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Contemporary performance: Interview with Zenith’s Julien Tornare

Zenith CEO Julien Tornare shares how he plans to leave his mark on the brand, and what exciting things we can expect from the luxury watchmaker in 2019.

Contemporary performance: Interview with Zenith’s Julien Tornare

If you’re someone who describes yourself as having a cultural background in watches, this likely means you’re from Switzerland. And this is exactly how Julien Tornare, who was born and raised in Switzerland, describes himself when asked how he entered the watch industry in 1997.

One of the youngest CEOs in the luxury watch industry, the 46-year-old’s career has taken him around the world, from New York to Hong Kong, but for now he is back in his home country, as CEO of Zenith.

Following a phone call with LVMH’s Jean-Claude Biver some two years ago, Tornare, who has described Zenith as being a “sleeping beauty” at the time, was persuaded to join the company on the promise of a real plan to develop the brand.

The CEO Magazine sat down with Tornare to speak about authenticity, how he is bringing together history and innovation, and some intriguing plans for 2019.

How would you describe Zenith?

It is a beautiful brand that’s historically been very innovative and creative. My job is about appreciating our long history, which we must be proud of, but also recognising that if you don’t build a brand, you don’t build a future.

I believe that if we want to win the interest of the younger generation, of the millennials, we have to show them that the industry’s very dynamic and we don’t just replicate the past. That’s what I want to bring to Zenith.

Tell me more about your vision for Zenith.

What I really want to do with Zenith is to be proud and respectful of our 153-year heritage and history, but to continue to be innovative and to express it in a new way.

I’ll give you an example. We are well known for creating the first-ever, fully integrated, high-frequency automatic chronograph movement, El Primero, in 1969. It was the first to measure one-tenths of a second and was very innovative for its time.

Last year, we reinterpreted El Primero as the Defy El Primero 21 for the 21st century. With this new incarnation, we can measure not just one-tenth of a second, but one hundredth of a second. We decided to make this watch in a very contemporary style. That, for me, is a perfect example of how we start in the past, but move into the 21st century.

Today’s client doesn’t want to buy the watch their parents or grandparents had. They want a watch for the 21st century. That’s the big change right now. There is a shift from old-fashioned classic to modern watchmaking. That’s the important change in thinking Zenith doesn’t want to miss.

Today’s customer is savvy. We have to show them that what they are buying is good value for money. That they are still buying something substantial, but expressed as a 21st-century – not vintage – watch. That’s the direction we are taking with Zenith.

Since joining the company 18 months ago, what has made you most proud?

One of the things is definitely the change in mindset. The morale in the company, in Le Locle in the Swiss mountains, was a bit down. The staff didn’t know where things were heading. My job was, first, to share with the team what we wanted to do. I reassured them, “I’m not going to fire half the company. We will work on new projects, and we will do them together.”

I’m very proud and happy to see that, today, the mood around the brand has totally changed. That’s one thing that’s clearly a marked improvement.

For the past six months now we’ve had very good results. If it continues like this, the targets we set for 2021, might be reached by 2019. That’s very encouraging because while you can talk a lot, it’s only when the concrete results start to come that you can be really happy.

What has been most challenging since you started with Zenith?

There’s no way you can manage a brand like Zenith from your office in the mountains. You have to get down to the market. One of the biggest challenges for me was how to be in the headquarters and in the market at the same time.

And it’s not just our teams I have to meet but also the media and retailers, to share with them the projects behind the brand. So, I have been travelling a lot. Sometimes on very short trips, just to make my presence felt, to show the people in the market that we are working for them, and they have to work with us.

I have travelled more than a million kilometres in a year and a half. I’m a father of three and I have to count on my wife’s support for this because I’ve been away a lot. Not that I enjoy it, but it is necessary.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I’m someone who shares a lot of information. I like to discuss a lot and to collaborate. At some point, of course, I need to make the decisions, but I like to get people on board. I don’t think you can just give orders.

You need people to agree with you. You need people to jump on your boat and then you can ride it together. I want to take the time to explain where we’re going and why.

How do you plan to leave your mark at Zenith?

While Zenith has a long history it also wants to be seen as a modern watchmaker.

The Zenith logo is a star and it was created in the early years of the 20th century because the owner had a penchant for astronomy. The thinking was that we used to tell the time with the help of the stars.

The logo also indicates that we all have a star we want to reach; we all have an objective in life. If you want to be someone, you have to aim for something… and that’s exactly what Zenith did.

Zenith has always pushed the boundaries. And I want to continue to push them further, to bring new things, innovation and dynamism because this is what our clients are looking for. If they want to buy the past, they can buy a vintage piece – there are plenty of those and they are beautiful, and I too love them.

If you create things today, you should add value. If you just repeat the past, you are not showing respect, in my opinion, and you are not honouring our predecessors.

The minimum we should do is to craft the future, to build tomorrow and that’s what I want to be seen as. As someone who helped Zenith, who contributed to Zenith’s new dynamism.

What can we expect from Zenith in 2019?

That’s a great question because 2019 is a huge year for us. We have an important anniversary; the 60th anniversary of El Primero. That will give us the opportunity to launch something very special to link the very first year of El Primero to today. And not just to today, but also to connect it to something in the future that doesn’t even exist yet. And that will be something totally crazy, but I’m sure the collectors will love it.

We will also celebrate it in 12 different cities around the world – each month, a different city. And we will share stories about El Primero; secret stories that are not public knowledge.

The second element is very much anticipated by the market. Last year, we presented the Defy Lab, a very innovative watch with a revolutionary new silicon oscillation system, making it the most precise mechanical watch ever made, and giving it a very cool look.

It’s a very special watch. We did 10 pieces last year, and my job was to convert this into a commercial series. That’s finally coming, and it’s going to be launched around the world. We are going to produce a few hundred. I’m super happy about it.

What watch do you regularly wear?

I wear the Defy El Primero 21 because it is, for me, the perfect illustration of what the brand has been doing and where it is heading.

In other words, we have a movement from the original El Primero from 1969, and we have a new movement to the hundredth of second, and we put it in a watch that is designed in a contemporary way. That’s exactly what the brand is doing right now. I love to wear it. The best way to sense the direction of the brand is to put this watch on your wrist

What is your dream timepiece?

It’s the new generation Defy. For me to wear something on my wrist that is a revolution of the system that has existed since 1675 will be so special. We are making a revolution from 300 years ago. It’s going to be very cool and very modern.

It is also very authentic and this is something I strongly believe in. If you want to respect your history but you also want to be contemporary and build a future, you need to be authentic.

Tell me more about authenticity and what it means to Zenith.

It means that when you buy a Zenith watch, it has a 100% Zenith movement. The industry has not always been fully transparent but at Zenith we are authentic and transparent. You can visit our manufacturer and I can introduce you to the watchmaker who made your watch. It’s not only marketing, you want to sell something that’s real.

“It means that when you buy a Zenith watch, it has a 100% Zenith movement.”

Again, this is something many brands underestimate. They think the new generation only wants to buy a luxury watch. I disagree. When you buy Zenith, you buy substance, you buy something real. You don’t buy ‘marketing wins’. That’s important.

How many watchmakers are there at Zenith? And how long does it take to create a Zenith watch?

Today, we have 320 employees worldwide and we about 150 watchmakers. A watch can easily take 200 to 300 hours of work on average. It can take a lot more if it’s a complex piece.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

I had a teacher who told us to never believe the experts. He said, “Believe in yourself, have a critical mind.” This is something I try to apply in my life… to develop a critical mind, and I try to teach my kids to do the same. That’s important; to develop your own beliefs.

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