Interview with Jean-Marc Pontroué, CEO of luxury watch brand Roger Dubuis

Producing unique timepieces begins with running a company along very different lines, a mode that Roger Dubuis CEO Jean-Marc Pontroué adopts like a duck to water

Apr 03, 2017 | By Yeo Suan Futt
Excalibur Spider Skeleton Automatic

Excalibur Spider Skeleton Automatic

For CEO Jean-Marc Pontroué, Roger Dubuis doesn’t just make watches that are unique. For this to be wholly consistent, honest, and spontaneous, the very principles upon which the company operate have to be somewhat different from the norm in the industry. As such, Roger Dubuis the manufacture is on several counts at least as interesting as the timepieces it creates.

Under Richemont, it is part of a large luxury conglomerate, yet it maintains the nimbleness and entrepreneurial zest more typical of small companies, while possessing the professionalism and polish that the former grants.

As a young company without much watchmaking history, it cannot do the “we were also there” boasts that older companies often make with regards to milestones in history. Instead, it throws itself wholeheartedly to the future. Yet, its creations sparkle with respect for traditional craft consider for example that all its watches bear the Geneva Seal.

When it comes to creating in-house calibres, Roger Dubuis is among the most prolific, amassing a range of manufacture movements within the span of its short history to turn established companies a shade of pink. How does the company accomplish this? For Pontroué, it begins with how creativity and teamwork is instilled in a space that has “no room for ego”.

Roger Dubuis CEO Jean-Marc Pontroué.

Roger Dubuis CEO Jean-Marc Pontroué.

What is Roger Dubuis’s approach to watchmaking?

Everything we do is through the filter of what already exists. As a result, many watches we encounter these days are things you’ve seen before or bear much resemblance to things that have already been made. That’s normal. But it is also the worst thing for Roger Dubuis! We don’t follow the market; we don’t care if the trend is for cheaper watches, flatter watches, bigger watches, or what sort of material is now fashionable in the watch world. We do things our own way, we have a mission: to provide an alternative to traditional high-end wristwatches.

Watchmaking is steeped in tradition; do you believe there to be much appetite for something unremittingly modern?

I meet a lot of young people, and young for me is 25 to 55, because I’m 53. These young people say: “I don’t want to wear a watch that looks like it belongs to my father. I don’t drive his car, I don’t wear his shoes, I don’t wear his pair of glasses. Why would I want to wear his watch?” These young people make their own decisions, they are keen to go for something new. And this is a phenomenon I see very strongly in Singapore.

Roger Dubuis defines itself with watches that reject convention. Is this quality also reflected in the way the company is run?

We are a brand with only around 400 people: in our industry, that is not a big number. When people in a company are not united, the company suffers, and this is especially true in a small company like ours. So at Roger Dubuis, ego has no place. How does this work? For example, in many brands, only the CEO is allowed to give interviews, because nobody should say something different. At Roger Dubuis, we have around five executives authorised to give interviews. I believe that as long as we align ourselves properly, we will be able to tell the same story but from different perspectives. As a result, you will always come away with the same impression of Roger Dubuis regardless of whom you interview.

Roger Dubuis manufacture in Geneva.

Roger Dubuis manufacture in Geneva.

What is it like working at Roger Dubuis?

Ego is important at a personal level, and all creative people have an ego. But as a company, ego has no place at Roger Dubuis. For example, the technical director developed the Quatuor three years ago. This was a technical idea in the beginning. But an engine alone doesn’t make a car. We need the design team to design the other parts that make up the watch, the marketing team to explain the watch, and the distribution team to get it out to market. Somebody started an initial idea, but the product is the shared project of everyone in the company. No one “owns” an idea because we all worked together to make it a reality. And we want to avoid the wastefulness of fighting internally; we are fighting our competitors and the market.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as CEO?

The biggest challenge in my work is in hiring the right people. In terms of markets, Singapore has greater potential than Cambodia. You don’t have to be very strategic to know that. America is greater than Singapore, and China is greater than France. In Singapore, to open a store in Orchard Road is better than someplace else 10 streets away. We know all this. We have access to a lot of data and information from being part of a large group that has been in the luxury business for a long time. What remains for me to do is to hire the right people who can take what we know technically, and have it implemented in a smart, service-oriented way that wins over customers. That attention towards service is not something you learn from books, it is in your character. That is why I don’t hire a lot of people from the luxury industry. I prefer to hire more from the hospitality industry learning how a tourbillon works takes you two hours. Empathy the sense of connecting to your customer beyond a transactional level is an altogether different thing. If you don’t have it in your heart, if you don’t have a service-oriented character, you don’t have what it takes to work in a boutique.

Excalibur Spider Skeleton Flying Tourbillon

Excalibur Spider Skeleton Flying Tourbillon

Give us your reading of the current market and what strategy do you have in response?

I see there is growing instability and uncertainty. For me, winning is a relative thing; it is not about setting ambitious targets, but rather about running slightly faster, doing slightly better than others. If we are down 10 per cent while others are down 20 per cent, that’s OK. I’m more concerned if we are up 10 per cent, but others are up 20 or 30 per cent. In this regard, I see a lot of opportunity for Roger Dubuis. Because we are small brand in a very big group and this is a powerful cocktail, in that we can call upon the support of a big group with all that data, market intelligence, etc., while remaining very creative, nimble and entrepreneurial like a small company.

This article was originally published in WOW.

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