The pairing of heartwarming family photos and timeless watches to be passed on to the next generation has been the foundation of Patek Philippe’s advertising campaigns for over two decades.

Fathers and their sons, mothers and their daughters – the Generations campaign has that strong emotional impact which reminds us about what matters most in our lives: our relationships.

Beyond the posters and ads, however, Patek Philippe’s culture of cultivating meaningful relationships extends far deeper.

A conversation with Patek Philippe president and member of the management committee, Thierry Stern, who represents the fourth generation to take charge of the last independent, family-owned Genevan manufacture, reveals that good relationships within the company as well as externally are just as important as their timeless watches.

Stern, who was in Kuala Lumpur for the recent re-opening of Patek Philippe’s Suria KLCC store, spoke first about how the brand’s relationship with clients would be enhanced.

“When they come here it’s not just to see a bigger boutique, it’s also to see and feel the Patek atmosphere. It’s nice also because it’s shared with the retailers. It’s important that the customer can really feel ‘it’s my place’, they should be proud to be part of the Patek Philippe family and most importantly when they come, they should also feel free to spend a nice moment at the boutique. They should not feel like retailers or sales people will jump on them or sell them something,” he said.

Thierry Stern says of the new boutique in Suria KLCC: ‘Five years ago we wouldn’t have been dreaming about having such a place, it’s quite fantastic.’ Photo: The Star/Azman Ghani

“By coming here, they will have the opportunity to just take their time, have a cup of tea or coffee and ask as many questions as they want. Normally the sales people are all very well-trained and they are able to answer all the questions. But if they don’t have the answer, they will find it and come back to you, and that’s what our clients expect,” he said.

The brand’s longstanding partnership with Cortina Watch, which spans over 40 years, is an important relationship that has grown in leaps and bounds, culminating in some of the most beautiful Patek Philippe boutiques, one of them being the Suria KLCC outlet.

The first thing to catch your eye about the boutique that fronts the Ramlee entrance of the mall is an impressive 8.4m external facade with the brand’s emblematic Calatrava cross etched in glass and painted in textured gold.

As the customer enters the boutique – now an expansive 188sq m (2,024sq ft), which is over 46.4sq m larger than its previous location – he or she will marvel at the impressive space, elegantly furnished with precious woods, plush leather upholstery, custom-made glass, Baccarat crystals and burnished brass finishing.

“It’s quite important to evolve especially now as there’s a lot of competition, but if you’re working with Patek Philippe, we try together with Cortina to bring the brand to a level that the client will expect,” said Stern.

“KLCC is the right place, it’s a very good location. It’s motivating for the customers and the retailer. Each of us are very happy, five years ago we wouldn’t have been dreaming about having such a place, it’s quite fantastic,” Stern said.

As he went on to discuss one of his favourite new pieces, the Ref. 5072 Aquanaut Luce Haute Joaillerie, a beautiful watch with an engraved mother-of-pearl dial with a checkerboard pattern, one of Stern’s most important relationships comes up: his wife, Sandrine Stern, the head of creation at Patek Philippe.

“When you create something like an Aquanaut for ladies, it has to be done for ladies. That means you have to really think only for women and not to try to adapt a masculine design for feminine wrists. That’s where my wife is quite good, she is the head of the creation department. I’ve always said you have not to make a watch that you are not willing to wear, not the watch that you think we would have in the collection. She has enough knowledge; she is a pure product of 19 years of working with Patek,” he said.

Stern goes on to explain the intricate process that goes into the creation of Patek Philippe’s watches as he picks up a new self-winding perpetual calendar with a contemporary “vintage” style, the Ref. 5320G.

The Patek Phillipe Ref. 5072 Aquanaut Luce Haute Joaillerie

Top-notch craftsmanship and intricate watchmaking know-how are a given when it comes to creating a watch like this, but before the parts are even assembled, a lot of research has to happen, and determining how a watch will fare in a global market depends heavily on the feedback from various countries.

This feedback will only make its way back to the manufacture through the bonds that have been cultivated through decades of maintaining good relationships with retailers and customers.

“The Aquanaut is a beautiful piece. It’s always the same, you have to find colours that will be suitable for many different types of wrists and many different types of markets. This is the most difficult part for Patek Philippe,” explained Stern.

“I’m not able to produce one collection per market, I need to produce one collection for the world and this collection has to be suitable for a Malaysian wrist or on the total opposite, a German wrist,” he added.

“I think the secret is to travel the world, listen to your customer, listen really good to the network and the retailers. If you do it correctly, your job, when you come back to Geneva, you have enough information to do something with your creativity,” said Stern.

Customers, retailers and co-workers aside, the making of leaders who will eventually helm the business are the backbone of an establishment like Patek Philippe, which is why good mentors are an important part of anyone’s life.

For Stern, he counts himself lucky to have his father, Philippe, the honorary president of Patek Philippe, as one of his mentors.

“I was lucky enough to work with my dad. It’s not in every family business you have a chance to work for so long with your parents. Sometimes, sadly, they pass away before, and you need to take back the business without experience,” said Stern, who joined the company in 1990 as an administrative employee.

In 2009, after working in numerous departments within the brand and various countries, he took over the presidency from his father, Philippe.

“For me, I think my dad was for sure the best mentor I had. I could really see the way he was working when I was a child, by sitting and just listening. When we worked together he gave me good advice, he let me also gain my own experience. My mistakes, not the big ones, he was always kind enough to always explain why,” said Stern.

“That’s also an important part. It’s not just to say you cannot do it because it will not work, you should say you cannot do it because of these reasons,” he added.

Those who worked closely with his father and who had a positive influence on Stern include Alan Banbury who was in charge of the museum and an area manager at the time.

“He was a very knowledgeable person about watches and also very nice in terms of relationships. That’s why he was good working as an area manager. I think I learned a lot by travelling, how to treat the clients, how to behave. That’s important especially for Patek, we know that we need to be always travelling, not only staying in Geneva,” said Stern.

The third person he lists as an important mentor is the man he describes as “the right hand of my dad”, Gerald Buchs.

“At the time, he was a tough person. He was a colonel in the army so he was very strict and he taught me the way to behave internally at Patek Philippe,” he said, sharing that Buchs was the head of creation and on the board of management.

Chuckling, Stern treated us to an anecdote from his younger days.

“One day – I was young – I came in and I didn’t have a suit on. It was Friday or something like this, I was well-dressed but no suit,” he began. “He called me directly and said, ‘What are you doing, can you see how you’re dressed?’

The new perpetual calendar from Patek Philippe, the ref 5320G

“When you meet clients you should always be dressed in a suit, he was very strict about that. I left and he said, ‘Where are you going?’ and I said I was going back to work. But he told me, ‘No, you go home and you change, and you come back’,” said Stern.

Stern shakes his head a little at the memory, adding that Buchs was “maybe too tough, but he was fair”.

“He was very strict and he was right. It was a certain way to behave. He was also dealing with creation at one time. I could see how tough he was also, the ideas that he had in mind, you have to push people when you have an idea, always say it is possible even when everyone will tell you it’s not possible,” said Stern.

Stern spent two years in New York at the Henry Stern Watch Agency, one of the largest Patek Philippe subsidiaries, visiting retailers and getting involved in sales, inventory management for bracelets and components, as well as after-sales service and business relations.

“The person in charge at the time was Hank Edelman. I see him as a chess player. He was good at teaching me to anticipate moves way in advance. He taught me a lot about handling retailers. In the States, at the time, we had 70 to 80 retailers and we wanted to visit all of them all the time for two years,” he added.

From how to travel efficiently (hand luggage, always) to how to deal with retailers who weren’t playing the game, Stern learned invaluable practical life lessons to important business strategies from Edelman.

Having had the privilege to work with such prolific individuals who shaped him into the leader he is today, it seemed only fitting to ask Stern about his own leadership style.

“When my father took over there were 150 people. When my father gave me (the company), we were 1,500. The world had changed. For me, I could not run operations on my own as my dad did. It was too big, the knowledge that was required for this level, I didn’t have it. I’m more on the product level, I could not be good at everything especially when the company was becoming bigger and bigger,” he said.

Stern credits the people around him for the company’s success.

“Today, the secret of Patek is to count on the people around you, professional people. They are the most important people. At the end of the day, I think the one that is not very useful is myself,” he said, laughing.

“Everybody knows what to do, they are all professional, direction has been given, the DNA of the brand I think they all have it. For me, leadership is about being surrounded by great people, it’s a matter of trust for sure. It takes time, but when it’s done you can achieve anything,” added Stern.

While Stern himself always had a keen interest in joining the company, he says it remains to be seen as to whether his sons will follow in the same path.

“The older one, he worked for a week at Patek, not everywhere in the company and he liked it but it’s not for me, he said. He’s more interested in mathematics, computers, technology and economics too. That’s something for the future. It can be very interesting,” he said.

His younger son, who is 14, has a keen interest in watches and Stern sees a lot of himself in the boy.

“He is a little bit like me. Two years (ago) I asked him what he would like to do and he said I would like to do watches,” said Stern. “His mind is quite clear, he likes watches, it’s quite funny actually, I’ve never pushed him but he likes it and he’s a perfectionist,” said Stern.

“I must say he’s a bit like my wife, very meticulous, very square. It’s a very good quality. But we will see, they’re still young and they will have to make their own choices. I will never push them if they’re not willing. I cannot imagine one of them taking over without pleasure. I will not allow it. They also need to live their lives,” he added.

Thierry Stern and wife Sandrine.