The death of Swatch founder Nicolas Hayek dominated Swiss newspapers on Tuesday, with commentators paying tribute to Switzerland’s “greatest entrepreneur”.
Several papers devoted their entire front pages to Hayek, a dual Swiss-Lebanese national who is credited with reinventing the Swiss watch industry in the 1980s with the introduction of his cheap and colourful timepieces.
Le Temps newspaper gave over its first three pages to the man. Its editorial commented that Hayek had “pushed the great wheel of progress when it was blocked by obstacles” and “entered into the history books, among the greatest entrepreneurs of the 20th century”.
“He who would become the emperor of the Swatch Group was primarily its messiah, then the entrepreneur who succeed in a restructuring what everyone thought was a lost cause. He renewed the mechanical [watchmaking] tradition, re-established the supremacy of Omega, made Breguet rise again from the ashes, opened prestigious boutiques.”
“The defeats of the watch industry were forgotten. The conquest of the world continued. It would never stop,” said Le Temps.
Hayek’s achievements were detailed in a number of pages in the tabloid Blick, under the headline: “Thanks for Swatch! Thanks for Smart! Thanks for everything!”
For the Blick, Hayek had no parallel. “Yesterday the greatest entrepreneur of Switzerland died, one of the most impressive personalities this country has ever known.”
“What made the Hayek phenomenon?” asked the Blick. “His merits, his successes, his experience, his commitment, his ideas. Of course. But at the end of the day it was one thing above all: the man Hayek. The warmth, the curiosity he showed other people, and that boyish smile on his face as he listened to you.”
Its editorial noted: “We should all try to be a little bit like Hayek. We don’t have to save the watch industry, but we should see him as a great example and try to imitate him a little. His courage, for instance. He kept trying new things. He fought for his visions, for Smart, for example, in which no one else believed. Or his engagement.”
The Tages-Anzeiger’s Andreas Flütsch explained that the crisis in the Swiss watch industry at the beginning of the 1980s was “fertile ground” for Hayek’s rise.
Hayek was called on as a consultant by the heads of the watch concerns Asuag and SSIH to determine the causes of the industry’s decline and how it might be rescued.
“The watch crisis of the 1980s was a similar shock for Switzerland as the near death experience of UBS… In this emergency situation, Hayek… managed to get through to the bankers. Asuag and SSIH merged to become the SMH group and the banks turned the debts into equity. Hayek and other entrepreneurs who were prepared to take a risk were able to snap up shares at almost symbolic prices,” recalled Flütsch.
“Hayek, whose charisma tended to provoke scepticism and irritation in German-speaking Switzerland, soon won respect thanks to his success. He took over control of SMH, and after two years controlled most of the shares. Where others just saw debris, Hayek… developed a vision which recalls those of industrial founders like Sulzer and Brown Boveri.”
By settling Swatch and different brands of the Swatch Group in the bilingual town of Biel/Bienne, it became de facto the capital of the watchmaking world.
“Nicolas G. Hayek was not named the head of the Swiss watch industry for nothing,” said his local Bieler Tagblatt newspaper.
“He was a strong boss. He rubbed some up the wrong way, but he showed concern for his 20,000 workers. Despite a slump in turnover in 2009, there was only sporadic short-time working in the Swatch Group and no one lost their job because of the economic situation.”
Fribourg’s La Liberté newspaper commented that Hayek liked to see himself as a sort of “artist-entrepreneur”.
“He believed that a boss needed to maintain his childhood fantasy. Decorated with the [French national] Legion d’honneur and an honorary citizen of Biel/Bienne, Nicholas Hayek seemed to take as much pleasure in being among the great and the good of the world as to marvel at the work of a watchmaker.”
Swatch Group spokeswoman Béatrice Hoswald said tributes had been flowing in from around the globe. “That shows how much he was loved and appreciated,” she said.
Abroad, Haig Simonian in the Financial Times said Hayek’s death “robs Switzerland of one of its most inventive business leaders”.
“He also gained renown as a fierce critic of financial analysts and overpaid bankers, sometimes at the last minute changing the date on which he announced his company’s results to wrong-foot hedge fund managers.”
The New York Times called him a “flamboyant figure with a roguish sense of humour” and echoed a description by the Harvard Business Review 1993 of him as “a rare phenomenon in Europe — a genuine business celebrity”.
“Nicolas. G. Hayek leaves a gap in the family he loved, in Swatch, the enterprise that he built up, in industry, which he often criticised, and in the country to which he gave so much,” concluded the Blick.
Jessica Dacey and Morven McLean, swissinfo.ch
The Swatch Group
The Swatch Group is the world's number one manufacturer of finished watches.
Among the group's brands are: Swatch, Omega, Tissot, Longines and Breguet.
The group's annual turnover is more than SFr5 billion ($4.6 billion). It has 24,000 employees.
Following Hayek's death, shares in the company were down by 1.66 per cent to SFr320 on the Swiss Stock Exchange on Tuesday morning.
Nicolas G. Hayek
Born in Beirut in 1928, Nicolas G. Hayek emigrated to France in 1940, and then to Switzerland nine years later. In the 1950s he led various companies, including his ailing father-in-law’s firm, which produced brake pads for trains.
In 1957 he founded Hayek Engineering, which today has offices in Zurich as well as Germany and France.
Hayek played a decisive role in reorganising and merging the ASUAG and SSIH watch groups at the beginning of the 1980s when the Swiss watch industry was in crisis.
With a group of investors he took over a majority shareholding in what is now the Swatch Group in 1985.
Over the years, Hayek has been presented with a number of prestigious academic and public awards.
He was made an officer of the Légion d'Honneur of France at the end of 2003.
In 2008 Hayek became an honorary citizen of the watch-making town of Biel and was cited as the saviour of the Swiss watch industry.