Nicolas Hayek, Swatch Creator Dies

Nicolas Hayek, Savior of the S. Nicolas Hayek, a Lebanese-born business consultant who is widely credited with having saved the Swiss watch industry died June 29 in Biel, Switzerland. He was 82.

Hayek, a founder and the chairman of the Swatch Group, died of heart failure while working at the company’s headquarters, where he continued to spend much of his time even after he had retired from his post as Chief Executive in 2002.

The formation of the Swatch Group, which in addition to Swatch today comprises high-end watch brands like Breguet, Omega, Longines, Tissot, Calvin Klein and Mido, made Hayek one of Switzerland’s wealthiest men. The exquisite irony is that the company came about after Hayek was brought in to help shut the foundering Swiss watch industry altogether.

A flamboyant figure with a roguish sense of humor, Hayek was a rare phenomenon in Europe — a genuine business celebrity, according to friends and acquaintances.

Nicolas Hayek was born in Beirut in 1928 and moved to Switzerland as a young man. After studying mathematics, physics and chemistry at the University of Lyon in France, he started a consulting firm, Hayek Engineering, in Zurich in the early 1960s.

By the 1970s, the vaunted Swiss watch industry, a pillar of the national economy for centuries, was in jeopardy. Japanese watchmakers like Seiko had begun to undercut Swiss prices. And public tastes were shifting from the finely wrought analog timepieces in which Swiss artisans had long specialized to the pale flickering faces of mass-market digital watches.

In the early 1980s, with no apparent remedy in sight, a group of Swiss banks asked Hayek to compile a report on how the watchmaking industry might best be liquidated. Instead, he merged two of its former titans, Asuag and SSIH, which between them owned brands like Omega, Longines and Tissot.

Hayek bought a majority stake in the reorganized group, known as SMH — the Société Suisse de Microélectronique et d’Horlogerie. (He was fond of telling interviewers that the initials stood for “Sa Majesté Hayek” — “His Royal Highness Hayek.”)
Even the expensive brands, like Breguet, “we will continue to sell — and sell well,” Hayek said in 2008. He added, “We sell the mentality of Switzerland.”

Hayek stepped down as the Swatch Group’s chief executive in 2002 and was succeeded by his son, Nicolas Jr. His daughter Nayla sits on the company’s board.

Over time, the humble Swatch itself was borne upward by its own success: the company has issued limited-edition Swatches designed by noted artists like Keith Haring. In 1992, The New York Times reported, a Swatch by Kiki Picasso, a pseudonym of the French artist Christian Chapiron, sold at auction at Christie’s in London for $28,000.