Modest director of luxury brand Rolex dies

Harry Borer made sure that none of his employees would lose their jobs when he sold the Rolex's Biel workshops Marc Schibler

Harry Borer, the long-time director of the Swiss luxury watch brand Rolex, has died at the age of 89. He was a modest man who shunned the limelight despite Rolex’s emphasis on money and status.

This content was published on June 16, 2017 - 17:31

Borer’s death at the beginning of the week was announced by his family on Thursday. He was at the helm of Rolex from 1967 to 2001, during which time the company grew from 150 employees to 2,500.

“I’ve simply done my job. Work is our family tradition,” said Borer in 2012 when he was awarded Honorary Citizenship of Biel/Bienne, his home town. It was one of his rare forays into public life. He rarely granted interviews, and then mainly to the local press. He did not attend society events.

“He would rather spend time in the canteen with his employees, using these chats to develop ideas,” said Mario Cortesi, one of the few journalists to have interviewed Borer.

Bypassing watch crisis 

Watches were in the family. Borer’s father was the head of Aegler in Biel, a watch movement supplier. In the 1930s, he designed the first automatic watch movement, the forerunner of the Rolex Perpetual. This led to Borer senior taking over the management of Rolex in 1944.

The company was owned at at the time by a foundation set up by the childless Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf.

Harry, equipped with a doctorate in law and economics, took over in 1967. He steered the company through the watch crisis of the 1970s, which saw many Swiss company suffer because their products were too expensive to compete on the international market. He put the emphasis on complex, mechanical watches.

“We didn’t experience any crisis for automatic, mechanical watches and never had to make any cuts in our mechanical or watchmaking departments,” Borer told the local press when asked about these times.

In 2004 he sold his Biel workshops to the foundation in Geneva, a transaction which made him an estimated CHF2 billion ($2 billion).

On his wealth, Borer said: “Experience has shown that too much showing off is a cover for weakness. My motto has always been, there is always more than just appearances. This is also the case for my family,” he told the Bieler Tagblatt.

Son Daniel Borer, a well-known investor, still works as a general practitioner while his daughter Franziska manages the family foundations, which support among others a children’s hospital, a women’s refuge, a professorship to study bees and cultural events. One of the foundations is called Trix after another daughter, Beatrice, who died of leukaemia before she could start her studies.

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