Do what you Love: Pierre Halimi Lacharlotte
President of Montre Journe (FP Journe)
by Adam Marelli
In the world of artisanal products, from custom shoes to high end watches or boats, it is rare to find a successful mixture of business and true artistry. In my work I see a lot of “pseudo-heritage, vintage, handmade brands,” trying to capitalize on the market popularity of bespoke production. But when it comes to actually making things, especially watches, there is no faking it. As a Journe collector friend of mine said, “We tend not to own just one…I’ve been buying about one a year for the last decade…sometimes two a year if there is something I really like.” This type of collector dedication is not easy to come by. In many cases, one brain is simply not enough to design, build, market, and sell a recognizable name in any industry. When it happens, it is usually the result of a collaboration of minds with the founder at the helm.
In the world of watches, FP Journe tackled these challenges and rose to compete with the legacy brands of watchmaking, all within his lifetime. I had a chance to sit down with his business partner, Pierre Halimi Lacharlotte, at their New York City boutique and explore how he was able to transition from being a salesman to representing one of the most respected living watchmakers today.
There is no simple way to describe the road to success. It has as many shapes as there are waves in the ocean. But there is one thing that bonds those who do what they love. They nurture their passions and reinforce them through constant learning. They understand that “value” can be measured in more than simply dollar signs.
How did you originally become involved with FP Journe and the world of high end watchmaking?
Back in 1987, 12 years before we produced a watch under the company name FP Journe, I met watchmaker Francois Paul Journe (FP) by accident. I had gone to the Basel Fair. After a half day of going around, I could not get in to Rolex or Patek Philippe because I did not have the money to buy, so I went on the radius. I remember this gathering of “weird guys.” And I say “weird” in an affectionate way. I remember seeing a watch, and I went to see one of these guys, his name was Vincent Calabrese, who became my mentor. I said, “I don’t understand, why are you copying the Corum watch?” And after a lot of explaining and explicative sound bites, he said I did not understand anything, and that HE made the Corum watch. I said, “Not true, I asked Corum and they said they made it.”
And then Vincent really showed me behind the curtain. This is where I found my calling. Because I was talking to the guy that created the golden bridge (which is what Vincent created) this is the thing that HE created. I befriended all these guys, and they all had an amazing passion and talent.
How did this introduction to a group of independent watchmakers develop your interest in watches?
Calabrese introduced me to all these other guys, and they asked me, ‘So why don’t you come to our annual dinner?’ I said ok, and discovered I was the only non-watchmaker invited. And who did I sit next to but Francois Paul Journe. Philippe Dufour was across from me, Franck Muller was there, I mean, all these unbelievable watchmakers at one table.
I started to work with them on the business side, but things were very informal. I became the spokesperson for them in the US, but it was complicated. Since they were not making a large production, pictures of the watches came on polaroids, prices were handwritten on a piece of paper and I had no idea what it meant, if it was an export price, retail price, or what they wanted for it. They were not structured.
Out of all of the watchmakers you were dealing with, how did Journe emerge as the one you wanted to work with?
I started seeing Journe at each fair and at his workshop in Paris, which was right next to where my parents were living. And the guy had so many things to talk about, especially for someone like me, who was new to the game, very passionate, but very naive. I realized this guy really had something to say about watchmaking. It was coming from his guts. It was like his whole body was expressing something. He had such a clear idea of what he wanted to do that well before he made the first watches under the name of the company “FP Journe,” he had already created all of the designs. All of the napkin sketches of the watches are still on view in the Geneva offices.
How did you make the jump from friends to partners?
So in ’99 FP asked me, “Are you ready for the US? Because I am.” Each year I kept saying I’m getting ready, but I’m not there yet.
He said, “You can open five stores.”
I said, “Why five?”
“Because I have 5 watches.” he said.
But like the other makers, we were not set up as a proper business. There were no SKU inventories, the watches came in 38mm because that’s what he made, and the dials were yellow gold.
It was one reference. And that’s how we started. I started independently, always checking with him. I was his agent, not a distributor.
Why does it matter if you were an agent versus a distributor?
We never had the margin for a distributor, and also FP would have never relinquished control of what was happening. The problem with a distributor is I can’t control what the distributor is doing.
That is what happens when you have independent distributors. I was an independent distributor for other brands. We were under pressure to perform, regardless of what the market could bear. And then it would be a 3-5 year contract, so at the end of the contract, what do you do? You could end up sitting on dead stock.
With FP, from the beginning it was like I was an agent. So I was really helping, giving my two cents of advice, and discussing it with him. What do you want me to do on this one or that one, where do we go next, and how do we present it?
Was this relationship formalized in a contract with a business plan and investors?
No. Only in 2009, when we opened this boutique here in NYC, we decided to put it on paper. Before, it was really just a handshake. And in opening the boutique, I was in a position where I owed him a sizeable amount of money. He was not very concerned, but I was concerned for him, because if something happened, what would I do? I’m responsible, what would I do?
We decided that I would relinquish my job as an independent agent and create a company called Montre Journe America, which covers from Canada to Argentina and the Caribbean, so basically the American Continent, and also create one boutique. Now we have three, but that was the first one.
So we became partners. He owns 50.1 percent, I own 49.9, but the decisions have to be unanimous, so it’s a good partnership.
How do you and FP work together, I mean from a personality standpoint? What are the daily challenges you face?
The thing is, FP is extremely stubborn and very outspoken about what he wants. But I am too. We’ve clashed many times, but we are always smart enough…I’m not saying we are smart, but smart enough so that…if I don’t agree with him or he disagrees with me, it’s both our jobs to convince the other, in an intelligent way, to understand what is happening or what we should do.
Many artists don’t like to explain why they do things, but from early on I told him, if I’m supposed to be a spokesperson for FP Journe and I don’t understand what you want to do or what you mean by this, then I’m not capable of doing that job. Most of the time when we disagreed, it was because I did not have enough information about the future.
By being sometimes harsh in the discussion, not on the person but on the ideas, like a real argument should be, I was able to convert what he wanted to express, or wanted to achieve, into a language that potential collectors could understand.
But because I’m passionate and because he’s passionate, it works. If he was just about business it would not work. If I were all about business it would not work either, because I would look at just the results and not look at the future.
With FP we always say, and we just talked about this a month ago, said “Where do we want to be in 20 years?”
What role does profit or value play in your decisions around the company?
When you and I were at Watch Week , I felt badly for my colleagues. They have so many constraints, of what they can say or not, based on shareholders and executive orders. My contract with FP is unlimited in time and the minimum is zero. We would have other problems if we sell zero, but I am not obliged to perform for an amount of money. I have an obligation to perform to insure that we bring the message out; it’s a whole different situation.
And talking about the idea of this interview; we are not driven by the bottom line of the balance sheet. It’s important for us, but important as a means and not as a goal.
When we talk about the purpose of the company, the purpose in a strong sense is to achieve what FP has as a vision. He wants to make a dent in the history of watchmaking. Hopefully a big dent, and money is an extremely important part of this; it is a gear, a means to an end, but not an end in itself.
How does FP demonstrate the idea that money is secondary to the company in a way that his employees can see it?
FP, to this day, does not own an apartment, does not own a car…I don’t think he has anything besides what he has in the company. And we do not distribute dividends, everything stays in the company. Maybe it’s to buy a new machine, maybe it’s to hire another person, maybe it’s to buy a clock that is important in the history of clockmaking which FP really reveres. But that’s FP. And that changes the whole paradigm of what you want to do in life.
When you talk about living the life you want, can you explain how you transitioned from working as an agent for watch brands to taking the leap to work for FP Journe (who at the time was still a relatively unknown quantity in the high end watchwork, especially compared to older houses like Patek Philippe or Vachereon Constantin)?
FP Journe started as a sort of side business. And for me it was more of a service for FP. We were making money but…it was not an income I could survive on. Even when I went to Technomarine, which is the other side of the spectrum from FP Journe, and I was the VP worldwide for them in the heydays of Techno, which was 2005, I said I can come to work for this company, no problem, but I keep FP Journe. That was my only condition.
It was easier for me to get into without really sacrificing an income.
So it was not an immediate jump, it was a long building relationship, one faded in and the other one faded out?
Right, the passion was there from the beginning, but I would not advocate leaving everything today…to live your dream. You still need to plan a little. Especially when you have kids or a wife, you’ve got to be responsible. But I remember when FP had first seen me, he said, “But Pierre, in the end, forget about the money right now, in the end, what do you want to do?” That question was always in the back of my mind.
Less than a month ago when I was in Geneva…I asked FP, “Remember when you asked me what I want to do?” I am doing what I want to do. And I know I am within my limits. I am not a watchmaker. I’m not capable of making a watch at all. Definitely not at the level of Journe. In terms of creation, which is very glorifying, I can’t do this. But it does not prevent me from doing something I am passionate about.
Some might say, I’m just another gear in the machine. That’s true, but it’s an important gear, because we are in the number one market, because FP wants to adhere to his goals. For me he’s like a general, but he needs a lieutenant, somebody that can help him achieve this. So I’m ok with this. You have to come to terms with it, that you are not going to be the leader or the big boss. It does not really matter when you have a strong vision of what you would like to achieve, and my goal is to make sure that he achieves what he wants down the road. It takes work and it takes bumps in the road and setbacks and problems and discussions and arguments, but that’s life.
How does this fit in with your childhood ambitions?
I always knew that I had a talent to sell. From a very young age I liked sales, not so much the money situation, but the fact that when you are participating in a discussion, you can bring your point to the other party in a way that the other person would understand or adhere to it.
I think I would have been good in politics; I could have sold a few things. But politics is too corrupt, you can’t make a career out of this. What we see in France is the same as we see in America.
So if you could have sold anything, why watches? Why not houses or boats or stocks?
The watch passion came in two steps. The first came because of my Dad. My Dad was a collector of watches. In a very eclectic way. He would have the latest AP but he would have the first Swatch. I said, “Dad this makes so much noise, it’s so ugly, that will never sell, it will never work”, and I was wrong by a few billion dollars. But he also had the first Seiko with a calculator, and my fingers were not so thick when I was younger so I could push the buttons. He gave me the idea of watches and started giving them to me when I was 12 or 13, so I was wearing Swatch and Seiko. But it was not AP.
The second came when I got into the retail world. The company that romanced the watch was Breitling. I was one of the first retailers of Breitling in the US. I’m not talking that long ago, late 80s, but Breitling was interesting because I knew Ernest Schnieder, the owner, and his son Teddy. They are very nice people and I remember the salespeople in Basel would take me as the first appointment because I would have a point of view they would listen to or have questions other people would not ask. At that time, it was complicated because the watch was super big. It was 40mm, which was big at that time, it was thick. And you had these pushers; nobody knew what they were for. Well, that’s a chronograph, it’s a stopwatch, but why is a stopwatch so big? Now 40mm is on the small side.
It was a good relationship between the sales rep, Mary Bohnman and I, and I was able to romance it because what do you use a stopwatch for? The ego, time your own time, and the importance of Breitling during the first World War with the advent of chronographs on wrists. Breitling started to produce everything. Then I realized I have a talent for this, I evolved very quickly, trying to understand the syntax or the grammar of time.
What do you mean by the grammar of time?
All of the conventions of time have a history…from the 12 hour day to the Gregorian calendar, everything exists for a historical reason. I find it amazing. You can go anywhere in the world, where you don’t speak the language, but everybody understands what time is. If I show you the watch, you and I know and understand the common denominator, which is time.
It is completely imbedded in our cultures. So much so that when France tried to change the clock during the French Revolution to one hundred minutes in an hour and one hundred seconds in a minute, it did not stick. Then you have someone like Pol Pot who tried to eradicate time and have zero time…for obvious reasons this failed too. But I enjoy the history of time immensely.
How is the history of watchmaking captured in a Journe watch?
In a very humble way, because he is the first one to admit that we are dinosaurs, because of the advent of the smart phones and the quartz revolution. Any quartz watch would be 40x more precise than any Journe or Patek or Rolex.
Why make a mechanical watch? Well, because when you have this, it’s almost the last luxury that is almost art. The idea that an artisan can make something functional, that looks effortless, and is wearable; you really have two visions, the technical vision and the aesthetic vision.
When you get involved in a field like watchmaking, what role does history play in your development?
History for us is critical. If FP’s goal is to make a dent in the history of watchmaking, he’s got to know what the history was, otherwise he won’t even know where he is going.
But remember, that was his first trade. Where he started learning about his trade was working for his uncle, restoring clocks from the 18th century, which is the golden era of clockmaking. And I’m not saying repairing; repair is kind of easy. I’m saying restoring, which means you have to bring it back to the original shape it was in, whether or not today we have a better system or better materials that did not exist at that time. So when you are restoring you have to go into the history, go in and see other clocks made by Lepin, Breguet, and anything from the great watchmakers, to see how they did this one, because oh, you are missing a part. What did he intend? You have to reconstruct, thinking the way the other guy was thinking. And a lot of people say who cares? Well, once you can bring back to life a clock that is 200 years old, that has been partly burned or broken, and you can bring it to life, you have really put yourself in the mind of the watchmaker that created this.
These lessons of history all sound like they come through experience and specialized study, but we have not heard any mention of formal schooling, like university studies…how do you view the importance of formal education?
There is no button which you can push and have all the knowledge in this field. It’s easier now with the Internet, but at that time, there was no Internet when I started doing this. So you really have to go to libraries, go to people that might know, or talk about passions with people and they ask, did you read that book? Oh no, then I would write it down and go get it. This is not what you learn at school, I agree with you.
At the same time, school should be able to give you the base and leads…oh I did not know anything about this, that is interesting, and be able to give you a certain base so you could explore further.
What type of collectors are attracted to FP Journe?
We attract a lot of doctors and engineers, and they are usually our best customers because they have the same problems or issues at work. They have problems and solutions. And a doctor or engineer are basically the same. When you go to a doctor and say, “I don’t feel well here”, he has to imagine your gears, what could be causing this pain or this discomfort, and how am I going to fix it? It’s the same thing as an engineer. I want to create this, this is my problem, how to I circumvent this problem, how do I achieve this?
Did you ever have the impulse to become an artist?
Yes of course, but I am not good. When you have a guy like FP, knowing where he comes from, no money, expelled from school at the beginning because he could not work they way they wanted him to, he was already an iconoclast. I imagine that when he goes on the street and sees an FP Journe on someone’s wrist, the amount of time and effort that it took to achieve that, he must have a sense of being proud. I know I would be extremely proud of myself if I could create something and someone from China, says “I really like that”, and for them to buy it.
It’s like you, if someone buys your photographs, it’s important…you photograph for yourself, but at the same time it’s always good to know someone else likes it. Otherwise it’s a lonely, lonely life.
Have you made any mistakes along the way that you regret?
I don’t know…I made a lot of mistakes. I really predicted that the Swatch watch would never sell. But that’s what makes you, the mistakes make you. I am happy with how things turned out, mistakes and all.
What does a typical work week look like for you?
I don’t have a set schedule. I could have an afternoon that I meet a client for golf or tennis. Sometimes my mind is fried and I need to take an afternoon off. But I don’t have a problem working on Saturday or Sunday.
I have two kinds of work…I have a team to watch over, then the rest is meeting people and talking, which is for me not work. I share my passion and our message.
The worst thing for a company like ours, is to have a blurry message.
If you would like to learn more about FP Journe have a look at their website: http://www.fpjourne.com/