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Hayek to remain firmly in control of Swatch Group

Father and son at the Basel Watch and Jewellery Show

(Keystone)

At the age of 74, the indefatigable Nicolas G. Hayek says he has no intention of stepping down from the helm of Switzerland's Swatch Group.

The group is the world's largest producer of finished watches and has a stable of prestigious brand names.

Hayek told swissinfo at the Watch and Jewellery Show in Basel that although his son, Nicolas junior, had been given an increasing number of responsibilities as chief operating officer; there was no immediate possibility that he himself would retire.

"Nobody can step down from anywhere. There is no stepping down. There is only the moving of functions. I will stay president and chairman of the board of the Swatch Group," he said.

With Hayek showing no signs of willingness to retire, it is tempting to beg the question what is the most interesting part of his job?

"The product and the people around me," he said with a smile.

Rescuing the watch industry

Hayek played a decisive role in rescuing the Swiss watch industry in the early 1980s at a time when foreign competition, particularly from Japan, was establishing a stronghold in the market.

He engineered and implemented the reorganisation of the ASUAG and SSIH companies for more than four years before finally bringing about their merger into SMH, the Swiss Corporation for Microelectronics and Watchmaking Industries.

With a group of investors, he took over a majority shareholding in the new group in 1985.

The launch of the Swatch - the plastic low-cost, high-tech, artistic and emotion-inspiring watch - was the catalyst to bring the Swiss watch industry back to life.

The SMH group was the largest watchmaking company in value five years later.

The Swatch Group (SMH was considered too unwieldy) now contains some of the world's leading brands, including Breguet, Blancpain, Glashütte, Omega, Rado, Longines and Tissot.

Watches on both wrists

Sporting the usual array of watches on both wrists, including a plastic Swatch and a luxury Breguet, Hayek said there were always "new things to do".

"We have a complete, big group, including my son, and we are going to continue this. I am the chairman of the board and still responsible for all strategies of the future, plus all the controlling and top management of the group," he said.

Hayek added that the direction of the Swatch Group was very visible. "We want to continue to grow all our brands worldwide, continue to help the good retailers happy to sell our watches, get into jewellery and (promote) very high technology that we use in Swatch and other areas," he added.

Last year, exports of Swiss watches and movements totalled a record SFr10.65 billion ($6.38 billion), an increase of 3.7 per cent over 2000, despite the weakening of consumer confidence following the terror attacks in the United States in September and a slowdown of the global economy.

Forecasts for this year are cautiously optimistic. Asked for his views about prospects for the industry, Hayek told swissinfo that he was also looking for an increase.

"I'm not God"

"What's going to happen this year? I can't tell you, otherwise I'd be God...and I'm not. We expect, however, and we hope that our exports will rise again this year and that the second half of the year will do better than the first three months of the year," he said.

Asked specifically about sales at the Swatch group in the first quarter, Hayek was brief and to the point. "Very good," he commented.

One of the current trends in the watchmaking industry is that people are tending to spend more for a watch. It's a welcome sign for watchmakers at the luxury end of the scale.

"There are trends in all industries. In ours, you have trends that last six or seven years and then they change. We now have a trend coming back from very cheap watches to the higher class, as an object of art, and it's a good thing for the Swiss watch industry," he told swissinfo.

One of the sector's main problems is counterfeits and copies of watches, with a constant battle being waged by the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry to protect the "Swiss Made" label.

It is, for example, no problem to find a fake Rolex in many parts of the Far East.

Solidarity

"The problem of Rolex is our problem too. We have very much solidarity in this.

"Our watches are much more copied than Rolex because we have many more brands. We're fighting against it. We have a whole organisation to fight it but it's still not something that gives us very much pleasure," Hayek said.

Asked about how much is spent on combating the problem, he replied: "Very much money, but I'm not going to put a figure on it."

by Robert Brookes


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