Interview Jean-Christophe Babin, CEO of Bvlgari, on Collections, Manufacturing, Distribution and Watch Fairs

In conversation with Bvlgari's successful CEO on future and perspectives
calendar | ic_dehaze_black_24px By Xavier Markl | ic_query_builder_black_24px 7 minute read |
Jean-Christophe Babin CEO of Bvlgari Interview

Gauging the performance metrics of the company, Jean-Christophe Babin’s role as CEO of Bvlgari since 2013 has been an impressive success. Bvlgari’s watch collection is enjoying a rinascimento of sorts, in particular with the spectacular ‘Finissimo’ saga. During the Cinemagia event, the brand’s Haute Joaillerie and Haute Horlogerie presentation in Capri, we were able to sit down with Jean-Christophe Babin to better understand the changes at Bvlgari and the perspectives for the brand.

Xavier Markl, MONOCHROME – With its rich DNA Bvlgari creates fascinating watches. What makes them stand apart?

Jean-Christophe Babin: Our watches are truly Italian. They convey the spirit of Leonardo da Vinci. Octo, Lucea or Serpenti are all very architectural, constructed, inspired by Italian art and architecture. On the other hand, our watches are also extraordinary from a technical perspective – just think of a grande sonnerie or of the Octo Finissimo saga. We are really different from the classical leading Swiss watch brands. Like them, we master engineering – Bvlgari is part of a handful of companies capable of manufacturing grandes sonneries. But at the same time, we bring to the Swiss luxury watchmaking equation a design that is different from all major watch brands. The designs are inspired by our jewellery, by the city of Rome. This is the reason for our success. People can feel that Bvlgari watches are technically elaborate while bringing a unique aesthetic added value.

One does not break five world records by chance. How did Bvlgari build up its know-how over the years?

It is the combination of a vision and of technical acquisition. The vision has been, as a jeweller, to bring men the benefits we deliver to ladies with our jewellery: to contribute to their elegance. The challenge was to figure out how to express elegance for men. We concluded that men’s elegance had to be the “slim fit”. Applying the slim fit to watches, we arrived at slim watches. The saga started with the idea of delivering a benefit that was not necessarily technical but aesthetic.

We discovered very early on that there were no movements available to achieve our vision. Building on our experience with the acquisition of Daniel Roth & Gerald Genta, we decided to undertake the journey of Finissimo, a platform reinventing the mechanical watch that could host anything from a Solo-Tempo watch (3-hand) to a minute repeater via a chronograph. Technology we could use for years or decades, resulting in the most elegant watches for gentlemen. Which for a jeweller, makes a lot of sense.

How are your manufacturing processes structured?

We are probably one of the most integrated watch companies today. Except for a few chronographs developed with Zenith, all our mechanical movements are manufactured in-house; the “Solo Tempo” for Octo Roma or Bvlgari Bvlgari, the Finissimo (including the chronograph) and all the grandes complications. All these are made in-house as well as the dial and the cases for all watches. We source our regulators from Sellita.

Bulgari Octo Finissimo Automatic Sandblasted Steel

What are the synergies with the other LVMH brands?

There had not been a lot of synergy in the past. But now, with Stéphane Bianchi leading the watch division, we have established a watch committee. We are really working hand in hand. Among the different topics discussed with Stéphane, some are industrial. The idea is to intensify the exchange of best practices or the way we use resources. For instance, if we have some manufacturing capacity at Bvlgari and TAG Heuer is short of capacity (or vice versa), the idea is to have the possibility to use this capacity regardless of the brand. And this is starting now. It won’t be an integration the way it is done at Swatch Group or Richemont. Each Maison will continue to develop its own movements: Unico for Hublot, El Primero for Zenith or Finissimo for Bvlgari. But we try to find synergies. For instance, the TAG Heuer regulators (note: the new nanotechnology found in the latest Autavia Isograph) presented this year are really interesting. At a certain point, it could be something Bvlgari would be interested in. But each brand must and will remain the master of its destiny.

LVMH – and Bvlgari – confirmed its participation in Baselworld 2020. How are these decisions taken? How would you like these tradeshows to evolve?

Basically, this is a decision taken by Stéphane Bianchi and myself – Stéphane has three brands on his hand (note: TAG Heuer, Hublot and Zenith) and I have Bvlgari. Naturally, the decision is taken with Julien Tornare (Zenith) Ricardo Guadalupe (Hublot), Frédéric Arnault (TAG Heuer) and Guido Terreni (Bvlgari). We believe that exhibiting at Baselworld 2020 is a good decision. However, we have clearly voiced that we were very unsatisfied with the dates for Baselworld and SIHH in 2020. We have addressed requirements that must be achieved, otherwise, we might find other solutions. You will soon see an announcement that will give you further clues about the options we have. (note: LVMH watch brands just announced a global exhibition in Dubai for 2020.)

2018 was another record year for LVMH. The press release states that it has been “an excellent year” for Bvlgari. What have been the key growth drivers?

The satisfaction is that all categories have been growing, which is good and sound. Obviously, the growth rates have been different across the different categories because the competitive environments are different. We grew very strongly in jewellery, leather goods and accessories. For watches, it was single digit growth. Not only because the watch market has not been as dynamic but also because we have taken drastic decisions to improve our distribution and elevate the brand image of watches on a par with the level of our jewellery. We decided to stop selling Bvlgari jewellery in a multi-brand watch environment. We have about 400 stores selling both our watches and jewellery in a multi-brand environment. This will be over by the end of next year.

In parallel, we are focusing the watch distribution on fewer retailers, going down to 300 from 600. We want total commitment from our retailers and the perfect environment for the brand. We need a reasonable space to showcase the three expressions of the brand: Octo for men, Serpenti and Lucea for ladies. So we have a double effect caused by the exit of jewellery from multi-brand environments and the refocus of our watch distribution on 300 retailers. Short term this has slowed our growth. Halving your distribution you lose sell-in but I am convinced this is the right move for the future. The 300 points of sales we are focusing on represent 90% of our business and are fully committed.

Talking about distribution, what is your position on e-commerce?

We have a new website substituting the old one, which has been designed for e-commerce. It is better suited for commercial purposes and it features a completely different product presentation. This required real effort. You need to be more three-dimensional, multiplying the complexity of shootings. For instance, you can see each of our jewels being worn. We have been rolling out this platform in the US and in Japan, and it will be operational within two months in China. In Europe, we started with Spain and the UK. By September/October it will be in Italy, France, Germany… By the end of this year, we’ll have covered 75% of our market. By the end of 2020, we’ll cover 90% of the world’s watch market. We are well on track.

But this is not just a matter of website. It is also a matter of service. We have created customer-care centres, centres of expertise with people that can truly support you in your journey with Bvlgari – whether it is an aftersales issue or whether you are interested in purchasing one of our products. In Europe, it is based in Ireland. The most challenging part of omnichannel retail is indeed customer care.

What is the next challenge for Bvlgari watches?

The key challenge is to encapsulate and express the Bvlgari dream. Bvlgari is the depositary of an art de vivre, of la dolce vita. I would use the words of the Italian ambassador in Japan, who in a speech said that “he was the Italian ambassador for politics and Bvlgari was the ambassador for everything else about the country”… We are the ambassador of Italy when it comes to craftsmanship and design. This is what we stand for. Our mission is to become the most desirable luxury brand in the world. This is our everyday obsession.

More details at www.bulgari.com.

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