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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Nicolas G. Hayek, founder of Swatch Group, 82

The man who is credited with having saved the Swiss watch industry in the age of the “quartz” watch boom has died.

Nicolas Hayek, founder and chairman of the Swatch Group, died of heart failure Monday while working at the company’s headquarters in Biel, Switzerland, according to an announcement on the Swatch Group’s Web site. He was 82.

“Mr. Nicolas G. Hayek's greatest merit was his enormous contribution to the saving of the Swiss watch industry and the foundation and the commercial development of the Swatch Group,” the statement on the company’s Web site read. “(His) extraordinary vision enabled him to realize and ensure the sustainability of a strong watchmaking enterprise with high Swiss added value. He is rightly recognized as a leading entrepreneur in this country.”

The Lebanese-born business consultant and engineer was asked by creditor banks to reorganize and possibly close a group of mechanical watchmakers and component suppliers suffering in the early 1980s as watchmakers from Japan undercut Swiss prices and moved public tastes from mechanical to digital watches. Rather than follow the creditors’ opinion, he and some partners spotted the business's potential and invested in its future. He merged two of its former companies, Asuag and SSIH, which between them owned brands like Omega, Longines and Tissot.

In 1983, he launched the Swatch, a technological innovative watch manufactured far more easily than conventional watches by greatly reducing components and automating many processes. The Swatch soon became prized for its bright bands and novelty faces and developed into a global fashion item.

Over the years, the various manufacturing companies were restructured and, in 1998, renamed Swatch Group after their most familiar product. Brands and watch component companies were also acquired. The company owns 19 brands and sales this year are expected to exceed $5.8 billion.

Hayek had handed the chief executive's role to his son, Nick. However, he remained Swatch Group's chairman.

Read his obituary in The New York Times