Benoit de Clerck, Zenith’s New CEO is Raring To Go

Benoit de Clerck is an old hand in watchmaking. He tells us what surprised him in his first 100 days in charge, and what might surprise you too…

Jun 18, 2024 | By Ashok Soman
Zenith’s new CEO Benoit de Clerck

Movements at the top of the watchmaking food chain are closely observed so it surprised exactly no one when Julien Tornare was tapped for the top job at TAG Heuer. His replacement as CEO at Zenith was sure to elicit just as much interest, given that Tornare’s accomplishments there had left big boots to fill. For our part, we had been writing of the seemingly unending string of hits emerging from the manufacture at Le Locle for years. Ahead of Watches and Wonders Geneva (WWG), we were a little apprehensive about one of our favourite brands, and thus the narrative took a familiar turn.

Virtually every story about Benoit de Clerck taking on the top job at Zenith begins with references to his predecessors, and this is perhaps unfair. As a consummate professional and a true watch enthusiast, there is no need to wonder if de Clerck can slip into anyone’s shoes. He has his own. Of course, one does not get the CEO role in an LVMH watch brand by answering a want ad so de Clerck does have rather impressive credentials, including a lifetime spent in the watch trade. The Belgian national worked the Middle East market for TAG Heuer back in 1999 before LVMH bought the brand. But as far as watchmaking goes, the story really begins with IWC…

Meeting new faces in this business always leads us down rabbit holes. How many times did we pass de Clerck in some watch fair or other before our first meeting at WWG this year? Did we ever notice that famous IWC on his wrist, perhaps at a Ronan Keating concert? Unlike many executives in this trade, de Clerck reportedly went all-in on the mechanical watch from an early age, with friends ribbing him for his interest in “grandfather watches.”

This brings us back to that IWC Pilot’s Watch, which de Clerck bought with his own money as his first serious watch that then quickly turned into a significant story for the rising executive. It really came into its own when he became IWC’s President of North America in the late 2000s, after holding a variety of positions for Richemont globally. While we heard about this story second-hand, you can read about it in a great piece by Worn & Wound’s Grifin Bartsch. We will follow-up on this when we next discuss the Pilot line at Zenith, although we did have an amusing exchange about this collection right here, despite it not figuring strongly in the lineup this year.

More than any watch though, de Clerck’s reputation precedes him, especially his last job at Richemont, where he was Panerai’s Chief Commercial Officer. Our anonymous sources tell us that he was very much a people person there, despite his own protestations that he is “numbers guy.” Basically, de Clerck is the kind of executive who works especially closely with his own team, always paying attention to their input; he embodies the “no ego,” culture that Tornare helped build at Zenith. De Clerck confirms that he is very much in the mould of the humane manager and will be continuing to work in that spirit at Zenith. “I believe that my best spokespeople are the ones I work with. You know, I never take no for an answer and never take yes for an answer either! So we challenge each other a lot (at the company and at the level of the executive committee) to come up to an agreeable (position on any given subject). Of course, sometimes I have to make the decision and I have no problem with that because that is what I am there for!”

Without further ado, here is our conversation with Benoit de Clerck.

To begin with, congratulations on becoming CEO! Tell us how you have been getting on

Yeah, so it has been a bit more than 100 days since (I joined Zenith as CEO). Before I joined, I said to myself, I will set that milestone of 100 days you know, which is a very American way (but I was not looking at what I could achieve in 100 days). Instead, I told myself that I will try not to judge but to absorb (all that has been done at Zenith). I didn’t realize it was so difficult not to voice your opinion for 100 days to be honest with you!

But it was good to be in receiving mode, you know, more in (the mode of) asking questions. I went to the factory in Le Locle… I met watchmakers; I met the drivers. I met, you know, all the engineers and the whole team. (Outside of the brand, as the new CEO) I met a lot of journalists who are experts in the watch industry. I shared with them my fears, my concerns. You know, I tried to understand and I was very happy because after 100 days, I think that I made the right choice! Zenith is a beautiful brand. It’s a brand with a lot of history, a lot of heritage and a lot of authenticity, you know, a lot of identity. As a watch connoisseur, or at least for having worked for so long in the trade, I thought I knew Zenith. But when I got into Zenith (and discovered the manufacture and the people who worked there) I said OMG! Oh my God, this is not the Zenith I thought. It’s even better!

So far then, to answer your question precisely, so good. I am very excited that things are in good shape at Zenith, and the brand looks to be in good shape to continue with its success.

What did you discover about Zenith that surprised you?

For example, the Pilot thing (that we discussed, concerning the Pilot series revealed last year, and Zenith’s exclusive right to use the word “Pilot” on the dial) I didn’t know. So that is a typical example <of something people do not know about Zenith, as neither de Clerck nor this writer knew about the Pilot story; neither did loads of experts and specialists, for the record – Ed>. I also did not know that Zenith will celebrate, next year, 160 years since its founding; I did not know that Zenith has remained for 160 years in the same location despite natural disasters, wars, despite (and everything else that happened), it’s still there. And that’s very important.

I knew, like you, that Zenith was the creator of El Primero, the first automatic chronograph calibre. I did not know that they have more than 2,400 chronometry prizes. That’s crazy! So, I have a plethora or a list of things that I discovered (about Zenith after joining), but these are for me, the most relevant things. And the Pilot is definitely amazing.

A tour of the manufacture in Le Locle

The weight of history at Zenith is incredible and this means people have different views or memories of the brand, depending on when they encountered it. We used to discuss, with Jean-Claude Biver and then Julien Tornare (predecessors of de Clerck), how the challenge is to get collectors to consider buying a Zenith watch rather than simply admiring its history and legacy from afar. How has this challenge evolved?

So first of all, Julien Tornare (whom I knew very well) did a very good job and, you know, the way I look at it, Zenith was like Sleeping Beauty and Julien managed to wake her up. But, she is not out of bed yet, and that is my job today. I have to get her to stand up… to stand on her own feet. Later, another role for me will be to get her walking, but first, I have to get her to stand. It’s a metaphor yes (forgive me for that), but it is how I look at it.

I analysed thoroughly all the data that I could. I’m numbers-driven. I like numbers, so I asked for the data on our customers and I realized that in the last couple of years, they are getting younger. This is good news because that means that we can have a younger generation (growing with us), but the collectors have not dropped off. So, whether in terms of units sold or value, the collector (segment) has remained consistent. The good news then is that that brand has two strong pillars: the collectors and a younger customer base. We’re getting new customers that are younger and that’s a dream come true because you know that the brand is in good shape (now and in the near term).

Today, we are lucky that we sell what we produce, more or less and you know, we don’t have a problem with inventory. We have a lot of demand for very complicated watches, some bespoke as well, that we can do, and this is great. The beauty of Zenith today is that you get a lot of watch for the money (at every level of watchmaking). I am convinced that this is how we managed to get a younger generation into the brand. Again, they’re not 12 or 14, you know, but in their first or second job…they’re closer to their 30s. So, they have enough disposable income to buy a good quality watch from a reputable brand like Zenith. But (again) it is a lot of watch compared with others…they can get something authentic with real heritage and history.

Defy Extreme Diver

On that note, Zenith has had a lot of success with more traditional collections such as the Chronomaster and the Revival but also more contemporary collections such as the Defy Skyline and the Defy Extreme. How do you manage the dichotomy between looking back and looking forward?

This is part of the heritage of the brand! Take the Defy Extreme and Revival Diver as an example. You know the new Divers are inspired by the initial Defy that was launched in 1969, and that is why we have the orange rim here, to keep the link exactly between the two watches. That 1969 watch was (water-resistant) to 600 metres, which is quite something for a watch from 55 years ago; not a lot of makers had such a (water-resistant) watch. With the new Defy Diver, we improved it; we made it better. It’s not the same watch because it keeps the same water-resistance but now in a titanium case with an exhibition caseback. In fact, we test the watches to 750m just to be sure (nobody made watches in titanium back then, and certainly not with an exhibition caseback).

As you said, the dive watch has been absent in our collection for something like 20 years, and it was pretty wild back then but still a good product as well. Now, the Defy Extreme and Revival Diver watches are much more like tools for divers. You know it comes with three straps; in addition to the titanium bracelet there is also a rubber strap and very interestingly, a strap made of recycled fishing nets. You know, a strap made from 100 percent recycled materials. (With these options) you can wear the watch over your wet suit and all that so that is pretty cool.

You know, competition is always good but what we provide here is legitimacy as well as, you know, the fact that we are not a huge brand. (Our customers) like the fact that we are a very people-centric brand (that is not a faceless giant). We have a lot of emotions in the company, where (I and management) know every watchmaker, we know every person who works there; it’s very personal and that’s very important. We could do much more in terms of turnover, in terms of the quantities of watches we sell but that’s not the intention. This makes a big difference for people in the know. And I am a strong believer that Zenith is a watch brand for people in the know. By this I mean the connoisseurs and collectors but also new connoisseurs who do not want to (have or wear) the same watch as everyone else. That’s very important (too).

Defy Skyline Chronograph

On that note, let us move on to the new Defy Skyline Chronograph. Why did you decide that this collection also needed a chronograph, aside from the fact that the chronograph defines the identity of Zenith?

As you say, the chronograph is who we are. Believe it or not, when we launched the Defy Skyline with three hands, we had a lot of requests (for a chronograph) from different markets, from collectors and connoisseurs… I can tell you that from day one (we met de Clerck on the second day of WWG) the interest and demand is beyond expectation…beyond expectation.

Good to know! But is there something – some watch – that you wish Zenith had but does not?

So, without divulging too much, we’re celebrating next year our 160th anniversary (as I mentioned earlier) and this is a very important milestone for us because not a lot of brands have the luxury to celebrate 160 years; not a lot of brands have the luxury to celebrate 160 years in the same location! I’m working very hard on this milestone with the creative team. With the product team, and with marketing. It’s a big challenge and it’s very exciting; this is where you will see what we are doing.

This article is slated to appear in WOW’s Summer 24 Issue, out soon.

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