A TimeZone Exclusive Interview

Angelo
Bonati of Panerai

Comandante
del Tempo

By
Michael Friedberg


December
2002


If
the Panerai watch represents a military secret, then the commanding secret behind the
company is its President, Angelo Bonati. Signor Bonati has created what may be
one of the great success stories in the watch industry over the past
quarter-century. With the support
of Richemont and a talented staff, he has engineered the development of a small
brand into an international cult object. Panerai’s business success, and the
strategic thinking underlying that success, represents a unique story and one
seldom disclosed to the public.

AB: Angelo Bonati, President, Officine Panerai

MF: Michael Friedberg, TimeZone.com

 

 

MF:
Mr. Bonati, you’re in charge of a brand that elicits strong opinions from the
public. You must be a watch connoisseur yourself. Please tell our readers about
your background in the watch industry.


AB:
I was always involved with the Italian market. I started with Richemont back in
1980; that has been a long time. Mr. Franco Cologni was always my boss. It was
always Richemont: at one time Cartier and then Vendome. I was President of Cartier and some other brands.

I
did leave the group for two years in mid-1990s,
finding other international experience. I re-entered in 1997. Shortly
thereafter, Mr. Cologni called me and said “I have an adventure in my hand. Do
you want to do it with me?”

MF:
I understand that the adventure was Panerai. How did the idea of Panerai as
an international brand develop?

AB:
Officine
Panerai had to face the reduction of the military budget in the early 1990s, as
the Italian Navy then was its sole and exclusive client. In 1993, it
commissioned about 1000 watches from suppliers and sold them.

In 1994, Sylvester
Stallone was working on a movie and wanted to see a different instrument
– one that was linked to the military. He wanted it for – how do
you say it? – for his “persona”.

He saw this watch and immediately said “this
watch is a star”. He used it in a movie. As gifts to friends, he
also commissioned a few hundred watches with the name Sly-Tech.

MF: I guess Richemont saw a brand starting to
take off. Was the idea back then to buy the brand and produce more
watches, in order to enhance financial returns?

AB:
No, no. It was really just a decision of
the Group, which wanted to buy a Brand with a real history and a high quality
product.
Arial”>

MF:
Surely there was more strategy underlying that decision?

AB:
Yes, because at the time, Vendome didn’t have a real sports watch. Baume &
Mercier, Piaget, Cartier –these really were not sports watch lines.
The idea was that we needed a real sports watch brand.

MF:
And how was that strategy to be implemented?

AB:
We thought that there were two ways we might do it.
First, we could do it in quantities, by producing the watch at a low
price. That would use the brand strictly to generate cash. We decided not
to do that.

Instead,
we decided we could play another card and come from history. We decided to do
that instead.

The
watch was a military secret. There were slightly less than 300 made before the
1990s. Why, then, was the watch famous with collectors?
It was because of its unique history and its quality. Historically, it
had a Rolex movement. We decided, then, to enter the market based on the
exclusivity of Panerai’s history.

Arial”>

MF:
But historically these watches were very large. History is well and good, but
wouldn’t that inhibit sales?

AB:
Size was another aspect of the strange
history. At the time of 1997, there really were only two well-known oversized
watches, the Audemars-Piguet Royal Oak Offshore and the IWC Portugieser.
But for Panerai we decided to respect the watch and its history.

Yes,
the Panerai watch is heavy. It is big; it is strange. But it is different and it
has a strong personality. Most importantly, there is a history here.
There is a history of value, a history of man and a history of hero. This
is not a normal history, linked only to a watchmaker.

Here,
it is a symbol; the watch is a symbol. We decided that we had to maintain the
concept.

MF:
But large watches also have become very popular. Some people, however, think
it’s a fad –is it a passing fad?

AB:
We opened a new segment –the large size. It’s now difficult for collectors
to go back. The watches are easy to read; it’s easy to check the time. Clients can’t go back to smaller watches.

MF:
How large can a wristwatch go? In January, your 47 mm model will be available.

AB:
That’s a
special edition commemorating our model from 1950, and is being made over 2002
and 2003 in 1,950 examples. But I
think the right size is 44.

We
also have 42 mm –in some Radiomir—and 40 mm in Radiomir and Luminor. For the
Luminor, 40 mm is the smallest we can go. Because of the crown guard and
proportions, we need at least 40 mm. I think 44 mm is right.

MF:
Even if you’re maintaining a tradition, you’ve developed new models. When
you started, initially Panerai had two lines –both the historic and the
contemporary. How do you develop a brand yet maintain the basic concept?

AB:
Yes, we developed models and the brand.
But frankly we were “not in business just to make business”. We wanted to
achieve real status. We wanted to stay simple and genuine.
Our success is linked to one idea of the watch –its history. Our
success is linked to one idea of the watch, to one product –its history, its
strong personality.
MF:
But with that success comes growth.
Will that growth dilute the brand?

AB:
Here –with Panerai—we have design and
history and content. More than
quantity I want quality. There will be even more content in the future. We want
to be serious; we have sophisticated clients.

MF:
Can you elaborate about your company’s growth and
goals?

Arial”>

Arial”>AB:Our
biggest market now is Italy. The U.S. is the second biggest market. We have 50
retailers in the U.S. and Canada. But
there are 800 for Rolex.

The
day that a company doesn’t grow it will fall down
Yet we want to grow slowly,
taking little steps. We are investing for the future; we want a brand that will
be strong 20 years from now.

I
prefer to increase contents more than numbers. And we must maintain simplicity
–the essence of the brand.

MF:
While your designs are simple, I’ve admired the number of new models Panerai
has produced in just a few years.

AB:
Actually, we don’t have that many models.
Apart from the Special Editions, we
have just 40 references: eight historic, the rest belong to the
contemporary range.
Also,
we have only a few dials. Brown for titanium, blue for some special dials and
then a few basic dials. I don’t want more. I prefer simplicity.

The
Radiomir line can use other content and lets us use more complicated movements.
The Luminor line has several models: the “solo tempo” basic model, the GMT,
the Power Reserve and the chrono. These preserve the heritage –which is
somewhat contradictory, I admit, since in the 1930’s the Radiomir models
preceded the Luminor. The Radiomir
was the first Panerai.

MF:
If you would, please tell us about the company today; its facilities and
people.

AB.We
have 30 employees at the factory plus 15 in Milan. There’s 4 people in the
U.S. A total of 80 people around the world.
Our structure –it’s very simple. We are like a family.

ETA
makes most of our movement and we transform them. The GMT and Power Reserve are
our developments; Valjoux transformed them and they are now exclusive to us. We
worked on this for three or four years. Also, look at the finishing.

MF:
I also think many of your watches have excellent design. It’s much
harder to design something simple. Who does your design work?

AB:
We have an art director, Gianpiero Bodino, who is very good. He does almost
everything, even packaging. He designed, for example, our steel bracelet. We
talked around the table. We came up with idea that we could produce the bracelet
with links like the crown protective device.



MF:
Do you get involved in the design process?

AB:

MF:
What, may I ask, are you wearing? Is it special?

AB: 300 in
honor of the Laureus. In May 2002 we sponsored a yacht in a Regatta in
Monte Carlo.

MF:
Where is the industry at and where is it going?

AB:
A very good question. All watchmakers now are upgrading content and product.

The
mid-market now is covered by fashion brands –they are growing up. That’s
natural. The industry needs external creativity, especially suited for each
brand.

But
also it’s important to the watchmaker to put something real inside. There has
to be a good balance of content and design.
Then you have success. To really move up, you have to give something
more.

MF:
Where does Panerai fit in this?

AB:
The luxury unit has two primary clients. The first are trendsetters, which
always are dangerous for a brand. The second is
a solid clientele who want strong contents. They are finding brands with
content. They want something inside. Also, as a smaller group are the
collectors, who want something very exclusive.

The
assertion of value is strong for Panerai. There is history and design and
originality and the right mix. There is something very simple but strong.

MF:
It’s clear to me that you understand where you want Panerai to be.

AB:
We have to keep the watch simple and pure to its history. You have to have a
clear vision and then follow what you believe.

MF:
Thank you very much.



Phillipe
Bonay, President of Panerai North America (left), and

Angelo
Bonati (right)

___________________________________________________________________________________

Copyright 2002

Michael Friedberg

PastTime

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