Running a company during Covid-19 was ‘a privilege’, says Patrick Pruniaux

Mr Patrick Pruniaux led a management buyout of Ulysse Nardin and Girard-Perregaux from Kering in January. PHOTO: GIRARD-PERREGAUX

SINGAPORE – For five years, Mr Patrick Pruniaux helmed Ulysse Nardin (UN) and Girard-Perregaux (GP) which, between them, share about 400 years of watchmaking history. In January, he led a management buyout of both brands from French luxury conglomerate Kering which owns – among other big names – Gucci, Balenciaga and Bottega Veneta.

Entrepreneurship has always been a life-long dream, says the 52-year-old, who spent four years at Apple – first as a member of the Special Projects team which launched the Apple Watch, then as managing director for Britain and Ireland – before taking over the helm at UN in 2017. A year later, he was also appointed head honcho of GP.

“When Kering decided that it wanted to sell, on the spot, I just said: ‘You know what, I want to be in a position to buy them from you. Because I know not only did I want to be an entrepreneur, but I’m also a very strong believer in the future of both brands,” says Mr Pruniaux.

According to a Bloomberg report in August, UN and GP are enjoying renewed popularity, with sales rising more than 40 per cent by value since the buyout.

“Maybe during Covid-19, people started to educate themselves more about watches. And a luxury watch is probably one of the most sustainable products around. It’s also an emotional product, it’s something you carry with you all the time,” says Mr Pruniaux.

With the world emerging from the pandemic, he reckons things are likely to be even more upbeat.

The keen kitesurfer has spent the last few years cleaning house, improving the distribution networks and production processes of the two brands.

“Today, it’s all about making sure we focus a lot more on the business, introducing innovation and great products and telling the story right,” says Mr Pruniaux, who has a marketing degree from Bordeaux Business School, as well as MBAs from HEC Paris and London Business School.

Indeed, GP and UN have been beavering away at novelties which have been gaining traction with watch lovers.

Hits include GP’s Laureato – a watch with a hexagonal bezel designed in the 1970s by Italian architect Adolfo Natalini – which now attracts a waiting list. The latest model, boasting a stunning green dial, was released early in September.

UN, meanwhile, has been pushing boundaries with iterations of its seminal Freak watch – a timepiece which broke all rules of watchmaking 20 years ago by having, among other oddities, no crown, dial or hands.

“You can expect to see a higher level of focus on technical innovation. The Freak is an icon, and probably the mother of all contemporary watches,” says Mr Pruniaux proudly.

The Ulysse Nardin’s Freak Out watches have no crown, dial or hands. PHOTO: ULYSSE NARDIN

Asked what it has been like steering two companies through the pandemic, the former French Armed Forces paratrooper lieutenant says: “It is a privilege, in the sense that we had a lot of responsibility in the face of a new level of uncertainty. There was no playbook, so we had to use our common sense, our experience, to react to something which was so unexpected.”

It helped, he says, that he had a leadership team which was “cold-blooded”.

“By cold-blooded, I mean looking at things in an extremely calm way and saying: ‘Okay, what is it I see now? What are the options for the future?’”

“My team and I had some amazing conversation about what was fair, what was not, what was at risk, what was not. You’re talking risks, not only financial risks but those around health issues as well.”

The pandemic, he says, has taught them to be prepared even when the weather is good.

“Because you don’t want to learn things when it’s raining outside, you want to have done that before.”

What is scary is death and disease, not running a company, he adds.

“Being responsible for employees and clients is a massive responsibility, but it is also massive enjoyment.”

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