Barely three days into the job and Jonathan King, Audemars Piguet’s CEO of Southeast Asia, had to host an event with some of the brand’s important clients. But it was no tall order for the man who had lived in Japan for the last five years. “It was like catching up with some old friends, some fast firm new friends — it was wonderful,” shares Jonathan King, who is no stranger to Singapore.
Most of the Englishman’s career moves in the luxury sector was based in the city-state. Prior to his stint as CEO of Audemars Piguet Japan and Korea, he headed operations at Van Cleef & Arpels in Southeast Asia for more than three years. Before that, he spent a year with Singapore-based luxury retailer Valiram Group as its Asia Pacific general manager (2008 to 2009). Barring a two-year stint in Hong Kong with IWC Schaffhausen as its retail and export director (2006 to 2007) and regional brand manager (2007 to 2008), he was IWC Southeast Asia’s regional brand manager. The last meant he was based in Singapore for a little over four years. Go back further, and you’ll discover Jonathan King also worked at the Four Seasons Hotel Singapore as its senior sales and events manager, prior to his year in London with Harrods.
“Singapore is surrounded by countries that are constantly developing and emerging — that’s why I love Southeast Asia,” he says of his affinity for the region. “We’re going to see continued importance and evolution of this 2.5-billion population (if I include India). My task is to see how we can position ourselves to best leverage opportunities that arise in this very dynamic, diverse geographical, geopolitical environment.”
How would you define your leadership style?
I love to think that my team is made up of professionals who know what they’re doing and what they need to do. My job is to facilitate them in that endeavour and to make sure they’ve got the right environment, resources, training and guidance. I like to empower my team: I’d like them to make good decisions based on good reasoning and then learn from whatever the outcome is to make better decisions next time. There are situations where that may not be the best approach. On those instances, I’ll have a more directorial approach. And to be honest, sometimes it just needs a decision. However, having lived in Japan and other Asian countries, I’ve learnt to adapt my leadership style and approach.
Would you say that your leadership style has evolved?
I think it had to. If your leadership style never changes, it may be great for consistency and clarity. However, in an environment that derives success from agility, I’m not sure if I could stay the same from challenge to challenge. You’ve got to adapt and move faster, sometimes break away from a paradigm to maximise an opportunity.
You’ve held diverse portfolios in the luxury industry. How have these roles helped prepare you for your current one?
They have allowed me to make a lot of mistakes and to perhaps better manage my team with better results. The great thing about all of the companies I’ve worked for is, I had a strong supportive team. And that’s why your first question leads me back to this question. If you have a good team that you continue to invest in to take responsibility seriously, that’s the best balance portfolio and risk-reducing scenario you can have. I made lots of mistakes and I tried to use the best resources around me to mitigate those. Whether it’s a cultural, strategic or technical mistake, these are inevitable at the management level. It’s not a question of “if”; it’s “when”. And it’s not just “when”; it’s “what you do next”. I firmly believe there’s a lot of lemons that could be made into lemonade.
How do you think Singapore has evolved since you were last here?
There’s certainly more wealth. I’ve also seen many more young entrepreneurs and more risk-taking — both local and foreign. I see more cutting-edge technology and industry start-ups — some through government initiatives, some because Singapore is a great place to do business and an easy one to start a business. I also see more arts and humanities. I just went to the National Gallery, and it’s beautiful; so is the stunning harbour that’s been 30 years in the making (I was fortunate to see it being made) and boasts a world-class vista. How can anyone not see that as a steady progression forward?
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What are some challenges you anticipate on the horizon?
There’s an enormous amount of counterfeit. We’ve spent a lot of time and energy being as proactive as we can to identify and highlight intellectual property. That’s a growing threat because selling a fake watch as a known fake watch at a tiny price runs in conflict with our intellectual property, design and copyright, especially when there are genuine customers who are paying significant money for fraudulent fakes. Counterfeit is a threat to any industry where there are strong proprietary and design elements. When I speak to customers, I learn they feel a little disappointed there’s been a lot of oversupply, perhaps [due to] excessively fast growth by a number of brands. That being said, I tend not to think of the doom and gloom on the horizon. I think of changes that will occur as a result of interesting developments in other fields. We need to be adaptable and be mindful of history. We also need to understand it’s the market that determines the direction and it’s customers who tell us what they like and dislike. If we keep our eyes and ears open, it will not be a horizon of challenges. I see it as a horizon of impacts, adjustments, functioning and innovation.
E-commerce is fast becoming a focus for luxury watch and jewellery makers. How does Audemars Piguet intend to tackle this?
There are so many interesting areas: You’ve got pure e-commerce, you’ve got pre-owned, you’ve got auction — it’s really an interesting spectrum of areas. [Audemars Piguet is not directly involved in] any of those [yet], but these are areas we are looking very closely at. For us, the goal is the consumer and he has to be at the centre of it. The experience has to add something. Does it add enjoyment? Does it add a richer experience? Does it add some facet from which value can be derived? If it ticks those boxes, I think it’s something we would do. But it’s very much a work in progress. By that, I‘m not suggesting it is something that would be launched, but we are still understanding the causes and effects. It cannot be moving one step forward; we have to think three or four steps beyond that next step. I know we are looking into it very closely but no decisions have been made.
Your thoughts on the millennial consumer?
I’ve got plenty of friends my age who act like millennials. And I use them as my test bait. The truth is, there are behavioural changes irrespective of the age bracket. We have dramatic change of behaviours even among people who weren’t born in the era of the smartphone. Before we talk about a generation who have no, or less, propensity to brand loyalty or who have never owned a car — before we get to that stage, we should look at the era now…I see cyclical environments: When the pendulum swings strongly one way, often you’ll see a gap emerge at the other end of the spectrum. I don’t see “how to anticipate a new generation that has very different propensities” as something black and white. I see it as trying to understand their motivation — what drives them? What could be on the other side of that spectrum to emerge due to that swing? I think the jury is still out on that.
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