BENNY SHABTAI Raymond Weil's Magical King by Kaya Morgan
For over twenty years, Raymond Weil has grown to become one of the most recognized and best selling brands of fine Swiss watches in the world. And, Benny Shabtai's success has been intertwined with his making all the right choices in life. One of three children, Shabtai was born in Tel Aviv, and raised on an Israeli kibbutz, an early experience that helped shape his lifelong belief that shared effort and hard work were instrumental keys to both life and business.
From his very humble beginnings, Shabtai served a three year draft in the army, and then went on to Paris to visit his father who worked at the Israeli embassy. Fascinated by this new country and wanting to stay, his father helped him secure a job as an embassy bodyguard. "I enjoyed the nightlife, of course," says Shabtai, "but I was more interested in the different cultures the food, clothes, museums and so forth. As a young person, it really opened my horizons." He found himself so interested in this new country that he spent two years living in Paris and traveling extensively around Europe.
During a trip to South Africa, he found himself once again drawn to a new land, and after struggling for a work permit, at 23, Shabtai finally landed a job as a casino croupier in nearby Swaziland. But, less than two years later, he returned home to rejoin the Israeli army to fight in the Middle Eastern war. Upon his discharge from the military, and at the suggestion of his father to take his future more seriously, he headed for America the land of opportunity. And, opportunity it was. While on the plane to New York, he met a kind gentleman who gave him his business card and offered to help Shabtai get a start in this new country.
Three weeks later, Shabtai took him up on the offer and was given his first job in America in the shipping department of the now-defunct Eastman Watch Company, an importer of inexpensive watches from Hong Kong. After less than a year, he moved into a sales position for a medical machine company. But it was not long before his former employer, Eastman, lured him back with the offer of a coveted spot in sales. This new position allowed him to once again travel the world, enhancing his skills in the international world of watches while increasing his earnings and giving him a degree of financial independence.
On his second trip to the industry's international watch and jewelry fair, he told his employer that it was time for him to strike out on his own without becoming a competitor. While riding the train to Basel, he met a man who gave him the name of a man to look for Raymond Weil.
Shabtai carefully searched the sprawling Basel Fair with its overwhelming market of jewelry and timepieces, until he finally met Raymond Weil. He immediately liked the Swiss businessman and his line of watches. By the end of the fair, Shabtai was convinced that he had found his future and persuaded Weil to sell him 400 Raymond Weil watches, investing his entire savings of $10,000. Upon his return to New York, Shabtai quickly sold all 400 watches to just two customers and glimpsed the product's huge potential.
Weil and Shabtai established their market by filling the little-explored niche between base metal and solid gold. They next turned their attention to marketing. "At first, I just wanted to sell and make a profit. I had no interest in marketing," says Shabtai. But slowly he realized the importance of building a strong U.S. market. "In the early 1980s, we shifted the direction from just doing volume to creating the name of Raymond Weil," says Shabtai, who followed a hunch and convinced Weil to let him place a half-page, black-and-white ad in Vogue magazine. Within a few years Shabtai had built the image and branding of Raymond Weil U.S.A. through building relationships with key publishers and obtaining the first ad pages in their target publications. "Not a lot of watch companies advertised then. Our branding principally came through great ad positioning."
Shepherding Weil's unique concept to develop bold and innovative styles that would meet the changing fashion demands fused with modern technology, Shabtai and Weil took great risks in the introduction of these new designs. The first line of watches, Parsifal, a steel and 18-carat gold line adorned with diamonds and mother of pearl dials, was initially rejected by retailers across the country. Yet, persistence coupled with establishing good working relationships turned retainers' opinion around to eventually welcome the upscale watch product line that broke the existing $1,000 retail barrier. Today, Parsifal is Raymond Weil's signature timepiece, accounting for one-third of all U.S. sales.
For Benny Shabtai, it all came back to communal thinking. "Relationships are the most important thing. If you greet people with a smile, stick to your word and work for mutual benefits, they'll trust you. They'll like doing business with you," he says. "Obviously, your product has to be quality, but I believe the strength of any company today is due in a large part to building solid relationships."
While valuing his business connections, Shabtai's real pride comes from the relationships he has nurtured along the way, and having a close-knit family life. He lives in New York City with his wife, Lori, and their three children. Leisure hours are spent pursuing his favorite sporting activities speedboat racing and skiing. Shabtai also devotes himself to a wide range of charities focused on health, education and the welfare of his former homeland. Earlier this year, he hosted a reception and meeting between the King of Pop, Michael Jackson and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to help promote Jackson's Heal the Kids charity.
He has also helped create a New York, Yale students' venture capital enterprise, "Saturn" (translated from the Hebrew word Shabtai), that purchases distressed real estate scheduled to be torn down. The properties are then refurbished and not only serve to strengthen the neighborhood by providing students, blue-collar workers and Section 9 tenants a quality place to live but have repaid over $1 million dollars in back taxes to the city that would otherwise not have been collected.
Benny Shabtai and the Raymond Weil brand continues to astound the jewelry industry with a creative blend of high quality, state-of-the art technology and elegantly styled watches. With 80 distributors in 80 countries, Raymond Weil clearly dominates the industry. The newest line, Don Giovanni, is highly sought after by the "who's who" worldwide. What's next for Shabtai? He just smiles with a twinkle in his eye and isn't telling.
You can find more information on the Raymond Weil line of fine Swiss watches or locate a retailer near you go to www.raymondweil.com
Click on Kaya Morgan to return to author's bio page and other stories.
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