'Mr Swatch' Nicolas Hayek dies

Nicolas Hayek, chairman and former chief executive of the giant Swiss watch-manufacturing firm Swatch, has died. He was 82.

Swatch Group said Hayek died unexpectedly of heart failure on Monday at his office in Biel, Switzerland.

"Nicolas G Hayek's greatest merit was his enormous contribution to the saving of the Swiss watch industry and the foundation and the commercial development of the Swatch Group," the company said in a statement.

The self-styled Mr Swatch is credited with reinventing Swiss watch-making in the 1980s by introducing radical cost-saving moves after he was asked to help close it down.

When Swiss banks asked Hayek's consultancy firm for a report on the Alpine country's watch-making industry, the two main manufacturers were on the verge of bankruptcy. The banks thought Swiss watches could not compete with digital watches made in the Far East, as the makers did not want to abandon their high prices and were rapidly losing market share.

Hayek maintained they could survive, by making less expensive products and charging a premium for top-of-the-range timepieces 'Made in Switzerland' - the traditional home of precision timekeeping.

Guided by Hayek's consultancy, the watch-making companies merged to form SMH, in which Hayek bought a 51 per cent share in 1984. Hayek reasoned that a cheap watch could tell the time just as well as an expensive one and SMH started to produce a plastic wristwatch - the Swatch - which revolutionised the industry. SMH was renamed the Swatch Group in 1998.

He introduced the use of plastic cases, quartz movements and mass-production to hold down prices of cheaper watches.

Although the Swatch brand became a global fashion success, Hayek also made money from the company's more upmarket brands, such as Breguet, Calvin Klein, Longines and Omega. "People buy these watches like others buy Picassos," he told the International Herald Tribune in 2004.

Hayek became a national figure, respected as one of the economic leaders of Switzerland, despite his very un-Swiss flamboyance. In 1998 he came up with the idea for the ultra-compact Smart car, now made by a subsidiary of DaimlerChrysler AG, saying a city car only needed "room for two big adults and a crate of beer".

In recent years he became a vocal critic of the two big Swiss banks, Credit Suisse Group and UBS AG, saying their risky business practices were a threat to Switzerland's economy.

One of the richest people in Switzerland according to Swiss magazine Bilanz, Hayek was born in Beirut, Lebanon in 1928. The family moved to Switzerland when he was 7 and Hayek went on to study chemistry, math and physics at France's Lyon University.

In 1963 he founded the management consultancy Hayek Engineering in Zurich, Switzerland, which has advised a wide variety of international companies including Nestle, Siemens and US Steel.

But Hayek's big break came in 1982 with the famous report on watch-making. He was passionate about timepieces, telling the British weekly the Sunday Times that watches were "emotional products."

"A watch is something people carry on their bare skin, sometimes 24 hours a day," he explained in a 2000 interview. "We have to convince every individual that this particular watch fits his or her personal style and lifestyle to the best."

Known to wear up to four watches on each arm, Hayek said that Swatch produced "beauty, sensuality, emotionality in watches - and we also produce high-tech on your wrists".

Hayek began to wind down his career when his son, Nick Hayek, took over as Swatch chief executive in 2003. Hayek senior stayed on as president and remained active in the running of the company.

AP

This article 'Mr Swatch' Nicolas Hayek dies was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.