Watch and Learn: An Interview With Patek Philippe President Larry Pettinelli

For Patek Philippe USA president Larry Pettinelli, “the brand is first and foremost”

This month, high-end Swiss watchmaker Patek Philippe is staging a big to-do in Geneva, where it will introduce a much-anticipated commemorative collection in honor of its 175th anniversary. Larry Pettinelli has been with the company for 26 of those years, including serving as president of the brand’s U.S. division since 2007. (He started as its West Coast sales rep.) Here, Pettinelli talks with JCK about his path to the top, how the company came up with its famous slogan, and whether Patek will ever make a smartwatch.

Can you point to any books that guide your management philosophy?
It’s not that I don’t read those books or agree with some of their philosophies. But this is kind of an old-fashioned company—in the good sense. When I got here I was taught little by little the philosophy of Patek Philippe and the Stern family [owners since 1932]. It’s a long-term vision, about trying to assemble the best team and build trust with retailers and move forward long-term.

I was lucky; I learned from two [past presidents] who were very good at different things. Werner Sonn was a master salesman and knew how to present the brand image. Hank Edelman was really good at how to run a distributorship and how to manage people.

Why was Edelman so successful at managing employees?
The reality is you get a lot of different types of people, and different people are motivated in different ways. Hank was always one to sit down with employees and his door was always open. People would come in and tell him about their children’s soccer match and how their child got an A on a paper. He really cared about people, and you really have to care about them—otherwise there is no loyalty. You can pay people, but you don’t get the best out of them just by throwing money at them.

Werner always said the sales will come if you make a good product. The retailers knew that Werner would be coming back for the next 20 years, so if he sold them a bill of goods he would have to look at that in the case for the next 20 years.

How do you find the right people?
You get a visceral response when you meet somebody. Do you like the person enough to jump in the trench with them? You want them to be a good human being and to be smart. And while we try not to scare people off, we do want them to say if they are willing to be here for the next eight or 10 years, because otherwise we would rather not start the process of training. It’s two to three years before people really understand the brand.

How do you make sure people stay loyal to the company?
You have to do all the things that you would want. You have to help them on the health care side. You need a good pension plan and salary. I think those kind of things take you to the next level, where people say, even if they have a bad day and maybe everything is not 100 percent perfect every day of the week, they want to stay.  

Is there a principle that guides you as a manager?
I try to surround myself with the smartest people and let them do what they do best. So I give them the rope and let them run with it. I don’t think anyone here is afraid to speak their mind, and I think that makes it easier.

As president, you wear a lot of hats. How do you handle it all?
At the beginning of each day, I take a legal pad and make a to-do list. Of course, that gets blown out of the water by 10 a.m. But I figure if I can accomplish the things I need to accomplish, then I can do things like put out fires.

For years, your company has used the slogan, “You never actually own a Patek Philippe, you merely look after it for the next generation.” How did that come about?
I remember it really well. We were looking for a new campaign and we had put out a bid to agencies. The guidelines were to come back with something that is real emotional and hits at the heart of Patek Philippe. The head of the Leagas Delaney agency started interviewing Patek Philippe collectors. And after a while, they all told him the same thing: They want something to hand to their grandchildren. So the agency said, “Let’s put that down on paper.” The slogan really hit at the heart of Patek Philippe. I don’t know the normal shelf life of a tagline, but we launched that sometime in the 1990s and every few years Geneva asks, “Should we change it?” But then they decide it still is very much on point. 

Ref. 5990/1A Men’s Nautilus Travel Time Chronograph in stainless steel with black gradated dial and dual time zone mechanism; $57,300; Patek Philippe, NYC; 212-218-1272;

You rose to the top of this ­divi­sion. Any secret to your success?
Patience. People who come out of college want a meteoric rise to the top. I had great people mentoring me and the more I stayed, the more I realized how much I didn’t know. It took me until my early 40s to realize that; when you are young, you think you know everything. Patience and persistence. You can outwork people, but a lot of people work hard and in the end it’s a marathon.

How does Patek Philippe keep up its brand image, given its history?
I am an employee of the Sterns. The brand is first and foremost. My job is to manage the strategy the Sterns set forth. The good news is the strategy doesn’t change much. It’s always: Don’t do anything trendy, and be about inherent value. This is a slow-moving company in a lot of ways. They don’t want to make a lot of mistakes. It’s a very thoughtful and stable direction, and that is what makes it work.

We don’t go for trends. We could easily have made 45 mm watches. There is talk about smartwatches, and some companies are going to move on that and integrate watches with cellphones and all sorts of gadgets. That is not our business. We want to make watches people will wear 100 years from now. I can’t imagine anyone getting a tech item that will be obsolete six months from now and handing that down to their grandchild.

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