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By Chris | April 25 2013
Recently the website WatchPro recognized Zenith for its “rags to riches” comeback. Longtime watch executive Jean-Frederic Dufour is piloting the success story, and frankly ‘pilot’ is a phrase that the Le Locle based manufacture is using quite a bit these days.
On the preview day before today’s official opening of Baselworld 2013 the CEO invited the press for a conversation between himself and the supersonic man Felix Baumgartner. (My interview with Dufour marking his first year from June 2010 is at http://www.elitetraveler.com/leaders-in-luxury/jean-frederic-dufour).
Clearly the Zenith comeback and the high speed jump of the Austrian dare devil were both high wire acrobatics, the October 14, 2012 jump juxtaposed against Dufour’s skills as an aviator for the LVMH owned watch maker through a stormy period.
While Baumgartner’s jump was postponed several times waiting for good weather, Dufour’s appearance in the Zenith cockpit came taking control of a plane that was in a deep dive buffeted by previous management’s overplaying the big watch trend away from the company’s fine watch making roots and pushing pricing higher in the face of the recession.
The Baumgartner-Dufour partnership it became apparent was not just another corporate sponsorship. While the deal was quick to come together: “At the end of lunch, I said “I wanted to be in,” the Zenith CEO told reporters, both men were still facing challenges. And while Baumgartner was battling claustrophobia in a space suit putting his life on the line jumping from 39,000 meters, Dufour was also cutting a risky path. “LVMH is Number One in luxury in the World. It was not the typical sponsorship,” Dufour said. Baumgartner noted, “It’s easy to sponsor Formula One and Soccer. There isn’t a risk. He had the guts to completely trust us.”
Besides aligning Zenith with potentially death on live television (Baumgartner said he would never try the jump again, and in fact had to stop a deadly spin to land safely), Dufour noted, the company was “not able to test the watch (at anything close to the forces it would have to survive and his) head of development didn’t sleep for two weeks.” So even if Baumgartner made it back to earth alive after turning himself into a personal Concorde, there was a good chance the Stratos El Primero Chronograph he wore outside his space suit could have been kaput. It would have hardly been an image that sells the credibility Dufour was building.
It worked out well for both men, and while the Austrian says the result of his successful world record is he has “lost time” keeping up with the demands of interviews and appearances, Zenith is flying higher than ever.
When asked what the experience of jumping was like, Baumgartner told the audience, “You don’t have time to enjoy. In 10 minutes your oxygen finishes so you better get on with it.”
Dufour says his immediate attraction to Baumgartner was that he was “looking for somebody who wanted to do something new” which was in line with the brand’s history of pilot watches dating to 1910 when aviation was nothing but firsts. “When Felix explained what he wanted to do I thought this could be a key opportunity…we’re both passionate,” he said.
Invited by Baumgartner to his birthday party, Dufour advised his wife to “be prepared for 500 people.” When they arrived it was a dozen of the Austrian’s friends and family.
While that may have confirmed the strong friendship the two developed, it seems the only person who was nonplussed was Dufour’s wife. Baumgartner picked them up in his helicopter at the airport and as the Zenith CEO put it, “With Felix at the stick, you won’t forget it. I think he forgot my wife was in the back.”
Pilot watches needless to say will be the thrust of Zenith’s offerings in the next week as the two daredevils celebrate their impressive accomplishments.