May 29, 2018
Audemars Piguet’s CLO Nicolas Burgener Dives Deep into Business and Tax Laws
Nicolas Burgener has always been interested in what lies just beyond. As a child, he scaled the snowy peaks of the Swiss Alps in his backyard but yearned to search the vast ocean to find new species as a professional scuba diver, like his hero Captain Jacques Cousteau. Now as chief legal officer at Audemars Piguet, the luxury watch manufacturer, he dives into the world of business and tax laws, the murky depths of which rival any unexplored cavern, to help it steer clear of potential risks.
After spending a few years in a private practice law firm, Burgener enrolled in the Swiss Tax Academy to become a tax expert. Compared to a more traditional MBA, it may seem too specialized. However, the granular knowledge is critical for him to provide advice on M&A deals. His knowledge of arcane tax helps him uncover M&A problems more readily than other in-house counsel can.
Beyond propelling his career, he chose to specialize tax law because he enjoys it. "I had a lot of interest in this specific field, which I found complicated but intellectually stimulating," he recalls. This interest partly stems from experience at Oberson Abels SA, one of Switzerland's top corporate tax law firms, where he learned about the legal and the accounting sides of business.
Becoming a tax expert also makes him in high demand: Only 20 people in Switzerland earned this certificate the same year he did. Unsurprisingly, recruiters offered him several roles, but he turned them down because the companies weren't appealing; they either had lackluster products or uninspired business models.
The company he joined had to be entrepreneurial, and Audemars Piguet fit that mold. He admired the craftsmanship of their handmade watches and jumped at the opportunity to help build its legal department from the ground up.
Twelve years and two promotions later, Burgener is still enthralled by the boundless opportunities at the upscale watch company. "We are active in production, distribution, retail, and therefore, we really touch on all fields of law," he says. It's a dynamic workforce that at times feels like a startup, even though it has been in business for almost 150 years.
To stay relevant and maintain brand loyalty in today's shifting markets, his company strategically engages with their loyal community on social media and at in-person events, ranging from art exhibits in Basel, Hong-Kong, Miami to golf invitationals in Dubai or in the United States. But no matter which modern marketing techniques they use, Audemars Piguet's brand stays true to its roots.
Originally founded in 1875, Audemars Piguet is "the only high-end watchmaking company that's still in the hands of its founding families," Burgener proudly notes. Because many of the shareholders and board members are from these families, he has formed personal relationships with them over the years. Working closely with the people whose ancestors' legacy is in his care might make his job seem stressful since he can see how his decisions directly impact them. But that's why it's so meaningful to him — his integral role in the company makes him feel like he's part of the family.
This bond has strengthened over the years as Burgener has taken on new responsibilities. Apart from chief legal officer, he is also a member of the group executive committee and secretary of the board. Each role has its own challenge. However, the most difficult part is remembering to wear only one hat at a time, even if that means setting aside his legal one altogether. In these cases, the right solution is more important than his expertise. "I think it's perfectly fine not to follow the best option from a legal point of view, provided that proper assessment was made beforehand," he explains.
When mitigating risks in his own department, such as preparing for GDPR and protecting trademarks, Burgener attributes their success to the executive committee level's agile management style. As members of the C-suite, he and his colleagues stay aware of risks and can respond to potential disasters quickly. "We can organize many types of trainings throughout the group and raise awareness about these specific risks," Burgener says.
Burgener grew up in Sion, reputed as "the most sun-blessed town of Switzerland." The Alpine city is also a ski utopia that's a contender for the 2026 Winter Olympics. He spent most of his free time in his youth on the slopes, later becoming a skiing and snowboarding instructor when he was 16.
After trading his ski pass for a student ID, he matriculated in Fribourg, Switzerland, and then studied law in Tuebingen, Germany, where he concentrated on European law. Earning a law degree expanded his career options and put him at the "crossroads of different disciplines," he explains, because employers know that lawyers have strong analytical and communication skills. Burgener, always with an eye for adventure, spent a few years in private practice but found it confining. In-house law, of all places, provided the varied experience he craved. His initial interest in tax law has metastasized into running a legacy brand where he can work in several disciplines and immerse himself in the company's culture. While it's not exactly cruising the open seas, he can at least captain a crew that's as close as family.
Getting to know… Nicolas Burgener
Do you have any hobbies? What do you do for fun?
I just signed up for a 31-KM trial [race] in the Alps this summer. So it's keeping me busy, as I have to train and it takes place this summer in August.
Otherwise, I love cooking for family and friends. And discovering new wines.
What's your favorite wine?
I have many! When I grew up, my family and everybody has vineyards and I used to make my own wine with my father. Red wines, such as Merlot and Syrah, are probably my favorite.
Any upcoming travel plans?
Iceland is on my wish list. It's always something I'm always pushing for, but I'm too busy to travel to Iceland this year.
What's the one thing you learned in law school that you still use today?
It's not something about the content or a lesson that we had, but I would say don't rest on your laurels. I tell my team you have to train every single day as athletes do. This is something I took from law school.—by Karmen Fox, Web Content Editor, ACC Docket