Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Olivier Bernheim | The unstoppable Weil of time

What brings you to India? I ask as a conversation starter. “I came to meet you," exclaims Olivier Bernheim, president and CEO, Raymond Weil watches. It sounds rehearsed, like the 56-year-old had been telling people that all day, but he looks charming when he says it nevertheless.

Diminutive and trim, Bernheim is dressed in a black suit, jacket hanging off the back of his chair in a suite at Delhi’s Sheraton hotel. I notice he’s wearing two watches—one on each wrist. “When I am in India, it is easier because of the half an hour in the (four-and-a-half-hour) time difference between Europe and here," he says. That’s hard to believe, Bernheim is too astute to let 30 minutes throw him off any kind of calculation.

The salesman: There’s little difference between selling margarine and selling luxury watches if you have the passion for it, says Bernheim. Jayachandran / Mint

As it turns out, Bernheim is here on an important mission. His company, the one started by and named after his father-in-law, is setting up its fully owned Indian subsidiary. It is a demonstration of how key the Indian luxury watch buyer is to Raymond Weil, especially after the global economic shake-up of the last couple of years.

“My father-in-law was the first Swiss watchmaker to start selling in India, we have been available here since the early 1980s. But the market was quite stagnant for at least two decades. It started growing a few years ago, but the last two years have been very exciting. It looks like it will be an unending story here," he says.

Bernheim’s optimism is well founded. The first fully owned store had opened in Delhi’s Connaught Place earlier in the day and the sixth customer ended up buying the most expensive watch in the store (Rs7.8 lakh). “I wouldn’t have guessed that we would sell the watch on the first day. But I am not really surprised, there is so much money in India," he says.

Though Bernheim, who has degrees in law and business management, has been working for Raymond Weil for 28 years (“only two other Swiss watch CEOs have that kind of experience"), he didn’t start his career selling luxury timekeepers. “Before all this I was working in Unilever, selling yogurt and margarine in Paris. One day, my boss offered me another position within the company and at the same time, my father-in-law asked if I would be interested in working for his company," he says.

Bernheim was certain he didn’t want to live in Paris; he was thinking of moving to Strasbourg, where he was born. “But when this offer came to join the family business, I thought Geneva is heaven. Let’s move there," he says.

He did not face too many difficulties in the switch. “My father-in-law was an exceptional person to work with. My wife always says I am the son he did not have. I consider him my second father, he thought of me as his son. So that made it easy. Also, I am passionate about marketing and selling to end consumers. Whether you are selling margarine or watches, it’s nearly the same—you need to understand who your consumer is and you need to be knowledgeable," he says.

At the time, family owned Swiss watchmakers were going through a metamorphosis. Several families with long watchmaking histories and valuable brand names decided to sell their companies. But Raymond Weil persisted. Partly because the company does not make its own movements (the mechanism that makes the needles in the watch move), a process that involves investing a lot of money over several years. “We would rather use existing standard movements. Investing in a new movement is not feasible in terms of price. When you are BMW, you cannot suddenly become Ferrari," he says.

The industry is still recovering from the next shake-up, the global economic slowdown of 2008. Bernheim says Raymond Weil is cushioned since it has a wide global reach, even though the US is a large market. “Last year, we did not sell as much as we wished in the US. But China picked up quickly. This year, (the) US has recovered. Dubai is probably affected for a longer time because it does not have a big local market," he says.

Bernheim is not optimistic about the prospects of a European recovery though. “I don’t think one can expect much from the old continent. It does not produce anything any more. There is no wealth being created," he says.

Slumping demand aside, the immediate challenge Swiss watchmakers face is a human resources issue. There simply aren’t many watch assemblers any more. “The whole process is done by hand and it’s getting difficult finding people who have the skills for this job," he says.

When he’s not pondering over such issues, Bernheim can be found outdoors skiing, horseback riding and gardening. In the evenings, he attends concerts and operas. His wife, Diana, is a professional pianist, and he himself is a music aficionado—partial to the compositions of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert. “I don’t listen to any of the modern composers. I stopped with Wagner in 1880," he says. But he does listen to Rolling Stones and Jimmy Hendrix. “I even used to have the Hendrix hair," he says.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough time to ponder how this brisk businessman in front of me would pull off the Hendrix look. The watch on his right hand indicated it was time for me to leave.

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