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“I want to see less grey Frenchmen”: What will Richemont group’s new young chief executives bring?

In the meantime, 67-year-old Jean-Claude Biver is proving veterans have flair, too.

During the year-end investor meeting in November 2016, Johann Rupert, chairman of Richemont, said that he wanted to “see less grey men, less grey Frenchmen”, in terms of management at the Swiss luxury conglomerate that owns brands like Cartier, Panerai and IWC. He added: “We have too few women, we don’t have enough diversity. We do not have enough Asians and we do not have enough Americans.”

His comment came at the end of a results presentation that detailed the group’s lacklustre performance, including a 51 per cent fall in first-half profit.

So it was no surprise that just after the annual SIHH trade fair in January – confirming several months of speculation – Richemont announced that the chief executives of Piaget, Vacheron Constantin and Jaeger-LeCoultre were leaving. The first two were being retired to honorary posts, while the third departed for other opportunities.

(RELATED: The 21 most impressive watches of SIHH 2017.)

All three are “grey men”. Frenchman Philippe Leopold-Metzger helmed Piaget for 17 years, while Spaniard Juan-Carlos Torres became Vacheron Constantin’s chief in 2005; both are close to Richemont’s retirement age of 65. The former Jaeger-LeCoultre boss, Daniel Riedo, was only in the job since 2013, but is 56 years old.

Their replacements are a generation younger. Piaget’s incoming leader is Chabi Nouri, the first female chief executive of any Richemont brand, and a woman who’s some two decades younger than her predecessor. And her soon to be counterpart at Vacheron Constantin is Louis Ferla, a forty-something Frenchman.

Do they represent the diversity Rupert desires? Both have varied backgrounds: Nouri spent several years at British American Tobacco, while Ferla has spent almost two decades working in Asia. But both still hail from the same luxury goods background, having done significant time at Cartier, the dominant company in Richemont. Nouri’s first job was at the Parisian jeweller, while Ferla joined Cartier over a decade ago.

The irony is that some of the most successful adopters of social media, and by extension appealing to younger consumers, are the brands run by Jean-Claude Biver. Now 67 years old, the Luxembourg native is arguably the marketing genius in the watch industry. His first act in Swiss watchmaking started with Blancpain in 1981, yet he has managed to remain relentlessly relevant.

(RELATED: LVMH chief Biver: Tag Heuer to tap younger set and be the watch label they can’t do without.)

Hublot, which he chairs, has 1.8 million followers on Instagram, while Tag Heuer, of which he’s the chief executive, has one million and it’s still in the early days of Biver’s turnaround plan. By comparison, IWC, which is comparable to Tag Heuer in turnover, has 660,000 followers, making it the largest among Richemont’s watch brands.*

So, while it’s natural for companies to undergo a changing of the guards, the lesson here is that the veterans may still have some more trail to blaze. Look out for the stars.

*Instagram followers as of Feb 10, 2017.

Read more of Su Jia Xian’s incisive commentary at his website, WatchesbySJX.com.