By Jola Chudy
With more than 20 years in the Richemont Group, Jean-Marc Pontroue is a watch world maven. With stints at Montblanc, LVMH and Roger Dubuis, his newest role at Panerai sees him diving into the universe of Italy's famous luxury watch brand.
Since joining Panerai, have you felt a desire to change a lot?
A brand like Panerai, your first mission is not to change anything in some areas. Change for change’s sake is not good. We have a unique product with its case shape, its numbers, its size. Hundreds of brands dream of having our essence, of having a case, dial and indexes which speak for themselves the way Panerai does. There are so many products in the industry that all look the same. So no, there is not going to be any change in products, just more clarification in the stories, and looking more at dedicated lines.
I always say you should not have to explain a product. If you have to start to explain a brand, people today are not interested, because they are bombarded with information. Panerai is a visual brand, so, simply, if you don’t like big watches, don’t come to Panerai. Will we ever make small watches? No. Everything in the future of Panerai is about revisiting the hundreds of stories we have. Some of them have been forgotten and we want to make them known again.
Is it a challenge to plan for the long-term but be nimble enough to change your plans when market conditions, trends or other unexpected influences demand this?
It is like flying a plane. You have the capability to go from one point to the next, but sometimes you encounter turbulence. You revise your plans down if you are underperforming and you revise upwards if you are overperforming. But the direction of Panerai is very clear. Panerai is strong and has its particular positioning amongst the other brands to be perceived as a brand with its own territory, and this is what we want to protect as much as possible. We are the only pure Italian watchmaker. There are jewellers who also make watches, but we are the only one who makes watches, and Italy retains that resonance of craft, design, craftsmanship and style.
How are the collections being distinguished?
The idea is to create four worlds each with a relevance to Panerai. Radomir is a line associated with the history of the brand because it was the first launched by Panerai. Luminor is our iconic model with its contemporary Italian style. The Luminor Due is a Luminor that has all the spirit of Panerai, but the dimensions and weightare slightly lighter and smaller watches. It remains a big watch – it’s small at 38mm for us, but big for the industry. Panerai has no plans to go below 38mm! And then you have Submersible, the sports line, which is for adventurers. You can dive 300 metres, you can run, ski, dive, jump with your watch.
When you’ve immersed yourself so deeply in the universe of one brand, what is it like moving to a new company and an entirely new brand?
It’s probably a bit like when you write an article about one thing, and then write about another the next day! For me, even though I moved from Montblanc to Panerai, I am still in the same group, so the architecture, methodology and processes are the same. It is a different ‘playground’ because obviously the brand is different in terms of price, style or brand values. I would be more worried moving from a different industry such as hotels or aviation to watchmaking as that would be very different. But it is like driving a car and it didn’t take me a lot of time to adjust, but that’s not because because I’m so brilliant (laughs).
But even with your intimate knowledge of the industry, you must have felt some challenges?
The biggest story is creating and growing the team. The people is where you need the longest time to make it happen, because of change of management style, or a vision.
The rhythm and direction and evolution must be shared with people who may have been with the brand for 20 years. You are not the one who is most impacted, it is the 730-odd people who are impacted by your arrival.
Do you think change management is trickier to effect in watchmaking because it is an industry that changes a little less quickly than others?
That’s nicely said (laughs) I love your expression. I think it very much depends on brand to brand. I actually don’t read many articles about the watch business, but I do get inspiration from reading about other industries. I was reading an article about a beauty brand, Shiseido, with a new CEO implementing a direction that was very different to what was happening before.
The decision-making for various divisions in the brand was split by countries and the company, very Japanese, became that much more international because of it. I find these kind of articles about other industries very inspiring for the watch industry.
Today, when you see Panerai, which is one of the least Swiss brands – we have a manufacture in Neuchâtel, a lot of our people and a large part of our competency in Milan, we have the headquarters in Geneva. But in 2019, this is not an obstacle. Does it make it simpler? No. Does it mean a lot of extra phone calls and videos? Yes. But, at the end of the day, all these things are easier than we believe. There is a tendency to believe that because something has been a certain way for many years, it shouldn’t change.