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“The Obscure Side of Success”

Updated: Apr 3

Former Audemars Piguet CEO François-Henry Bennahmias visits HBS.

Over a 30-year tenure at Audemars Piguet (AP), recently-departed CEO François-Henry Bennahmias grew his team from 1,200 to 3,000. Revenues climbed above the $2.5 billion mark, cementing the Swiss firm as a global top-five luxury watchmaker. This February, Alexandre Daillance (MBA ’25) hosted Bennahmias for a talk entitled “The Obscure Side of Success.” Sprinkled with brief interludes for slow-motion karate and jumbled communication in a game of Telephone, Bennahmias shared his understanding of how to define, pursue, and risk-mitigate “success.” Prior to the talk, Bennahmias and I sat down for a preview.

How do you define success? 

Bennahmias: It’s something that you cherish when it's there, and you pay attention to like a child. Success is a very weird animal… It definitely brings joy and fulfillment, but it also brings darkness and envy and jealousy. It’s not a guarantee, so you have to cherish it when you have it. And don't forget where you come from, ever, as successful as you are. This will be taken away in two seconds. Never stop and sleep on your laurels…keep your mind open to the new generations, to the new language, to the new behavior – without looking at it and saying, well, in my time we used to do this. 

Has your definition of success changed over the course of your career? 

Bennahmias: Completely, because I really saw success, but at the highest possible success level (on paper) it was maybe the saddest time for me. I started to see behaviors in people which I could not understand. And I came to the conclusion that the journey is by far better than what you could call the summit.

As your organization grew, did the people around you – either in your personal or corporate life – impact how you define success? In turn, did you help them understand how they should define success? 

Bennahmias: First of all, there is no success alone, ever…My role as a leader is always to keep people on their toes, because I know what it takes. I come from the world of sports and I've dealt with a lot of major athletes. I've always wanted to know about the behind the scenes things that people never, ever hear about: the hours at the gym…the time, the tears, and the sweat. 

When I start to see people that do not understand what it takes, and act like they've already “been there, done that,” – you have to wake them up quickly. It's like going to Real Madrid, by far the biggest football club on the planet, with 14 Champions League titles. If you join Real Madrid tomorrow, you wear the jersey, but you haven’t scored one goal, you haven’t won one championship. Don't act like you won 14 titles. 

How did you form a culture and instill this definition of team-based success when you lead an international organization and cannot get people together in person due to Covid-19? 

Bennahmias: In the second week [of the pandemic], I asked the Board to guarantee me that no matter what would happen, we would not let anyone go. As soon as I had this secured, I knew that the company would be okay. 

I started to shoot videos every Sunday, from my iPhone, to debrief people on what was going on and reassuring people that everything would be fine. On the third video, I asked every single employee to ask their kids what they were getting from the Covid experience… Everybody was talking about love… That triggered a new vision. 

I started to call our model ‘B2L,’ business to love. Eventually one young woman said ‘that sucks, it's not a good name.’ She changed it to “P2P,” people to people. In my 29 years of work at AP, I've never seen such a strong message go out so fast amongst all the employees. There was a vibe of ‘we're together,’ and that was one of the biggest achievements during a time when we were not physically together. 

Do you think that sense of togetherness makes for a more productive and effective firm? 

Bennahmias: A zillion percent. Imagine I put you in a room on your deathbed. You are 90 years old, and I give you five minutes to live with full brain capacities. You will not talk to me about the apartment or the house you didn’t get. Or the billion more you didn't make, or the returns. You will talk about the love that you didn't give, or you got, from people very near to you. 

And yes, business has to be about generating sales, and profitability. But I hope that we get to a world where returns are good, but the biggest return you could ever get is when you combine that with the feeling that your employees would die for you, if need be. If you've gotten this from your own organization, you'll see that the numbers will work out on their own. 

You have businesses today where their leaders are extremists and hard on people. They have to push, and they don't care if they have to fire a thousand people at a time. You could have successes like this, but they don't last very long. I'm much more in favor of this feeling of “I'm going with everyone.” The world needs it more than ever. So, returns? I want to talk about human returns as well. 

Is this the obscure side of success that you’ll discuss tonight? 

Bennahmias:  The obscurity comes in the appropriation of success… Nothing will ever be better than the team. And that's the dark side, when people want to become people that they are not, just because they have a stamp or brand attached to them. No. Earn the respect of your peers and show that you are bringing value.

How can a class of MBAs avoid this obscure downside of success and the pitfalls of misappropriation?

Bennahmias:  Never, never think for a second that you will succeed alone. As smart and sharp and hard-working as you are, you will never, ever succeed alone. You can make mistakes. You can hire the wrong people. But the second you're not bringing people together towards a vision – and a clear one – then you are putting yourself at risk. 

Did you experience differences in definitions of success and corporate culture when growing the AP brand from Europe into North America?

Bennahmias:  I've learned from both worlds…I discovered I was a very mean boss for a long time. I was never telling people, ‘Great job!’ I was always blaming them when something wasn't done the right way. I was hard on people.

I developed a concept called the "Two Minutes with the CEO." I did it three times in 11 years. Two minutes with every single employee. It takes a month. Two questions were asked: One, what's your level of happiness when you come to work, from 1 to 10? Two: What could we do better? Give a pause to an employee to tell you how they feel. They will look at you and say, ‘the boss spent two minutes with me!’ 

You will always learn by doing this so much more than you would get from any committee, from any higher organization. A journalist asked me what advice I would give to my replacement. I said only one thing: ‘spend time with the people who do, not with the people who talk…’ Even if some of them will not [say anything] because they are too scared, many of them will take this as an opportunity to finally be able to be heard on something that they've been saying for a long, long time to their direct manager. 

So, what advice do you give to your middle managers? 

Bennahmias: Be real. If you don't start paying attention to the people working under you, they will have the same attitude towards you, and you will miss so much. 

What's next? 

Bennahmias:  TBD, but let's say this. If I manage to do exactly what I want to do, you will hear about it.

Tim Ford (MBA ’25) is originally from New Jersey. He graduated from the University of Virginia with degrees in Commerce and Spanish in 2018, and completed an M.Phil. in Latin American Studies at the University of Cambridge in 2019. Prior to the HBS MBA, Tim worked in growth equity in San Francisco. 

François-Henry Bennahmias is a prominent figure in the luxury watch industry, renowned for his dynamic leadership as the CEO of Audemars Piguet, a role he held from 2012 until 2023. Under his leadership, the family-owned company saw innovative expansion and solidified its reputation as a leading manufacturer of high-end Swiss watches. Bennahmias is celebrated for his modern approach to brand promotion and for spearheading initiatives that blend traditional craftsmanship with contemporary design and technology.

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