Basel is the bellwether of the global watch industry. Every year retailers from around the world come to order watches and jewelry, and the buzz of the event can influence the industry’s entire year. At the conclusion of Baselworld 2010, Blancpain CEO Marc A. Hayek took time away from his order book to talk about working in a publicly-traded family business under the global media spotlight, how Blancpain and parent company Swatch Group prospered through the recession, and how he unwinds in his downtime.
ET: Give us an assessment of Basel.
Marc A. Hayek: I was already quite optimistic. The mood changed in the first two months, and it is more than confirmed. We had an excellent fair, and we are back on a level above the 2008 fair which was the record, so I am really happy.
ET: What are you going to do to celebrate?
Marc A. Hayek: Actually, I need to get back quickly and put pressure on production. Basel is a virtual success taking the orders. Now we have to realize it through producing and delivering the watches.
ET: Will it be difficult to get the production back up to full speed?
Marc A. Hayek: Definitely. We didn’t believe the downturn would last three years, and from a social responsibility standpoint we made the decision not to lay people off, so now that it [has] gone up we have some capacity. In 2008 we were pressed for capacity, so now to be above that level we need to find some more people. Of course it is also our partners who make straps and things like that, so I hope they’re getting ready.
ET: Did you make any changes to product mix or price points?
Marc A. Hayek: We decided to focus on the classic line that [has] the widest collection, starting with steel. I think it was the right decision. I personally like models in steel because the beauty is in the movement and the mechanics.
ET: Did you have a favorite watch from this year’s novelties?
Hayek: Well it’s hard because there is so much to like. One that I really like and I had to have right away is the Villeret in platinum with the grand feu enamel dial and the eight-day power reserve. On the one side you have technology, and [then] you turn the dial and have this beautiful dial, so you get a combination of the mechanics and the artistry.
ET: You’ve been involved in the watch industry since an early age.
Marc A. Hayek: I was a little child before the Swatch times, but I loved watches. I loved mechanics. I also loved motorcycles and loved to work on them. So later on as I was growing up it came together, and I realized that inside this little thing on your wrist was where my passion was. But I still wanted to see what was outside the business, and see if I could build something from scratch because in a big company you can’t do everything yourself; so I started a restaurant since I loved to cook. That was fun, but when the chance came with Blancpain I jumped because I loved watches.
ET: If you ever had the chance to be on a television cooking show, like Gordon Ramsay’s “Hell’s Kitchen,” would you?
Marc A. Hayek: Maybe [laughs].
ET: Any lessons from the downturn?
Marc A. Hayek: It confirmed some of the points that our strategy was right, that we didn’t go crazy before the crash. We could have done more business by extending payment terms, but at the end if you push too much product into the market, that doesn’t work. We don’t have overstock because we didn’t push it like crazy, and our retailers didn’t owe us money [or] need more inventory from us, so it all worked out.
ET: You are in the spotlight because your family business is public and your grandfather Nicolas G. Hayek, Swatch Group chairman, is famed for saving the Swiss watch industry. Any tips for readers who are operating family businesses?
Marc A. Hayek: It works because our family has a great and open relationship. I’ve never had the pressure that I have to do this. And you have to think long term because it is not just you and your career. If you have fun doing it and you can think long term, you will be good.
ET: So does watch talk come up at family gatherings?
Marc A. Hayek: It is hard not to. Somewhere, someplace a link comes up, so then the wives and husbands know it will be about watches.
ET: And what do you like to do in your spare time?
Marc A. Hayek: Gastronomy and wine, mechanics and sports. I am passionate about racing because it is an opportunity to challenge oneself. Everywhere there is competition, [and] I enjoy positive competition. Yes, second place is the first loser, but it is an opportunity to work to get better and have a healthy competition. It is pure adrenaline and it is energy you can bring to business. My grandfather is next door at Breguet, and so that is competition. But that is everyday business, and we all push ourselves; that helps us against the competition.
Since this interview was conducted, Marc’s grandfather, Mr. Nicolas Hayek, passed away while working at his office in Biel, Switzerland. Founder of the enormously successful Swatch company, he was universally acknowledged as the savior of the Swiss Watch Industry.