Marking his first anniversary as CEO of Zenith, Jean-Frederic Dufour has streamlined the Le Locle watchmaker’s offerings by paring its distribution points and reinterpreting the brand’s highly regarded heritage in a more classical sense. From his suite high atop The Venetian Hotel, far from the Swiss jura, Dufour took a break from selling watches at the Swiss Watch by JCK trade show to talk with Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief Douglas Gollan.
ET: So how has the first year been?
Jean-Frederic Dufour: It has been exactly 53 weeks. Every day is better than the day before. The [company] history is so rich that every time you flip a book or open a drawer you find something amazing that was created by the company. At the same time we have narrowed our focus to the El Primero and Elite. Being the CEO of a manufacturer in Le Locle is my dream job and yet I also have the chance to travel the world.
ET: You have a pretty extensive background in the industry.
Jean-Frederic Dufour: I developed the manufacture at Chopard, then for Ulysse Nardin I had the chance to do sales, and then with [Hublot CEO Jean-Claude] Biver I gained experience in marketing at Swatch Group, and then Chopard again.
ET: So was Jean-Claude Biver the connection that brought you to Zenith?
[Zenith and Hublot are both owned by LVMH]
Jean-Frederic Dufour: Well, one of them, but there is a very long and wide and intense process that, as I said, is very long and intense.
ET: With your experience on the manufacture side you are considered a “watchmaker’s CEO”.
Jean-Frederic Dufour: Thierry Nataf [the former Zenith CEO, known for his flamboyant personality and showmanship approach] was successful at putting the name Zenith back out, but you are right, I am connected with the watchmakers. I really enjoy talking to the watchmakers. They are after all what the business is all about.
ET: Why do you consider Zenith such a prized company to lead?
Jean-Frederic Dufour: There are only four remaining companies that manufacture 100 percent of their products: Jaeger Le-Coultre, Rolex, Patek Philippe and Zenith. So as you said, I appreciate watchmaking and this is a company that is all about the watch from its history. We have a very good product and we are not trying to set a trend, but rather improve on our history.
ET: Zenith has a fairly well known history among watch aficionados.
Jean-Frederic Dufour: If you think chronograph, you think Zenith. In 1969 we produced the very first integrated self-winding chronograph, the El Primero movement. It measures a tenth of a second, but in my first meeting I asked the watchmakers, “how can I read the tenth of a second? We have to come up with something special to actually show it.” We have to find a solution to display the tenth of a second. And so that is what we did with the Zenith El Primer 1/10th of a Second—you can actually see one-tenth of a second.
ET: So this is a pretty significant achievement right at the start of your tenure.
Jean-Frederic Dufour: It’s like an old Mini [Cooper] and the new Mini. When you drive the new Mini you know what you are driving, but you get the features of a modern automobile. This is a 41 year-old patent for having the escapement wheel connected with the chronograph wheel.
ET: You seem very excited.
Jean-Frederic Dufour: There’s a lot of watch brands. Really anyone with a few hundred thousand dollars and some nice ads can create a brand, but when you’re buying Zenith we are offering value not only with our price but our true history and the fact that we are a manufacturer, not just an advertising campaign. Zenith is the most awarded watch company, so that says something right there.