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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Some Thoughts on Nicolas Hayek Sr.

 By William George Shuster

A powerful presence, suddenly gone. That’s what the unexpected death, by heart attack, of Nicolas Hayek, Sr., is like. It’s as if the mighty Matterhorn suddenly wasn’t there. Disappeared. Certainly, Hayek stood out among Swiss watchmakers like that famous peak does among the Swiss Alps.

That may sound grandiose—but Hayek, 82—chairman of the Swatch Group, the world’s biggest watchmaker, and the person who revitalized the Swiss watch industry—was a larger-than-life personality in the watch business. The center of attention wherever he went.

That was definitely the case at BaselWorld, the world’s largest and most important watch trade show, held annually in the Rhine River city of Basel, Switzerland. This is where, as the watch editor for JCK magazine, I most often had opportunities to see, interview or talk to him. Many of my memories of him there also exemplify aspects of the man and his professional life, such as:

* The many Swatch Group brands’ press conferences and events, most led by the multi-lingual Hayek, in Swatch Plaza (located in the center of the fair’s main watch building, with its 18 popular, mid-price and luxury watch brands located around the square). Hayek’s dominance of those press conferences and the location of Swatch Plaza itself were indicative the strength and importance of the man and his company to the Swiss watch industry.

* Patiently, happily posing for pictures for the frequent, small tumults of photographers and journalists that surrounded him, such as when he unveiled a replica of the famous "Marie-Antoinette” pocket watch (recreated by Swatch group-owned Breguet) at Baselworld 2008 or when he brought together astronauts and other heroes of the space age to mark the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing at BaselWorld 2009.

* Journalists knew he was also a “good interview,” with informed, intelligent and sometimes provocative comments. He knew how to charm and intimidate interviewers, keeping them on their game.

* Driving a “Moon Buggy,” with Gene Cernan, the last astronaut to leave the moon, onto Swatch Plaza, at BaselWorld 2004 at an Omega press conference. That not only demonstrated Hayek’s showmanship, but also underlined the interest of this engineer—who also fathered the Smart Car and had created a company in 2007 to develop “clean power” fuel cells for cars—in innovative technology.

* Wearing two or more watches on each wrist, with the cuffs of his shirts rolled up, to show off the various timepieces of Swatch Group’s 18 brands.

* Presenting Swatch Group’s watch brands’ debuts to leading Swiss government officials on BaselWorld’s opening day. Hayek was respected in the Swiss government for reviving the Swiss watch industry—a major pillar of the Swiss economy—in the 1980s, with innovative production and promotion of the popular, fashionable plastic-cased Swatch watch (still a best-seller with more than 300 million sold) and for the strength of Swatch Group, named for it.

Hayek’s dominance and actions didn’t please all in the Swiss watch industry. One sometimes heard complaints at BaselWorld by some smaller watchmakers about what they saw as the influence of Hayek, and Swatch Group, on the industry.

Undeniably, though, Hayek was a strong force within the Swiss watch industry, affecting it and the international watch industry—including its retailers and customers—through his company, his products, his pronouncements, his strong beliefs and his actions now and for years to come. That’s an impressive epitaph for any entrepreneur.

William George Shuster is a multi-award winning writer—including three Jesse H. Neal Award, business journalism's highest honor. He has 40 years experience as a journalist, author and editor. He is considered one of the world’s top watch industry journalists, covering the industry for JCK magazine and its sister publications for nearly 29 years. He was kind enough to share his thoughts of Nicolas Hayek, Sr. for the Jewelry News Network.

Images of Mr. Hayek are from the Swatch Group Web site.