Keeping watch

 
Alex Doak

Cartier UK’s new managing director tells Alex Doak how he made the unlikely transition from investment banking to top-end luxury goods

IN THE year that Cartier is choosing to focus afresh on its men’s product, it makes plenty of sense for the London arm of Richemont Group’s flagship brand to recruit a regular wolf of industry. But when you learn that Laurent Feniou was cherrypicked from the top spot at Rothschild, it’s admittedly difficult to square this particular HR circle. A managing director of a leading investment bank since 2001, switching to managing director at the darling of the watch and jewellery world? Apparently, it wasn’t quite an HR decision…

“While some people collect paintings, or play golf, my hobby has always been networking,” says a trim, clean-cut Monsieur Feniou from behind his desk, deep in the bowels of Cartier’s stately Bond Street residence. “Setting up intimate events at galleries, putting influential people together – always in a cultural context, and with no hidden agenda.”

The Frenchman is being humble. Feniou is well known in London’s expatriate circles as the founder of the Francais of the Year award, which celebrates leading lights of the capital’s 350,000-or-so community from across La Manche. Past winners have included Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger, the Connaught chef Hélène Darroze and fashion designer Nicole Farhi.

“Out of this, I had the opportunity to meet Arnaud Bamberger [Cartier UK’s flamboyant executive chairman], about 10 years ago and step by step managed to build a relationship with him.”

Feniou’s fellow countryman had found his protégé, and fortunately for both of them, it all fell into place very naturally.

“It was perfect timing. I’d been MD at Rothschild since 2001, I had just reached 40 years of age, it was that sort of time in your life when you wonder where next?”

Even Feniou will admit that despite being in the right place and the right time, it was still a big step sideways – but the corporate cultures he found himself straddling had enough of the old school to be a comfort, right down to the fact that each is referred to as a Maison.

“Both are institutions that cherish their tradition and heritage,” Feniou says with passion. “And both value their personal relationships, enjoying direct contact with their top clients. So, as you can imagine, the transition to Cartier would always be more natural than anywhere else in the luxury sector.”

He has arrived at an interesting time for the Maison – especially where watches are concerned. It may seem strange to say this, given how macho the horological landscape tends to be, but Cartier is focusing on chaps this year, in a big way. This is noteworthy as Cartier can be praised for practically inventing (and sticking to) the idea of the unisex watch collection.

“The principal player in this drive is the new Calibre Diver,” Feniou says, flashing his wrist. “We are extremely proud of this because it is a perfect combination of manly attributes and pursuits: you can wear it on the beach, with jeans, at a club… It even goes well with a suit and tie, like me today.”

You can’t deny it looks good on him – bold, yes, but thanks to its monochrome colourway and surprisingly slimline profile (for a diving watch, at any rate), it’s sober enough to hold its own at the top of the boardroom table. The men’s classically rugged Calibre range has been out since 2010, but with the launch of Cartier’s first water-baby, it is now unabashedly alpha-male.

It doesn’t stop there either. The new Tank MC (Manufacture Cartier) beefs up the most unisex of Cartiers, and the Maison’s front-line captains – Feniou included – are all beginning to deploy the full arsenal of male products in a holistic manner.

“Maybe it’s the investment banker in me,” Feniou says with Gallic verve, “but another important aspect is cufflinks – this and the leather goods, pens… By combining the manly watches with our accessories, we are reminding people of this ‘universe for men’ that has been in Cartier’s history since 1904” (1904 being, incidentally, the name of the in-house-manufactured movement ticking away inside the Diver.)

While there’s plenty to admire in Cartier’s current strategy, it’s difficult not to be equally impressed by the Richemont brand’s new London MD and his success within 40 tender years. As Monsieur Feniou puts it so graciously:

“In the Nineties, banking was the place to be. But now? It’s the golden age of luxury, thanks to the emergence of new wealth in certain parts of the world. And what’s amazing is that I get to contribute twice to two golden ages.”