and it’s a traditional industry doesn’t mean that we have to be slow moving, dusty and boring. We have a history and we are authentic, but we need to express it in a 21st century way.

We have the startup spirit at all levels. For example, I introduced a monthly breakfast. Every month, I have breakfast with 25 to 30 people who were born in that month. So, we basically have a breakfast to celebrate their birthday. But it’s not only that. I ask them to prepare and to work on ideas and suggestions, to force them to integrate this innovation spirit. For top and upper or mid-level management, I ask them to come up with five initiatives, ideas, things they can put in place that are new and innovative. Otherwise, I don’t pay the bonus.

“That when the El Primero was made in the sixties, it was a very, very, very big innovation. Believe me, the spirit of innovation, creativity—the startup spirit, even if the word didn’t exist back then—was there”

Even if they bring in results, I don’t care. Because we need to create a 360-degree approach. It’s easier in marketing, but when you are in accounting, at the reception desk or when you’re a watch polisher, how can you do it? You have to find a way.
Step by step, we are waking up the company and slightly shifting the brand culture. But don’t get me wrong—it does not happen overnight. We still get frustrated on a regular basis because things don’t go exactly the way we want. Of course, that’s my job—and it is a long-term job. You cannot be innovative only with new products.

I’ll give you two quick examples: We are the first brand in the world to open up the manufacture to the public. We were the first one to agree with George Bamford, that is to customize watches. This has never been done officially. I said: Let’s do it. It’s cool, it’s innovative, it’s not going to hurt.

DA: What has been the result of opening the manufacture to the public?
JT: First of all, we sold watches there. Some people—when they go through the Charles Vermot story and visit the famous attic—they’re become full of emotion that they buy. At the beginning, we didn’t even think we would. But we had so many requests so we said, okay, let’s use the counter that we already had there for more than just a showcase. That’s one thing. We got a lot of feedback, the number of visitors increased by close to 300 percent. That is huge.
And it’s usually on Fridays; so, when I’m not traveling, I’m always coming in and shaking hands, welcoming people. I’m always surprised to see how many different nationalities there are. Last time I went there was a lady from Thailand and a guy from Neuchâtel. He drove only 30 minutes to get there. And then there was a couple of people from Germany and another guy from the Middle East. It’s super interesting. Sometimes people visit while on vacation or a business trip, or they come from just 20 kilometers away. So, yes, it’s bringing in a lot. I mean, we get information, they give us feedback. It’s a very good indicator of our results.

DA: All in all, what are some of your priorities right now?

JT: This year has been extremely busy, because we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the El Primero. And from the first day of the year I thought I will attend every single event. So far, I’ve done that, I’ve been helping and I could manage to be everywhere. I want to continue that. I think it is such an important moment. We pay tribute to Charles Vermot, we launched some amazing revival editions. So, one of my short-term objectives will be to finish this year on a successful note.

Another one is definitely more of a long-term goal, but I need to develop brand awareness and I need to develop brand desirability. Why? Zenith—and this is also another reason why I took the job—has such a big leverage to do better: Beautiful history, 154 years of history and very authentic. And believe me, this is important to me because everyone will tell you: “Of course my brand is authentic.” But what does it really mean? I can say that 100-percent of Zenith’s watches have a Zenith movement and that we make our own movement. How many brands can say that today? I’ll tell you: four or five, max. We we are proud of that.

But just because you have a long history and you’re authentic doesn’t mean that you should not be contemporary, dynamic, cool, appealing and maybe sexy in some aspects. You need to have a brand that talks to people beyond the collectors. I need to build up the marketing packaging, to make the brand more attractive, cooler to people who are not watch specialists. That’s my mid-to-long term goal.

You can have a nice history but you live in the 21st century. Indonesia is a very good example, because you have a country of tradition, but you are also a country that is moving forward. And the type of watches that are sold in Indonesia are becoming more and more contemporary. That’s interesting.

DA: What are some of the key messages that you want to send out for the 50th anniversary of the El Primero?
JT: The El Primero was made 50 years ago. You may have heard that on the limited editions—the Revival Edition—we provided 50-year warranties. This is the first time something like this has been done. And we invite the buyers of these watches to join us to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the El Primero. That would be on January 10, 2069. If you don’t own the watch any longer or if you gave it to someone else, the owner of the watch at that time can come with the certificate and the watch to the event to get an extra 50 years of warranty, showing that the El Primero is forever. It’s a marketing tool, too, of course, but it’s something that people resonate with.

And another strong message is to communicate the fact that when the El Primero was made in the sixties, it was a very, very, very big innovation. Believe me, the spirit of innovation, creativity—the startup spirit, even if the word didn’t exist back then—was there.
A year ago, I thought that 50 years is a long time, but it’s also relatively short. So, some of the people behind it might still be alive. We did some research and found eight people who worked in key positions and made the El Primero. Unbelievable!

I had lunch with these gentlemen. The youngest was born in 1945, the oldest was born in 1933. They told me many secret stories that you couldn’t find anywhere. It was amazing. And they became friends and now they want to collaborate. Maybe they feel bored in their retirement and they love Zenith so much.

But more than anything, they told us about what happened in the ’60s, they told us about the atmosphere, they told me that so many people told them: “Don’t do it, it’s never going to work. High-frequency automatic chronograph is a headache, it’s useless.” But they still went for it. So, believe me, they were super innovative and super creative. That’s why today, it’s our mission to bring back this energy, this dynamism, this innovation spirit. The startup spirit—I didn’t create it; it was already there. But it’s my job to put it back and not to repeat the past, but to bring new things. So, it’s a good message because it shows that these innovation, contemporary aspect existed already at that time.

DA: A lot is changing in the watch industry, especially in the way brands are presenting themselves to the public through trade shows like Baselworld or exhibitions like Zenith’s A Star Through Time. How do you think will this continue in the future?
JT: I think we are in the middle of a global transformation of our industry. The shows, these big shows, they haven’t changed for years, decades, and is geared towards B2B—whether with the press or with retailers. And it was very much a closed environment where we build a huge cathedral to impress you and show you that we are strong. I think now we think much more about the end clients, the brand-building and we have to change.

Transformation here obviously also means digital transformation. Not only that, but also the mentality. Again, because we are in Switzerland and because of the heavy tradition, we didn’t change many things in the past. And now for the future, we have to. We have to match the pace of the rest of the world