An Interview with Blancpain's new CEO Marc Hayek

The "Three" (left to right): Marc A. Hayek, Magnus Bosse, Jean-Claude Biver

During the last months some changes in the management of several watch manufacturers happened. Not all of them were wellcome by us watch enthusiasts, many of us were disappointed or even in fear that the integrity and good reputation of the one or the other company will be sacrified on the altars of financial profit.
Blancpain is one of the companies that got a new management. The former president, CEO and marketing director; the well known Mr Jean-Claude Biver is followed-up by Mr Marc Alexander Hayek as new CEO and marketing director, president ad interim will be Mr Nicolas G. Hayek sen. himself.
During a lunch I had with Christel Räber (of Blancpain), Jean-Claude Biver and Marc Hayek in September 2001 they informed me about this changeover. It was a most fascinating and inspirative lunch, we forgot about our meals while discussing watches, marketing and of course the uniqueness of Blancpain.

Blancpain, originally founded in 1735, went out of business in 1971 and was revitalized as a manufacturer of mechanical watches by Jean-Claude Biver in 1981, with a great and unpredicted success in the middle of the so called quartz crisis. This event gave an impulse for the whole swiss watchmaking industry to return back to the roots: the fine mechanical watch! Mr Biver was - and of course still is!! - an eloquent, inspirative, provocative and knowledgeable ambassador for the mechanical watch. However, many were vexed when he sold Blancpain to Hayek's SMH (now Swatch group) in 1992.
With Marc Hayek now another member of the Hayek family took his place in a top position of a watch manufacturer of the Swatch group. This may lead to further disappointment and uncertainty. Since many of us are interested in getting an idea of what this change may lead to and how Marc Hayek wants to ensure the individuality of Blancpain I decided to make an interview. He agreed immediately, and since we both live in Zurich we easily could arrange an appointment.


The Interview

(Note: This interview was originally done in German and then translated in English)

Magnus Bosse (MB): Mr Hayek, some watch manufacturers got a new management during the last few weeks. Among them is also Blancpain. What are the reasons for this? Does this have anything to do with the difficult conditions of the world economy?

Marc Hayek (MH): Yes and no! It is right that Blancpain changed its management, but it is not true that this is due to the worldwide economical situation. As you know Mr Jean-Claude Biver built up and ran Blancpain, but he also is deeply involved in the whole luxury division of the Swatch group in several positions. And at one point you have to set priorities. Additionally he faced severe health problems in the past, but thanks god they are gone! The tasks have become more and more and therefore we decided to establish a new management at Blancpain and I‘m extremely lucky to participate as head of marketing and as acting CEO together with Mr Nicolas G. Hayek sen. Mr Biver will still support us as consultant, because Blancpain is his ‚baby‘, and we are happy that we can fall back on his enormous knowledge in the future. But there are new people doing the daily business, and of ourse there are some new ideas. That's what we live from!

MB: This change came a little bit surprising, and now there is even the grandson of Mr Hayek sen. in the leading position of Blancpain. One could think that Mr Hayek wants to support his family with good jobs. Why were you chosen to do this job?

MH: If you look from inside this change is not that surprising as it looks from outside. Mr Biver and I talked about this for quite a while. Blancpain grew up to a point where one person cannot longer take care about everything. This is one topic. The other is that I think we, Mr Biver and I, share the same view, attitude and ideology about watches; and it is important for him as well for my grandfather that a fascinating company like Blancpain - that is highly dependent on individuals - will be guided with the same attitude in the future. Since we met here Jean-Claude Biver made the suggestion that I should get this position at Blancpain. Additionally, Mr Biver knew of course about my work with other brands of the Swatch group, for example Tissot and Certina. This challenge is a great honour for me and of course is one strong reason why I came back to the watch business. In the past I built up a restaurant, a wine distribution and especially a cigar-lounge. With these activities I learned to guide a company in the luxury field. And I know every sector of such a company. Wine, cigars and fine food, for me this all counts as luxury like a fine watch: It is pleasure, fun and joie de vivre and...
MB: attracts even the same audience...
MH: ...yes! To summarize, there is one bottom-line: I allow myself something I have pleasure with, nothing to show off or to impress others, something that I can become engrossed with... For me the fascination of a fine watch is same as the fascination of a great wine or a superb cigar! Over the years you will even invest the same amount of money, if you buy yourself a fine watch or if you enjoy fine wines: I enjoy my Blancpain every day and every evening, and for me the motives of enjoying both are quite the same!

MB: This brings up the next question: What is a fine watch for you, and what does especially Blancpain mean to you?

MH: Mechanical watches are of great fascination for me! There are countless achivements of today‘s technique and our daily lifes associated with the mechanical watch. Just think about the Split-Seconds chronograph with its clutch. This construction is used until today in the automobile industry. But simultaneously a mechanical watch is a piece of art and not only craft or mechanics. It is artwork that has its intrinsic life and message. And it this piece of art has its own functionality and is extremely suitable for everyday usage. And it is very intimate to wear on my skin and to enjoy for myself; I do not have to exhibit a watch like a painting. Often after a very bad experience, in a bad mood I find back my peace and motivation by looking at the art and fine mechanics that I can see through the sapphire back of my watch. Then I feel joy and peace with an ease that is priceless!

MB: Could you draw a sketch of the typical Blancpain customer?

MH: First, the Blancpain lover is a person that is able to really savour, not only a watch. This is independent of age or sex, but this individual has achieved something in his or her life and of course is receptive for pleasures. This person does not need or want to buy a status symbol, but this person is generous to her-/himself! It is not sufficient to buy a Blancpain, it takes more: You have to learn how to admire a Blancpain: E.g. the Répetition minutes: On the first sight it is a sober timepiece , but if you look again you will discover that it is one of the greatest achievements in the history of watch making art. Moreover, it gives me greatest pleasure not only aesthetically, but also acoustically!
You can find this intrinsic knowledge in every high grade mechanical watch, but at Blancpain this is especially emphasized. We consider ourselves sometimes as the reference of the mechanical watch: We attach enormous importance on the inner qualities of our watches, not only on the design. But of course this does not mean that the exterior beauty will be neglected! I am personally very attracted by design, but I believe the design should be honest, simple and authentic and not hoodwinking. We don‘t want to sell the watch only because of the used materials or the design, we sell an excellently wrapped work of art!

MB: What is your very personal Blancpain?

MH: My Blancpain is the so called QP (quantiéme perpétuel), a perpetual calendar with the Flyback chronograph and the military dial (the Ref. 2585F-1530M-53), a fascinating watch. For me it verges on the miraculous because the movement inside keeps the memory of the future: It knows in advance when a leap year will come!

MB: Blancpain is well-known as a manufacturer of fine, hand-made ultra flat watches. In this field Blancpain has achieved a great amount of savoir-faire. But Blancpain of course has its weaknesses, e.g. in the communication or in the ruggedness of the watches for everyday use. What are you going to change, what do you want to keep?

MH: Of course an ultra flat style of construction has its problems: the watches are more delicate to handle! But ultra flat watches are works of art representing the soul of Blancpain, and of course I want to keep this!
On the other hand I want to try out something new, especially I want to improve both the communication and the service to our customers. Here we have our weak points, and to a certain extend they make us lovable! This is human, and Blancpain is created by human beings. What I want to avoid is too much marketing: The Blancpain watches speak for themselves! They are not a marketing product! Because of this I will not invest much efforts in a big new campaign, instead there will be a very subtle communication.
Customer service is the hallmark of a company in the luxury sphere. In my opinion a watch manufacturer only then belongs to the few very best if it also has a first-class customer service. The service of Blancpain will be improved concerning turn-around time, quality and customer care. We are already working very hard on this. On the technical side, it is a never ending process of development and improvement.

MB: Nowadays a good web-page is an essential part of the communication. And the Blancpain web-page is not really the best example for this. I‘m sorry to say, but it is quite user-unfriendly!

MH: The internet is a relatively new medium! The Blancpain web-site is up for several years now and it is based mainly on the Flash-technology. It looks good, but it needs to be updated! We realized this and we will establish a completely new web-site that will work with HTML, only a few Flash animations and will be more user friendly. On the old site the user was forced to go through the flashes. On the coming site this will be changed: The user will have direct access to the informations she/he needs, but if a customer has time enough one is free to take a look at the animations.

MB: Mr Biver always stressed that the perfect shape of a watch is a circle. Often new heads make room for new ideas. Could you imagine to build rectangular watches or even watches with retrograde displays one day?

MH: I‘m a man who can think of many things, and I hate to say ‚never‘! But seriously: For me a Blancpain is a round watch! So I‘m pretty sure that in the next future a Blancpain will only have a circular case! This is the natural shape for watch: kids draw circular watches!

MB: Blancpain, Breguet and Glashütte Original have two facts in common: They manufacture haute horlogerie but they are both part of the ‚almighty‘ Swatch group! And Blancpain also now has a ‚Hayek‘ as manager. How could you ensure the individuality of Blancpain?

MH: For me this is very important: We are special! But first let me say something about the topic ‚Hayek‘! In our family everyone grew up as an individual and not as a ‚small Hayek‘. This is a question of individuality: This is extremely important topic in our family. If you look at my father you easily imagine this: He IS an individual by nature and not a chliché! And I am Marc! This has its advantages as well as its disadvantages: If I want to achieve something then I have to work for it like everyone else. And I took the risk to build up my own business and to be self-employed. I have proven that I can run a company. And now that I come back to the Swatch group this is not because of what the Swiss call ‚Vetterliwirtschaft‘ (nepotism). Nepotism ever was a red rag in our family. To be honest it sometimes is really hard to be a ‚Hayek‘. My grandfather will not forgive me that easy if I do something wrong.
So on the one hand it is a pleasure to be a member of the Hayek family, I‘m proud of what this family has achieved, but on the other side it can be a kind of a burden: It is quite much what my grandfather expect from a member of this family! And of course my own expectations are high; if I meet them I‘m sure that I also satisfy my family!
And like the Hayeks are individuals all of the Swatch group companies are unique: Blancpain, Breguet and Glashütte Original. But the group allows us to utilize synergies, to learn and to make profit from each other without loosing our identities. If you look at the haute horlogerie as a group you see Patek Phillippe, Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin etc. If I would copy them and their success, then I also would loose my individuality. For this I do not have to be member of the Swatch group. Individuality of a brand is based on the substance, essence and on the craftsmanship of a brand - which we have! - and on the management. The management of all the mentioned brands is strong and independent. And so is the management of the brands of the Swatch group: A Swatch has a strong identity as has the Omega! But they are totally different! And I think it is our duty to strengthen the individuality of our brands. We learn from all our competitors. And a competitor is a competitor, whether he belongs to the Swatch group or not.

MB: If you look some years ahead: What will be the future of watch making? Will we see new design, constructions, complications or materials?

MH: Unfortunately I cannot look in the future. But I am convinced that there will be many new constructions. But we do not have the potiential for improvements like we had 100 years ago. And especially Blancpain is both: innovative and based on tradition. We use only high end mechanical movements and will not follow any short-lived trends in the future.

MB: But in the Swatch group you have one innovation and one statement: Omega‘s coaxial escapement, one of the few real improvements in the last 100 years, and there is the idea of Mr Pfeifer of Glashütte Original to replace some metal parts by ceramic parts, e.g. in the escapement.

MH: Mr Pfeifer belongs to the most innovative and impressive persons in the watchmaking business. This is a type of character that ensures the individuality of a brand. But at Blancpain there is up to now no discussion of using either the coaxial escapement or ceramics in our watches.

MB: That means innovation is the job of other brands?

MH: No, but we want to go in an other direction. We do not want to take over innovations from other companies. Maybe they become standard in the future! We want to develop additional complications or combinations of complications, but right now I do not want to tell what we are working on...(smiles)

MB: So for now Blancpain only wants to offer new combinations of different complications?

MH: No, but still I think this is quite charming: I give the customer the chance to choose the two or three complications he fell in love without having to buy six (the 1735). This adds to individuality. And the Blancpain customer is an individualist, and he wants to have this service. For the art of watchmaking every new combination represents a new challenge. But we do not want to restrict ourselves with this. We are working hard on something very new. Again: I will give no hints! A present is much more tempting packed than with a little hole that allows you to get an idea of what is hidden inside...

MB: ... what we as children of course did in the days before Christmas! Mr Hayek, thank you very much for taking the time for this interview and all the best for the future!

MH: Thank you very much, too!


Credits: Special thanks to Bettina Walch from the Swiss Radio station DRS3 for providing me with the recording equipment, to Christel Räber of Blancpain and last but not least to my girlfriend Isabelle for proof reading of the manuscript.

Magnus Bosse © Dezember 2001 Last update 10 December 2006

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