Last year, at BaselWorld 2010, Mint interviewed the iconic Nicholas Hayek Sr, doyen of the Swatch Group and without doubt the most influential man in modern watchmaking and retailing. Hayek Sr’s stewardship of the Swiss watch industry in the 1980s turned around an industry struggling against the onslaught of quartz movements. On 28 June 2010 Hayek Sr died after a cardiac arrest while working at the Group headquarters in Biel.
At BaselWorld 2011 there was no escaping Hayek Sr’s legacy. No conversation or presentation, especially those concerning the Swatch Group, was complete without a few moments of reminiscing over Hayek Sr’s lasting legacy. This year, Mint spoke to Marc Alexander Hayek, grandson of the group founder and chief executive of three of the Swatch Group’s prestige brands: Blancpain, Breguet and Jaquet Droz.
Continuing legacy: Marc Alexander Hayek.
Hayek spoke to us about his plans for the brands, Hayek Sr’s enduring legacy, and what this means for the future of the Swatch Group. Edited excerpts.
How is life in the Swatch Group and for you after Hayek Sr?
He was a very pleasant man not only at work, but with his family as well. So he will be missed very much. But his spirit is still here. In all the brands. In all the people. So somehow it doesn’t feel as if he is not here.
Besides being an ambassador for the group as a whole, he was also a personal ambassador for the three brands you now handle. That must be a difficult hole to fill?
Definitely. He had a huge presence. You must remember, however, that a lot of things he planned—technology at Breguet for example—have been set in motion and will carry on. This gives me the freedom to bring my own style of functioning without reinventing things like marketing story or brand identity. He did not leave us with huge problems to solve. It was not like I took over and suddenly thought: Wow! How do I do these things? On the other hand, I think he left us with a lot of ammunition to face any challenge.
So what is the Marc Hayek way of doing things? What are you doing, in your style, to these three brands?
(Laughs) Sure, it is different. I mean the bigger a personality, the more unique personality, the bigger the impact. So it will never be the same. However, growing up, you do pick up things from your father and family. I mean there are genetic similarities. But we are different persons. I am a different person. You bring your own way of doing things to these brands. Taking over as chief executive means not just worrying about one small element of Blancpain or Breguet, but worrying about everything.
You should also remember though that these brands are hundreds of years old. My involvement with brand, if you look at the bigger picture, is just a small fraction of that story. These brands already have a strong direction, a direction that is hundreds of years old. And unless you are completely crazy, you don’t stray from that direction. You don’t destroy these brands. I hope that I can continue to market these brands strongly and positively.
How scary is that responsibility? You have these tremendously old brands being handled by a very young person.
It is scary. But it is also an opportunity. Remember, we do everything with a long-term strategy. So you have the notion of having a lot of time to do things. This helps. Secondly, just because a brand has such a history behind it doesn’t mean you can’t be innovative. Abraham Louis Breguet was one of the most future-oriented, crazy people of his time. This was two hundred years ago. Watchmakers have always been innovative and adventurous. Always looking for new things. Never repeating old things. That is our spirit. And that is how we will keep doing things.
Showpiece collection: The Breguet Classique Hora Mundi
Especially at Breguet and Blancpain, you have to be and think young. With all due respect to the heritage, you need to be contemporary. I read an interview of my grandfather once where he said that everyone has a six-year-old inside their hearts. People will try to take this child away. But never let it go. Never let it die. That is when you are most creative and innovative. Afterwards you have restrictions.
Sure, you must be responsible. But never lose that six-year-old inside you. He had it till his last day. Sometimes, I think he was even younger than I was.
Last year, we were told the group had very agressive plans for Breguet, Blancpain and Jaquet Droz. What is the status today?
Jaquet Droz has a poetic way of telling time. Not just technical or mechanical only. Yes, it has a beautiful movement. But there is more than that. Blancpain also has beautiful movements. But it is not like Jaquet Droz. I want to develop that uniqueness in the brand. Also, this year we have decided to give the brand greater accessibility and stability with an unlimited range. These Jaquet Droz Grande Seconde Quantième models will not be restricted to 88 or eight pieces as usual. They will be available without restriction. And they will have steel cases. We could have used gold cases. That would have just doubled the price. We want to create a strong base for the brand that is accessible and can provide stability. And then these buyers can move on to our more limited pieces and premium movements.
The Blancpain Villeret Time Zone 30 minutes Demi-Savonette
And geographically we can’t be everywhere simultaneously. The brand is not big enough. We will go region by region. It might look like we are slow. But no. We are just growing patiently.
And then Blancpain. Blancpain is like family for me. It is the brand I have been working with for the longest time. I think is it time, in the brand’s life, to bring in more variety. I discovered that in the 1950s and 1960s, Blancpain was known mostly for the Fifty Fathoms divers watch collection. So I want the brand to do both classic designs but also young, sporty models like the Fifty Fathoms. This scares people; they think I want the brand to do everything! Not at all. We are only doing things we already have credibility for doing. And we have done so this year. I think this has given us a lot of confidence.
Also we have integrated our Frederic Piguet movement’s business into the brand. They make movements for us but will continue to supply to other brands. So this means we are well set for the future. We can be innovative with the brand, and not just in the movements, but also in the watch and bezel designs. I am very happy with where we are.
The Jaquet Droz Grande Seconde SW Red Gold Watch.
Breguet is historically known for being the pioneers of watchmaking. Its founder Abraham-Louis Breguet solved problems and introduced innovations like the parachute and the tourbillons. Going forward, I think that should be the role for Breguet. To continue to be the brand that fundamentally changed watchmaking. For instance, currently we are doing a lot of work with the silicium alloy. We are looking at liquid metal. We are looking at magnetism within the movement. Today, I understand the vision of the brand. It has traditional values but also so much modernity.
Is it a challenge to switch between brands, at least from a mental perspective? Do you switch on Breguet and then switch off Blancpain? And then switch on Blancpain and switch off Breguet? How do you manage? These are brands with very individual characteristics.
When we are talking like this, it is very easy to switch from brand to brand. When you are talking about small things. But when I have to think and discuss about the brands and sales and marketing in detail with people, then sometimes, I need one or two days in between to move from brand to brand. Now Blancpain is in my DNA, I don’t even have to think. Breguet I was aware of before I took over, but not in detail. Jaquet Droz is even newer. But now, after some months, I know all of them well. But that mental switching still takes time.
Do you get as much time to spend with your ‘family’ at Blancpain as you used to?
No. Unfortunately. When it comes to Blancpain it is not like work. It is having fun. I used to be accessible to the guys at Blancpain around the clock, any time and any place. And we were friends at work and afterwards. Well, more than friends actually. But now I don’t get that much time. Look at Basel now for instance. Every evening I pop over. And then in the morning I go and have a coffee with everyone. Those guys are always saying: “Nyah. You have left us now eh?”
Has additional work eaten into your passion for racing cars?
Right now, I more or less still manage. Events happen over the weekend and there is a lot of work, with all the staff and journalists and clients and so on. But usually, I go for the racing on Friday and come back on Sunday night. But sometimes, the event happens in New York on a Wednesday. That means the whole week is lost. Well...not lost, but you know what I mean. You’re away!
What has been your experience with India? How important is the Indian business?
Business has been very good, especially Breguet. Breguet has done great work in India. And when I was in Blancpain, I was very jealous of Breguet’s India story. I always wanted to do something like that for India. You know, include half-time zones on a watch. Specific things like that. I still don’t know the market very well. But from a cultural and philosophical perspective, I find it a fascinating, appealing country. I am hoping to visit soon for the first time as president and CEO of the three brands.
One of your most beautiful watches this year is the Breguet Classique Hora Mundi world timer. Were you involved with this watch closely?
Unfortunately, I wish we could have added half-hour time zones to the watch for an Indian audience. My watchmakers were scandalized when I asked them to try. But soon we will do half-hour time zones.
Yes, I was involved very closely. Even before my grandfather died and I took over the brand. But I was involved right from the base movement stage. When I took over Breguet, the basics were ready but the watch wasn’t finished. So there were things to do, decisions to take and priorities to set. The movement itself was functionally ready. I was fascinated by the movement. It is just amazing to see how it works with just a press of the button.
But I did have a lot to do with the designs and materials of the end product.
What are some of your signature touches to the watch?
First of all, the material. Initially, the idea was to make it in white gold, not platinum. White gold and there was a debate about using red or yellow gold. But I said: no. The first piece of this beautiful watch had to be in platinum and red gold. That and some other touches to colours.
Why did you decide to make the watch with multiple choices of dials?
Just to make life a little more difficult for ourselves (laughs).
When we came up with the idea, I foresaw a logistical nightmare. You could say that the Asian version will sell in Asia and the European version in Europe. But what about Asian customers in Europe? It will be interesting to see what happens.
Also we didn’t just make multiple dials by making minor modifications. Each dial has a distinct visual impact. That is what I like about it. It adds more uniqueness and value to the pieces.
The movement inside the watch has a lot of potential. I can think of many ways in which we can work on it, within the Breguet codes, and still come up with superb timepieces. But right now I think we are out of any capacity for two years. So once we satisfy all orders, then we’ll think of more development. Maybe in 2014 or 2015.
Do you think there is further potential for consolidation in the watch business?
Well we’re seeing what is happening to brands like Bulgari.
I don’t think it is good to have just one or two big groups. We need smaller brands. We need entrepreneurs. We need people who create new companies. The industry needs that. I hope we won’t just have one or two large companies.
So you don’t just want to see a BaselWorld where there is only a huge Swatch pavilion and nothing else?
I would love that! (laughs).
No, I am kidding. We need competition. We need other creative people also. Otherwise, where will good new ideas come from?