Nick Hayek, CEO of Switzerland’s Swatch Group, the world’s largest watchmaker, has chastised a top New York official, after becoming incensed by recent allegations of mass US spying. Hayek penned a letter on the matter late last year.
Hayek’s comments came in response to a letter from New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who administers the state’s $161 billion (CHF145 billion) pension fund.
DiNapoli had asked Hayek and nine other Olympic sponsors to take a stance against Russia’s recent clampdown on gays ahead of the Winter Games in Sochi.
Most corporate executives balk at open political conflict – but not the cigar-chomping Hayek. He vigorously defended his Omega subsidiary’s role as a politically neutral timekeeper at the Olympics.
But he didn’t stop there: he also gave DiNapoli a piece of his mind over the spying scandal surrounding the US National Security Agency (NSA).
DiNapoli released Hayek’s comments this week, along with those from five other companies that responded to his request.
“As you claim you are an investor with Swatch Group, you should be equally preoccupied about what has been publicised lately: the massive collection of data of the NSA worldwide including Switzerland,” fumed Hayek in a letter dated December 13.
“Swatch Group is an innovative industrial leader; at the heart of our success are very innovative products. The integrity of our confidential information is key to develop successful products. The practices that apparently have become a habit from organisations like the NSA can create huge damage to our company and our shareholders.”
Hayek, whose first language is not English, continued: “As an investor, you should have all interest to speak up loud about such potentially damaging practices coming from the USA.”
New York state’s pension fund, which has a history of shareholder activism, holds around 66,000 Swatch shares, according to a filing in March 2013, worth about $42 million at today’s prices. Swatch’s market cap is nearly CHF30 billion.
Swatch could not immediately be reached for comment.
Those who know Hayek, a former helicopter pilot, are unlikely to be surprised by his diversion. Last year he released a version of the company’s annual report in Swiss German, for which there is no standard written form. He has also berated reporters while smoking a cigar at a press conference.
His comments may look out of place in a conversation about gay rights, but they do point to the real unease many Europeans feel over NSA spying in Europe, especially in a famously data-private country such as Switzerland.
The Swiss, along with the Germans, have reacted badly to the spying revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Reports that the NSA accessed servers of internet powerhouses such as Google and Facebook have also raised concerns about whether the scandal will have a negative impact on US tech companies operating in Europe.
Politics aside, Hayek runs a highly successful company. The Swatch Group said on Wednesday it expected healthy growth this year after watch and jewellery sales helped net profit rise more than 20% in 2013. Net profit was $2.13 billion for the year.
swissinfo.ch and agencies