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Hayek books his home in horology history

Nicolas G. Hayek in his element with a clutch of watches.

(Swatch Group)

Switzerland's leading watch entrepreneur, Nicolas G. Hayek, gives away some thought-provoking secrets in a new book that is already a bestseller in the country.

Hayek, who has been feted as the saviour of Switzerland's watch industry, has one foible in that he loves it when people pay him attention.

"One of my big character weaknesses is that I need more recognition than other people," he admits in the book Nicolas G. Hayek: Views of a Thoroughbred Entrepreneur.

And he's already told work colleagues at the Swatch Group where he is chairman what he'd like to see written on his gravestone: "He was always fair or always tried to be fair."

At the age of 77, Hayek, who is a household name in Switzerland, has set the record straight about his long and successful career.

It is admittedly very one-sided but it does not pretend to be anything else. In short, anyone who is interested in the recent history of watch making in Switzerland will not be disappointed.

Difficult start

He weaves a narrative around his difficult start as a consultant, the call from the banks to rescue the Swiss watch industry and the creation of a group that has long become the largest watch making concern in the world.

Swiss National Day - August 1- in 1957 was not one that Hayek remembers with any joy. He'd set himself up in a tiny Zurich office that had no telephone because he couldn't afford one. He went to the post office across the street to make his calls.

While the people were out dancing in the streets, Hayek was crying because no orders for his services were coming in and the promises of work were continually pushed back.

"What an idiot I am! You have two children and a wife and rush into such an adventure. You had a secure job and now all three firms that promised you contracts, have left you in the lurch."

The family had to pawn the furniture and the bank approved a credit of SFr4,000.

"That was the first and last time that I asked for a loan from a bank or anyone else. Thank God the hard times didn't last long," he writes.

But Hayek really made a name for himself when he was called in to try to save the watch industry that had missed the boat of digitalisation and left it to the Japanese.

Ship's captain

He described to swissinfo at Swatch headquarters in Biel that his role was that of a ship's captain in a very big tempest.

"Nobody knew what to do and everybody was scared that they were going to die and everybody was giving up.

"It was to say "No", we can be better, and not only by saying "No" we can do better, by showing the way what to do to get better. That was the role that was needed – leadership."

Hayek has never made any bones about what he considers his top priority – the product, the product and once again the product.

And he is highly critical of companies that cut jobs, make people redundant or continually restructure.

"Many, many managers in very big companies would reorganise their companies six times every year. They organise, reorganise, disorganise and then they forget about the main problem which is the product.

Hayek explains that people should not be considered a cost factor in a company because they are the ones that form a family. And it is that family that has to come up with the product.

Analytical strength

One of his strengths, he told swissinfo, is analysing a situation very quickly and understanding well in advance how the market and industry are going to behave.

"When you see these things, you can react to them. You can prepare and do the right thing. That's one reason for our success. The second is giving confidence and motivating people.

"This family that are the people working in this company should feel very strong when you are around, should feel really that we are going to win the battle. If you can give this feeling to everybody, then you always win," he said.

His strategy of being the best in the world is based on not only motivating people but also keeping innovation at a very high level, taking everyone seriously whatever their ideas.

He says we should keep the fantasies and ideas we had as children playing on the beach.

Keep fantasy

"We don't kill creativity in this company. We let it really grow... That's why I keep saying you should keep the fantasy of your six years. It's not a joke I'm making. It's real."

While in recent years, the money-spinners for the group are in the top range with Omega, Blancpain and Breguet, there is still a firm belief that the Swatch brand still has a bright future, despite many in the media who think otherwise.

Hayek argues that Swatch has not reached its peak, keeps group factories ticking over and is always good for producing novelties.

"But now Swatch has so many competitors, brands that have been created in Europe and American areas but produced in China.

"They are of lower quality and cost, and the fashion-conscious consumer examines the way it looks and not at the value it has. That's why the growth of Swatch has not been as big as it used to be," he said.

For a man of his age, Hayek has no thoughts of staying at home and taking it easy. It wouldn't be his style anyway because he likes to have people around him.

Job amusement

"You see I don't have a job. I really amuse myself every day, so I don't want anybody to leave me alone. But sometimes as a human being you need to be alone – to think, to hear music, to be emotional and I also need to be alone.

"That's why I drive every morning my own car. I have no driver. It takes me one hour and ten minutes but I need this and sometimes also when I am at home I need solitude," he said.

Hayek stepped back from the role of CEO at the end of 2002 and handed the reins over to his son Nick, but he is still very much a driving force in the Swiss watch making industry.

Many people still might not know what the G in Nicolas G. Hayek stands for, so I asked him.

"My father's name was George so I am Nicolas George Hayek," he answered.

swissinfo, Robert Brookes in Biel

Key facts

Born in 1928, Nicolas G. 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.
Hayek was made an honorary citizen of the watch-making town of Biel in February and cited as the saviour of the Swiss watch industry.
He still has a consulting firm, Hayek Engineering.

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In brief

The book Nicolas G. Hayek: Views of a Thoroughbred Entrepreneur was written in cooperation with journalist Friedemann Bartu of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

It is at present only available in German but is being translated into French. An English version is also foreseen.

The foreword was written by model Cindy Crawford who has long been an ambassador for Omega.

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