Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Julien Tornare
Published by The New York Sun on 2005-10-24
Julien Tornare's 12 years as a championship water skier for his native Switzerland prepared him for the rigors of the watch-making business.
"It's the precision, the discipline, the total concentration that you need in water skiing," Mr. Tornare, president of the American operations of the world's oldest luxury watchmaker in continuous production, Vacheron Constantin, said. "There's no room for error. The slightest mistake - and you will find yourself, as we say in the sport, swimming instead of skiing, or worse."
"That also sums up luxury watch-making," he continued. "This isn't an industry for the faint-hearted, nor for the incompetent."
It is, in fact, an extremely competitive industry. And for the world's half-dozen or so high-end luxury watch makers, no market is more coveted than America. More than a fifth of the industry's annual global sales of $7 billion comes from this country.
For Vacheron Constantin, which has been in continuous production since 1755 - and will mark its 250th anniversary at a gala tonight at the New York Public Library - the competition isn't to be taken lightly. That's partly because it produces only 16,000 mechanical watches each year; each time piece is made entirely by hand, and takes up to six years to construct. Prices start around $8,000 and can go up to $1 million.
In fact, on April 3 this year, a time piece called "Tour de l'Ile" that was specially made for the company's 250th anniversary, was auctioned in Geneva by Antiquorum. The venerable auction house said that the selling price was $1.6 million, a world record for a new watch containing "complications" - movements beyond the standard three that most wristwatches feature: hours, minutes and seconds.
"Tour de l'Ile" had 16 "complications" and 834 moving parts. (The record for an antique watch was also established at Antiquorum - for a 1939 platinum Patek Philippe model that sold for $4.1 million in 2002.)
And who bought "Tour de l'Ile"?
Mr. Tornare smiled.
"I'm not telling," he said. "Actually the names of buyers at Swiss auctions are almost always kept secret. I've often wondered why - but that's a part of the watch-making tradition in Switzerland."
Watch making wasn't what Mr. Tornare aimed for while growing up in Geneva as the son of Michel, a real-estate dealer, and Yvette, a homemaker. He was consumed with a passion for water skiing, and began representing his country at competitions when he was barely out of his teens. He was Switzerland's national champion, too, and traveled to America for several tournaments.
"But I realized that unless I devoted my life to becoming a professional, I wouldn't be able to earn enough to make a living," Mr. Tornare said. "Besides, I'd gotten an early taste of entrepreneurship."
That experience involved establishing a dog-walking service. Mr. Tornare, and two other 12-year-old boys, found that a number of wealthy old people lived near their neighborhood. They needed someone to walk their pets, and also to chat with occasionally.
"It was a good way to develop people skills early in life," Mr. Tornare said.
It was also a good way to make money. Each youth was clearing the equivalent of $2,000 a month.
"We should have developed that business, but other things came along," Mr. Tornare said.
For him, water skiing was one such thing. Graduating from the University of Geneva was another. He taught high school while still an undergraduate. At the urging of one of his mentors, his maternal grandfather Rene Goebler - who'd planted a love of history in his grandson - Mr. Tornare went on to acquire a master's degree in international business and history. Besides Geneva, he studied at the London School of Economics and at the University of North London.
It was the mother of one of his boyhood friends who suggested that he apply for a job with one of Switzerland's distinguished watch-makers, Raymond Weil, whose eponymous company produced 600,000 low-to-medium-priced watches annually.
"The interview with Mr. Weil went very well," Mr. Tornare said. "At the end of it, I was made manager of the company's European operations."
He was 25 years old, and spent the next two years flying all over Europe visiting Raymond Weil retailers.
"They were old hands in the watch business, and I quickly learned that I needed to be totally humble," Mr. Tornare, who is now 33, said. "These weren't people who welcomed lectures on management from a kid like me. But they were willing to offer a lot of good advice - if I was respectful toward them, which I was."
One advice he took to heart concerned the importance of service and cultivating individual customers. Another lesson was the importance of listening rather than lecturing. And still another lesson involved the necessity for a manager to be culturally sensitive.
"So in Russia, I forced myself to consume gallons of vodka - straight - and eat beef tongue, rare - because my local retailers were hosting me, and looking closely at me to see how I'd fare," Mr. Tornare said.
Then there was an office meeting in Finland that was held in a sauna, a practice typical in that Nordic country.
"I, being Swiss, and therefore modest and conservative, walked into the sauna with a towel around me," Mr. Tornare said. "Everyone else there, men and women, were totally naked - they stared at me as if I were an alien creature. So I said to myself, what the heck! I tossed my towel away. Could you imagine what'd happen if I convened a completely nude meeting in a sauna with my staff in New York? Let's see - a harassment suit?"
"It's trite to say that 80% of successful business results from developing good relationships," Mr. Tornare, whose wife, Olivia, works here for a Swiss watch-maker called De Grisogono, said. "But you cannot expect to be successful, especially in the luxury-goods business, without such relationships. I write letters to every customer, and if there are complaints then I attend to them personally."
"Our competitors are aggressive, and Vacheron Constantin needs to raise its profile in America," Mr. Tornare said. "I see myself as a brand ambassador - which means being a diplomat as much as being a salesman."
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist