When you imagine the man behind Audemars Piguet, the family-owned Swiss watch brand founded in 1875 known for its extreme designs and dedication to excellence, one might visualize a sage man with a lifelong passion for watches. And though president and CEO of Audemars Piguet, North America, Inc. Francois-Henry Bennahmias is sage, a lifelong passion for fine watches he does not possess.
In fact, this Parisian’s love of watches began with Swatch. “I liked watches,” Bennahmias explains. “I started my collection of Swatch watches in 1983. It was fun. The first Swatches were coming out, and there was a market.” Which is certainly a testament to his outgoing and playful personality, an attribute that has bolstered his professional relationships. In 1996, after Bennahmias had amassed a complete collection of Swatch timepieces, he was approached by the Swiss company, which wanted to purchase his prized possessions.
Hearing Bennahmias speak, you can understand how his humbleness, both as a man and as a professional, allowed him to make such great strides to get where he is today. “My parents come from a very average family, not wealthy, not rich,” he explains. “And my mother was not a woman who used to buy a lot of things.” Nor was Bennahmias’ true passion collecting cheeky watches. He says that he “never liked school,” so much so that he never completed his formal education, choosing instead to pursue his talents in the world of professional golf. At one time ranked No. 25 on the French golf tour, today, he credits his appetite for excellence to the time spent playing professionally, during which he learned the true formula for a champion. “I wanted to become the No. 1 golfer, because I’m a very competitive person. So I trained and trained,” he explains.
Bennahmias’ dream of becoming No. 1 was abandoned, however, when a friend convinced him that fashion was the industry to conquer. With no experience in the world of style and trends, he began in the shipping and receiving department of a French distributor. With his immense hunger for success and ambition to master any task, Bennahmias was destined to climb the ranks of the fashion world. And so it wasn’t long before his ascent in the company began, and ultimately he became a sales director. Shortly thereafter, Bennahmias was vacationing in St. Barths and mingling with the who’s who of the luxury world. There he met a distributor for Breitling in the French market, a relationship that cemented his future in the watch world.
After a brief courtship of sorts, Bennahmias was asked to join this man at Baselworld, the annual luxury watch and jewelry show in Switzerland. “I said, I know nothing about watches. He said, you’ll do fine. And that’s how I started in 1994 as a sales person for the French market.” He has since worked in various management positions for such fashion brands as Giorgio Armani, Les Copains, Peter Hadley, and Vilebrequin.