Oral History: Thierry Stern
Patek Philippe’s Thierry Stern talks about leading the family business.
In 2009, Thierry Stern became president of iconic Swiss watchmaker Patek Philippe, which has been privately held by his family since 1932. As the fourth generation of the family to lead the company, Stern must both maintain a 175-year-old watchmaking tradition and keep it relevant in a rapidly changing global market. Over the past five years, Patek Philippe has raised production by about 15,000 units, from 40,000 in 2010 to 55,000 now, a major leap for a small company whose business model relies on limited supply and highly specialized craftsmanship. And this spring the company unveiled two new timepieces, the 5370 split-seconds chronograph and the Calatrava Pilot Travel Time, which exemplify Stern’s commitment to tradition with evolution. These are his thoughts on taking over a time-honored family business.
“A fine watch is like a famous painting. This is something that will always last. You don’t wear it for a month and then it’s over.”
“We are losing market share every year. We know that, we accept that. When another brand is increasing 20 percent in terms of quantity, I may increase 2 percent if I’m lucky. But the client does not expect Patek to sell a million watches.”
“If you’re willing to take over a family business, you need to enjoy doing it. That’s the danger with a lot of family businesses where heirs don’t have a choice. I was not pushed by my father.”
“We have tried to work with famous designers—it was always a disaster. The family is always in charge of the design.
“If I need someone who is an expert at something, I can hire them. But we will never find somebody [outside the family] who understands the DNA of the brand.”
“It’s nice when my father comes to the office. He’s still a member of the board, he likes to check the figures. I would be dumb not to use the best teacher that I have.”
“Retailers are the first to say that Patek Philippe is an honest brand, and I like that. Maybe not the richest one, OK. But we are very honest, and I think we are successful too.”