Zenith CEO Julien Tornare Reveals The ‘Secret Sauce’ Behind The Brand’s Extreme Success

"It's about the attitude of the company and the culture of the company that you show that you really are a 21st-century company."

Zenith CEO Julien Tornare Reveals The ‘Secret Sauce’ Behind The Brand’s Extreme Success

At a time when many watch and luxury brands are barely keeping their collective heads above water, Zenith is thriving. The high-tech watchmaker has gone from strength to strength, recording back-to-back record sales years during the pandemic in 2021 and 2022 – and that’s thanks to Julien Tornare.

When Tornare took the top job at Zenith back in 2017, the 158-year-old watch brand was in trouble. Caught up in its own history and seriously falling behind in sales, Zenith seemed to be destined for the chopping block, only a few decades after its miraculous story of survival during the ‘Quartz Crisis’ of the 70s.

But in only a few short years – and despite a global pandemic – Tornare has whipped Zenith back into shape, with the esteemed Swiss firm once again reclaiming its mantle as one of the world’s most successful, innovative and high-tech luxury mechanical watchmakers.

Just as watch brands have long coveted Zenith’s superlative El Primero movement for their own watches, we’re sure Switzerland’s watch brands would love to replicate Tornare’s success. But how did he pull off the impossible?

We sat down with Julien at LVMH Watch Week 2023 in Singapore, where he shared with us the secret behind Zenith’s recent fortunes as well as his vision for successful leadership.

Tornare at Zenith’s ‘Master Of Chronographs’ exhibit in New York City last year.

Tornare was quick to point out that Zenith’s recent success is a team effort – “it takes teamwork to make it all happen,” he started off.

“We started from scratch. I mean, when I came on board, we had some great assets. We had the history, the heritage, we had the El Primero, we had many stories, but things were a bit apart and it was not getting together.” It’s true – Zenith in the 2010s definitely felt like it lacked a bit of vision and cohesion as a brand.

The one constant; the jewel in the crown for Zenith was, of course, their famous El Primero movement. The story of the El Primero – its dominance, demise and miraculous revival – is already a watch industry legend. But pre-Tornare Zenith felt a bit like just ‘The El Primero Show’, with the movement almost more famous or well-known than the brand that created it.

“People often ask me, is it a strength or weakness to have the El Primero movement? Don’t you think the El Primero movement is actually stronger than the [Zenith] brand? And that was the case,” Tornare explains.

“But I said it’s not because the branding is weak that we should kill the El Primero. It’s the opposite. We’re so lucky to have the El Primero movement. How many brands would dream to have that in their assets? They don’t. Now we need to build the brand.”

Julien Tornare

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“That’s what we’ve been doing over the last five and a half years is basically to work on the brand platform, work on the marketing, work on the digital… I mean, five years ago, our website was not even responsive. Now we are among the top [brands] in e-commerce. Social media? We’re super active.”

A Zenith watch.
The Zenith Defy Skyline Skeleton, a new and innovative take on the El Primero that sees the movement lose its chronograph function and gain a unique skeletonised layout with a 1/10th second indicator.

“We’ve been doing so many things in different fields that basically we’ve been catching up on the branding side and now everything is here” – Julien gestures to the ceiling – “the brand came here and now we feel the outcome of our work.”

Indeed, Zenith’s success with e-commerce has been nothing short of extraordinary. When COVID hit and forced the Swiss watch industry into virtually shut down overnight, Tornare and the Zenith team fast-tracked the redevelopment of their online boutique. Now it’s one of the best e-commerce offerings in the business, which belies its speedy genesis.

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Tornare explains that pre-COVID, Zenith had planned to slowly roll out their online boutiques over a year and a half between 2020 and 2021, but The Spicy Cough forced them to move quicker.

“When COVID happened, we were stuck at home. The first thing I did on March 15, after closing down the manufacture? I called my executive committee, I said, ‘guys, we’re going to talk every morning at 9am’.”

“They said, ‘why?’ Because every morning we keep the bond together. We talk at 9. Maybe we have a lot, maybe we have not so much. We talk about the coffee we’re drinking or whatever, but we keep this bond and do the same with your team because we’re going to be stuck at home.”

Julien Tornare

“The second thing I asked everyone [was] how can you digitalize your job as much as you can, whether sales, marketing, finance, I mean, HR, any kind of job. So logically, the sales activity had to turn into e-commerce in a much faster pace than it was planned, a year and a half. And we basically did what was planned in a year and a half, in a month and a half,” Tornare relates.

Zenith’s heritage-listed manufacture in Le Locle, Neuchâtel, Switzerland.

Zenith now has online boutiques in almost 40 countries, including Australia. Impressive for a brand that had very little e-commerce only a few years ago… And when you consider that many brands less prestigious than Zenith have yet to join the 21st century and offer e-commerce as well, despite the pandemic.

“I think you cannot claim you are innovative with your product, with your design and everything and not do e-commerce to this world. I totally disagree with some of my colleagues that might tell you that we should not sell watches online, that people are not going to buy online… No, I’m sorry, I mean, facts are facts,” Tornare says.

“If I tell my kids that there was a time when if you wanted to buy an airline ticket, I had to go to the travel agency and spend an hour checking the flights with the lady at the counter, they would laugh, because now in a couple of clicks, you buy your airline tickets… Today, of course, you can buy anything online.”

Julien Tornare

He continues: “Auction houses will tell you that the most expensive second-hand watches have been sold during COVID, that they beat records in their sales. So I think, again, if you claim to be an innovative, dynamic brand, part of the 21st century, you have to open this up.”

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Having a substantial e-commerce presence is also an essential part of offering good customer service, which Tornare is very passionate about.

“More than extra business, [e-commerce] is about client experience and service. I had a guy from Darwin who sent me a very nice email, and I had almost the same email from a guy from Kansas City. Both told me the same story,” he shares.

Julien Tornare wearing the Zenith Defy 21.

“They said, ‘listen, you live in Switzerland, it’s a small country, you have a brick and mortar [store] nearby, wherever you are in Switzerland. We live in big countries where basically we need to drive or fly thousands of kilometres before reaching the door [of a boutique]'”.

“They would have not bought a Zenith watch if they had to go to Melbourne, Sydney, Los Angeles or New York… We need to think outside the box because as Swiss people, Switzerland is very small.”

Julien Tornare

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Tornare isn’t just passionate about customer experience, though. He’s also clearly passionate about employee experience – he wants to get the most out of everyone who works for him and set an example as a leader.

To that end, he introduced a rather novel policy, one that other, stuffier luxury brand CEOs might rankle at: every employee at Zenith has a KPI for creativity and innovation. It’s a cool idea, very outside the box, but how do you track that?

“There are fields and jobs in which it’s much easier, for sure. Product development guys, bring me new ideas, okay. Marketing, bring me new initiatives – how would you run an event differently? How would you work on the watch box in a different way with a new material, and show me your creativity,” Tornare gives by way of an example.

“When you are an accountant, it’s more difficult. The finance deposit. Okay. How can you be more creative to analyze the P&F?” Yeah, you don’t want creative accounting. “So we find other ways… I want to see one line which is about creativity and innovation. And so far it’s worked,” he reports.

Speaking of creative packaging: check out the Zenith Defy 21 Ultra Colour box set. Zenith is one of only a handful of luxury watch brands that has experimented with limited-edition collectible box sets like this.

“My objective is not that it’s perfect everywhere, that everybody has a great, innovative idea each year. It’s more about changing the mindset process. When I joined, people said, ‘you know, it’s okay, we’re part of LVMH, it’s a big, strong group, and we’ve always done things this way’… So it was more about kicking people and making them change their mind. And I think that worked.”

Julien Tornare

“I mean, people sometimes smile when they hear about a Chief Happiness Officer or this kind of thing, but I really believe it, you know? I mean, hitting people to make them work is 40 years ago, but now it’s finished,” he jokes.

“I have monthly breakfast with the people who had their birthday the month before, and we sit in a very casual way. Usually, it’s 20 to 25 people. And first I give them information about what’s happening now for the brand… And then I say, ‘what about you? Do you have ideas, suggestions, complaints? Think we should improve? Think I should improve? Let me know’.”

“So, two years ago, first sessions, they were all a bit shy to express [themselves]. Now they open [up] very well, and it’s great because I learn a lot. I get their feedback. Sometimes I get information, I get new ideas. And some of the new things we implemented in the company came actually from these sessions.”

“So, again, it’s another way to be contemporary and innovative. It’s not only about reinventing the screw in XYZ material. It’s about the attitude of the company and the culture of the company that you show that you really are a 21st-century company.”

Julien Tornare

Cutting the fat and instilling a positive workplace culture might be Tornare’s biggest influence on Zenith, and it also seems to be the secret behind the brand’s success. Just as Zenith’s watches are innovative and modern, so are its business practices.

Julien Tornare poses with former Formula 1 World Champion and current Extreme E team owner Nico Rosberg at the 2022 Island X-Prix II in Sardinia, Italy.

Case in point: Zenith takes sustainability very seriously, using recycled materials in their watches and reducing emissions in the shipping process; partnering with Extreme E and banning all non-electric or non-hybrid cars in the company, even covering the roof of their heritage-listed manufacture with solar panels…

Zenith is also the first and only watch brand that has more female brand managers than male brand managers, and Zenith recently removed all gendered branding and categorisation from their watches, another first for the Swiss watch industry. It all paints a single picture: that Zenith is a singularly forward-thinking brand.

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“My feeling when I came to Zenith was that historically in the industry, you had kind of two categories [of brands],” Tornare explains.

“You have watch brands with a lot of history and heritage, and they kind of felt stuck repeating that history: revivals, re-editions… They’re systematically turned to the past. And you have new watch brands, sometimes with zero history, sometimes a very short one, a couple of decades… That feel totally free, with a blank sheet of paper to be super innovative, super creative, new materials, new things.”

“It’s not because you have a heritage, because you’re authentic that you cannot be creative, innovative or have fun in today’s world, because we’re selling to today’s clients.”

Julien Tornare
The new Zenith Defy Extreme Glacier, which features a bezel and pusher protectors made out of chalcedony, something rather unusual in the watch world and especially on such a sporty watch.

He continues: “When I met the people who made the El Primero back in 2019, they were all in their mid-eighties. And they told me one thing. They said, ‘Julien, it’s great that you’re paying tribute to what we did, to the watches we produced years ago… But when we first launched the El Primero, we were super innovative, super dynamic. So keep this in your genes.”

“So I can launch a super hype, trendy, cool new materials Defy Extreme next to a Defy Revival no problem. I can play with both.”

Julien Tornare

Perhaps that’s the theme of Julien Tornare’s leadership and Zenith as a brand in 2023: versatility. They’re able to be high-tech and highly traditional all at once, and when adversity rears its head – like COVID – they’re versatile and flexible enough to overcome challenges and succeed.

What more does Zenith have in store for 2023? Tornare teases that we’ll soon see “something super strong” in their “third pillar” – the Pilot collection – but remained tight-lipped about what that will be exactly. Considering the quality of releases that we’ve seen from Zenith in recent years, as well as how dynamic the brand has been under Tornare’s leadership, we’re confident that it’ll be something to get excited about.