Zurich: Swatch Group Chairman Nicolas Hayek, one of Switzerland’s most prominent and colourful entrepreneurs, died of heart failure at his workplace on Monday, the company said.
Hayek, who turned 82 in February, was widely credited with saving the Swiss watchmaking industry by reorganising the ailing Asuag and SSIH watch companies, merging them into Swatch Group, which he took over with other investors in 1985. He became chief executive and chairman in 1986.
“With the unexpected death of Nicolas G. Hayek, Switzerland and the Swiss economy lose one of their leading personalities,” Swiss President and economy minister Doris Leuthard said in a statement.
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Hayek was a driving force for the Swiss economy with his courageous engagement for entrepreneurship, she said, adding, “We owe Mr. Hayek a lot.”
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Swiss watch industry, which excelled in complicated mechanical watches, had trouble coping with the advent of highly reliable and much cheaper quartz watches.
Hayek did not hesitate to embrace quartz technology for the Swatch watch, launched in 1983, and the colourful plastic watch quickly became popular all over the world.
Its success drove the recovery of the Swiss watchmaking industry and helped turning the company into the world’s largest watchmaker.
In May Hayek, who was often seen with two or three watches on each wrist, said Swatch was on course for a record year, with sales expected at over 6 billion Swiss francs ($5.5 billion).
“Nicolas G. Hayek’s extraordinary vision enabled him to realise and ensure the sustainability of a strong watchmaking enterprise with high Swiss added value. He is rightly recognised as a leading entrepreneur in this country,” the company said.
Hayek was often critical of financial markets, and last year teamed up with the vice-president of the populist SVP party, Christoph Blocher, and the head of the Social Democrats to call for a firm stance on banking regulation.
Hayek’s son, Nick Hayek, has been CEO of Swatch Group since 2003 and was elected to the board at the last annual general meeting in May.