INTERVIEW: Ginny Wright
Interview by Brynn Wallner, photos by Cobey Arner
Ginny Wright and I were scheduled to meet on a sunny, sultry day in late August, but it was cool and crisp inside AP House, the new(ish) appointment-only concept space by Audemars Piguet. I had arrived a bit early to set up for the interview, making small talk with the brand’s press representatives in a circle of plush seating as we awaited Wright’s arrival. When she walked in, we all stood up, as we would if a member of The Royal Family entered the room – she is the CEO of Audemars Piguet Americas, which, in my eyes, is not far off. But she immediately dispelled any sense of stiff formality with a light, relatable energy. Greeting each of us with pleasantries and handshakes, a waiter then came over to take her drink order. She knew him by name (as she did the rest of the staff and the barista who makes, in her opinion, the “best oat milk latte in New York.”).
Even before her coffee arrived and I could click record on my iPhone, we got right into talking, Wright dropping knowledge and insightful gems in a voice only slightly accented – if you squint and listen closely – with a North Carolina twang. For someone from the American South, she’s a quick talker, having come into her own as a businesswoman in New York, the city she’s called home for more than 10 years. Throughout our conversation, I began to understand how she rose to CEO of the Americas at one of the world’s most coveted watch brands. She’s obviously very hard working and whip-smart, but when you look into her blue eyes (sky blue, not unlike this Royal Oak watch dial), you know that she’s really listening. For Ginny Wright, everyone’s voice matters, and every minute counts.
Brynn Wallner: Have you always been into watches?
Ginny Wright: Yes, surprisingly. In middle school, I was very into Swatch watches. I’d wear four at a time on one wrist. They were fashion accessories to me. My favorite Swatch was the one that commemorated Haley's Comet in 1986. I still have it to this day. Then in high school, my mom bought me a Movado, and in college I wore a Raymond Weil. I always valued watches and loved having them on my wrist.
BW: What are you wearing now?
GW: I’m wearing a Code 11.59. It's a chronograph, rose gold with a midnight blue dial.
BW: It suits you.
GW: What I love about this watch is that I can wear it with a suit, like I am today, or I can wear it with jeans and a t-shirt on the weekend and go to the grocery store.
BW: I love that. High/low. Is this your daily watch?
GW: Yes, I wear it day in and day out. I'm fortunate enough to work for Audemars Piguet, which will loan out different watches to me for special events. For the Royal Oak’s 50th anniversary celebration, I wore the 15550ST.04 – a steel 37mm Royal Oak with this beautiful sky blue dial.
BW: I love that watch. So, tell me a little bit about your upbringing.
GW: I grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina. I was always a go-getter, very self-motivated. I wouldn't say I was a straight-A student, but I was close. I was really into history and student government. I was a cheerleader, but I was a basketball player, too.
BW: You were a jock and a cheerleader.
GW: I was [laughs]. And I had a core group of great girlfriends, who I’m still tight with today. I had a great upbringing – I feel really fortunate. I’d go sailing every summer with my parents, but I’ve also worked every single summer since I was 12 years old.
BW: What was your first job?
GW: I worked at my stepfather’s law office.
BW: A mini paralegal?
GW: A mini paralegal! Doing real estate law, taking big checks to the bank, filing paperwork at the courthouse… I also had a stint as a lifeguard because I was on the swim team, and, in the ‘80s, it was still cool to get a tan.
BW: Where did you go to college?
GW: I went to The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It was an amazing school and I had the most fun four years that anyone could have at college. I double-majored in political science and economics, though – I don’t know why I did that to myself [laughs]. After graduation, I moved to Washington, D.C. for my first job, working on Capitol Hill.
BW: So you thought you were going to be in politics.
GW: I was always torn between fashion and politics. When I was growing up, I loved ELLE, Allure and Vogue. I would rip out my favorite Chanel ads and photos of supermodels and plaster them on my wall. But I’ve also always loved politics, which my mom was involved with. So, bright-eyed, 22-years old coming out of school, I decided to give that a try and wound up working on Capitol Hill for a year and half. My goal was to become a press secretary, but that couldn’t happen in D.C. at that time, so I moved to Atlanta, Georgia for a paid internship with a public relations agency.
BW: And so the pivot began.
GW: I had a natural knack for it. We worked with many different clients in all these different industries – a financial services client, a restaurant, a mall. It was a bit of a renaissance job, and I became a Jack (or Jill) of all trades, eventually moving on to work at other agencies and going in-house. Hungry for more, I was driven to get an MBA with a specific focus on luxury. I chose a school just outside of Paris, ESSEC, that had an MBA program in partnership with LVMH and L’Oreal. This is actually where I discovered Audemars Piguet.
BW: Oh, really?
GW: Yes, a classmate of mine was wearing an AP watch. I was like, woah, there’s something happening here. It’s unique and interesting and… what is it? I didn’t even know how to pronounce the name. At that point in time, I started to learn more about the brand and luxury watchmaking in general. But I also got to explore other realms of luxury: spirits, wine, fashion, cosmetics. I did a project for L’Oreal and they basically offered me a job right out of school.
BW: I read that you started your L’Oreal job in New York City the day that Lehman Brothers crashed in 2008.
GW: I moved to New York on a Saturday and started my job that Monday [the day Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy]. I didn’t realize at the time what was going to happen with the crash of mortgage-backed securities and the ripple effect that all would have… an effect that was almost immediate.
BW: What was it like in New York during that time?
GW: The crash was juxtaposed with a very clean, safe New York. I could walk down the streets at 4AM and feel completely comfortable. I was so excited to be there. But on the flip side, at work, we were all stressed about what was going to happen… Were people going to still buy skincare and makeup? Immediately, we saw a decline and a market that was changing very quickly. Retailers like Bergdorf’s and Saks were discounting high-fashion items you would have never thought would go on sale. At L’Oreal, we had to do significant promotions to make it through the business side of things.
BW: And New York…
GW: New York is so resilient. It morphs and changes as the demand changes. You look at other moments that struck the city, like September 11th or Hurricane Sandy, which I was there for… there’s such a spirit of resilience. You make it through, you fight the next battle.
BW: I feel like your perspective of luxury must have been informed by starting off your career in a place where all of these high-end brands were forced to put things on sale and be as gritty as they had to be…
GW: And these brands made their way back! It was very much the sky is falling, luxury is dead. But, no, it’s cyclical. It came back. It’s funny how luxury can reflect a bit of what’s happening in society. Color exploded in the cosmetics world in 2008 – a trend that lasted until 2016, when the palette became softer and the positioning was more about self-care in response to people dealing with a type of stress they’d never dealt with before.
BW: How was it, working at L’Oreal?
GW: L’Oreal was the best training ground to understand not only client-centric marketing, but also financials. They’re very numbers driven, and they provided me with numerous opportunities to expand my leadership skills. I was so fortunate to work for them – I thought I’d never leave the company!
BW: But then…
GW: I got a call from an executive search firm saying the coolest independent, family owned luxury watch brand was looking for a CEO of the Americas. I was instantly intrigued, and after I signed all the NDAs, the company was revealed to be Audemars Piguet.
BW: Which of course you learned about in Paris.
GW: Yes, and I’ve had the opportunity to meet François [-Henry Bennahmias, CEO of Audemars Piguet]. I’ve seen his leadership style and witnessed how his vision for the company came to fruition. It’s very rare to work at a company where a CEO has that level of impact, transforming not only the brand, but also the way people look at the industry at-large. To be in proximity to that felt like the gift of a lifetime.
BW: How has it been working for Audemars Piguet?
GW: It’s an amazing job, and I’m so fortunate to work with kind, strong people every day. We’ve gone through such growth since I started 18 months ago. We’ve doubled the size of our retail network, focusing more intensely on the retail experience than we had in previous years, just in terms of the number of doors added.
GW: Well, we had a New York boutique. And Bal Harbor. East Hampton opened in 2018, and Boston and Dallas opened in the summer of 2020. Then, we proceeded to open a South Coast Plaza boutique, then one in Las Vegas, one in Beverly Hills… and we opened this beautiful AP House here in the Meatpacking District in New York City. With such rapid growth, we had to focus on putting together the right teams of people who love the brand, the industry and working with clients.
BW: Is this expansion a response to a larger growth in the watch industry and an increased demand for watches?
GW: It’s a blend of a few things. One is that we internalized our business, moving away from wholesale to a direct-to-client retail model. We really wanted to own the relationships with our clients. We know who they are, we know their kids’ names, we know their favorite vacation spot and whether they’re a dog or a cat person.
BW: They text you wrist shots…
GW: All the time! So yes, the growth is about strengthening personal client relationships, but it’s also due to the demand. François has set down such an amazing foundation, enabling us to be there for when clients want to come to us.
BW: I can really tell when someone is an AP client… even when people are paid brand ambassadors, it always feels very natural.
GW: Serena Williams is a true watch collector. She knows reference numbers, she knows calibers. We have celebrity clients who some people assume are paid… and they’re not. We enjoy the 1-to-1 relationships we get to have with all of our clients. François has great relationships, as do I and Michael Friedman [AP’s Head of Complications]...
BW: Not everyone is getting a name drop in a Kendrick Lamar song… AP, Michael Friedman, my friend’s cooler.
GW: I remember the day that song came out. Michael came to me and was like, you need to listen to this. He put earphones in my ears and I was blushing and had chills at the same time because it was so… the rush of emotion, to hear that and be in front of him as he discovered it.
BW: It’s such a testament to the brand because… what other corporate employee is getting a shout-out in a rap song?
GW: Because we talk about these intellectual pursuits with our clients, like time theory, we get to go down rabbit holes of thought. I was talking to Michael [Friedman] about “women’s” watches and he got into how ladies' pendants helped create movements for other watches…
BW: God, I’d love to have a long conversation with you both about women and watches. So, speaking of women [laughs], I’ve been informed that the brand has never used gender labels. As a woman, what is your perspective on clients who do not fit the standard version of what you’d expect a watch collector to be?
GW: Our customer base is extremely diverse and increasingly female. When I started at Audemars Piguet [in 2019], 16% of our clients, at least in North America, were self-purchasing females. Now, it’s 23%. Next year, we’re projecting to get it up to 25%, and by 2030, we hope that at least 30% of our clientele will be self-purchasing women.
BW: What is the approach there?
GW: We have to talk to women differently because women select and purchase watches differently than men do. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. We have Serena Williams, who embodies what we’re trying to get across to women. Not only is she a “greatest of all time” tennis player, but she’s a skillful businesswoman, supporting other women through Serena Ventures. She’s also a mother, a wife, a philanthropist. Women can do it all, and we have intimate events where they can explore the brand on an individual level, suited to what exactly they’re looking for.
BW: And what have you noticed that women are looking for?
GW: This year, I've seen a significant increase in women getting into higher-end complications: tourbillons and perpetual calendars, in particular. When I first started, that wasn’t happening as frequently, but it has been gaining momentum.
BW: Not as many women are settling for quartz watches.
GW: And we have women who want something that will be recognized in a boardroom or during a private equity deal. They have a seat at the table, and Audemars Piguet is one of the brands that their male counterparts are wearing. When they wear AP themselves, women know that not only are they being taken seriously, but maybe they’re being perceived as she knows what she’s doing.
BW: She’s wearing the pants!
GW: She’s got the checkbook. She’s the one making the financial decisions. We have women who want to signify that with a watch. Or they want something to mark an occasion, like the birth of a child… But then there are other women who simply want a watch because it looks great with their Hermès Birkin bag. Again, you just can’t speak to all women the same.
BW: And, like you said, women select and purchase women differently than men do…
GW: Women are always multitasking. They’re barraged with messages on almost a 24-hour basis, especially with social media. So, we try to be more intentional about our marketing, like hosting special events in Los Angeles or San Francisco, starting year-round conversations. We are a brand that cares about the same things they care about, like quality of materials, craftsmanship, luxury.
BW: And, I’ve found that when talking watches with other women, they might not have one size that they go for, one vibe…
GW: Many men are so deeply engaged in the watch world, so it’s a more simple message. They’re perusing our website, they’re clued in. But women… They want to touch, feel, see, discuss the product. We celebrated the 34mm black ceramic Royal Oak with a formal event, giving female clients a preview the day the press release came out. We looked these women in their eyes, described the product in depth, and gave them full attention.
BW: Which is not always the case…
GW: Right. You hear stories about a couple walking into a boutique and a sales associate only addresses the man. But our teams are talking to women. I’ve gotten so many thank you notes from female clients: you brought me in, you customized the experience to me. It makes a difference.
BW: I like to see more women and new collectors coming into the space because it makes room for more creativity. You’ll see styling choices that you’d never expect for certain watches. That’s why it’s cool to have us here! To spice things up. So… contextualized against the greater luxury world, how do you like working specifically with watches?
GW: What I love about it is that… it’s timeless. This is not a trend-driven industry. There is a mix of innovation and culture that steeps in, though, and we try to be reflective of what’s happening societally. We have a gender-fluid approach by virtue of the product. Unlike in fashion, where you have a men’s collection and a women’s collection – with watches, it’s not one or the other. The watch you wear is the watch you wear.
BW: And there’s hip-hop playing on the stereo at AP house.
GW: Goes back to our fun, free spirit and the diversity of the brand.
BW: What’s your favorite vintage watch?
GW: I am a lover of QP. I love a champagne-colored gold.
BW: Like Mark Ronson!
GW: I love the Royal Oak perpetual calendar with the champagne dial… reference 25654. There’s also a 30mm gold on gold Royal Oak that is gorgeous (ref. 14470ba). It’s from 1994, so not totally vintage…
BW: That’s vintage! So do you have any parting words of wisdom? Any advice for women looking to be in a position of leadership?
GW: You need to be a good listener and empathetic. However, you also have to really know your stuff. You have to study and spend that extra time to understand business. But always be curious! Dig deep. Be kind, be respectful, always act with integrity. Above all, be true to who you are as a person. Go after what you want and don’t be afraid.