Jean-Marc Pontroué is ready. Ready for his debut watch show with Panerai at SIHH 2019, and ready to unveil to the brand’s famously passionate fanbase his vision for their beloved marque. And it all circles back to one thing, he says, - Panerai’s 'laboratorio di idee' motto (‘laboratory of ideas’). It will be a guiding principle, not just for new products, he explains, but also for areas like customer experiences and marketing strategies. In short, Pontroué’s keen to think outside of the box.
A stalwart of the luxury industry, Pontroué started his career at Givenchy with the LVMH Group in 1995. He joined the Richemont Group in 2000, and prior to taking the hot seat at Panerai in April 2018, he was CEO of Roger Dubuis for six years.
Pontroué takes over from Angelo Bonati, Panerai’s CEO for the past 21 years. Bonati was the only CEO that Panerai has had in its modern history, since its acquisition by the Richemont Group in 2000. And in that span of time, Bonati built Panerai from a “one-desk operation” to a global sensation pioneering, amongst many other watchmaking breakthroughs, the now-common and all-consuming appetite for plus-sized watches. It is an understatement, then, to say that Pontroué has got a lot of eyes on him.
In this interview with Crownwatchblog.com, his first with an Asia-based watch magazine, Pontroué shares his thoughts on a wide range of topics, from new product expressions to lessons learnt from his predecessor.
It’s been almost a year at the job. Can you share some initial reflections?
I’m not trying to be politically correct, but I've been having a great time. Panerai is such a mythical brand for me, and to a larger extent, the entire watch industry. When you come into a company like this, you need to assess the state of the brand immediately: what needs to be kept, modified, accelerated, and so on. The initial findings show that the brand is strong, and desirability for products remains high. We then try to build a three-year plan. That’s what my team and I have been working on daily.
Panerai Lab-ID Luminor 1950 Carbotech 3 Days with lubrication-free movement from 2017
In recent years, Panerai has placed a huge emphasis on areas like in-house movement development, complications and material experimentation. Will this continue?
These developments have contributed to the continued success of the brand. I hope that we will continue to occupy the high-end segment of watchmaking with these technical creations.
Moving forward, Panerai will stand even more for our 'laboratorio di idee' ('laboratory of ideas') approach. We want to be positioned as a brand that is innovative and one that contributes to 21st century watchmaking. This can manifest in many ways, from our movement development to material experimentation to concept watches, like the Lab-ID. Of course, we can't forget our roots - and our heritage lies in our association with the Italian military. We need to keep that foundation but at the same time look forward.
Panerai is one of the few brands that can create a world unto itself. It is a world inspired by sports, diving and heroes, and I hope to develop products that customers can associate with a range of experiences. In future, the innovative spirit of Panerai will not only be expressed via our products but also through experiential efforts.
Panerai's pre-SIHH release, the Submersible Chrono Guillaume Néry Edition
Is it fair to expect Panerai to be on a continued accelerated growth track?
My mission is to ensure that brand desirability and recognition remain at a high level. How do we make sure of that when we have to communicate just as effectively with millennials; the old-time fans; as well as new communities and fanbases that are growing globally? That is my question to answer. To do so, we must have the right products and marketing concepts. Sales will come if we get this right. Panerai is not a brand that looks at sales targets first - developing credibility and great products must always come first.
Of course, your famously passionate fans are part of the equation.
That’s right. I am humbled by the passion of Panerai fans. They know so much! Meeting collectors is one of the most important and interesting aspects of a job, especially when you are the brand's new CEO. They have so many stories to share, and this is what Panerai is about - a brand built on stories. The emotional connection that people have to the brand is amazing. It is like a religion - you have to experience and then believe it. You can't explain it.
In these interactions, have the fans told you about things that you cannot touch with the brand?
Of course! But for me personally, we are still at a very nice stage because I haven't officially presented anything (laughs). I've shown some collectors a preview of the product and marketing concepts for next year, and I haven't got a sense that they are infringing on their passion. More feedback will come next year. That said, I am very much in favour of protecting the foundations of the brand.
What advice did Mr. Bonati give you?
What I appreciate most from my interactions with him, was him sharing stories about his failures as well as successes. He would share about why he thought a project failed, and how that became a springboard for more successful projects. Many times, he had to hedge his bets on projects that many people didn't believe in.
Would you say that you have a low margin for error with Panerai?
If we want to keep growing the brand, we have to take risks. I don't know of any brand today that can develop based on patrimony alone. We are talking about taking risks not just with watches, but also with people, marketing concepts, retail expansion and so on. In 2020, Panerai will turn 160. What are we going to say about the brand? Do we talk about the past like other brands? Or do we have a different motto and approach? That is what brand building is about: we make something new every day.
A version of this story appeared in the Festive 2018 issue of CROWN Singapore. It was later on republished in www.crownwatchblog.com