A Class Apart: Maximilian Büsser, Founder, Maximilian Büsser And Friends
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To rebel against many aspects of the traditional watchmaking industry and start an independent brand right out of your living room is brave; and then to not fail at it, but 15 years later, be praised for a creative approach to watchmaking, is noteworthy.
Key to this, as explained by Maximilian Büsser, founder of Maximilian Büsser and Friends’ (MB&F), dubbed the world’s first horological concept brand, is not having it any other way. “Making sure that I’m free, creatively, financially, and in any other way, has been all I’ve been doing for 14 years,” says Büsser. “I think that brings a lot of envy but a positive envy from big players who, I have to say, have always been very kind to us. Because we’re not competitors, we’re not taking sales off them, and, as they can see, it hasn’t been snowballing.”
Büsser is talking about how his independently-owned company has managed to survive in a landscape dominated by the “big boys” of the world’s watchmaking industry. He founded MB&F, also described as the world’s first horological laboratory, in 2005 in his Geneva flat in Switzerland, dreaming of developing radical horological concepts by working in small, hypercreative groups, and that was it– there has been no revenue target added to his goal ever since.
Maximilian Büsser, founder, Maximilian Büsser and Friends. Source: MB&F
“We’ve got a very bipolar industry today, meaning that the very big boys are enormous now, and they’re all marketing-driven companies, concerned about how to ensure growth, and how to come up with products that please a greater number of people. Therefore, it causes less innovation, fewer risks, and less and reduced creativity,” Büsser says. “And then, on the other side of the spectrum, you’ve got the small guys, like us and we’re not the only ones who do it because it’s our life, we don’t care if people will like what we do or not. We just want to create some incredibly creative products. We have got a micro voice, compared to these big guys. I often feel like a dolphin in the ocean, and you send your sonar out, and there are millions of fish, and nobody gets it, and then from time to time, you get your sonar back, and you’re like, whoa, somebody has resonated on the same wavelength. It’s the same thing for our clients.”
It is true that, when compared to other luxury watch brands, there are just a handful of MB&F clients – Büsser states that, since the company’s inception, not more than 2,300 pieces have been manufactured and sold, which represents about 800 clients– however, they are a niche clientele willing to pay top dollar for these time-pieces. According to the MB&F website, the prices range from CHF20,000 to CHF400,000 (and are subject to change). “I had a big collector come in the other day who bought his first MB&F, and told me, ‘You know what, when I wear my Patek Philippe, or my Richard Mille, nobody ever speaks to me,” Büsser recalls. “I can see that they see what I’m wearing, but they don’t speak to me. When I wear an MB&F, they come up to me, from any social strata, saying, ‘Excuse me, what is that?’ And then I tell them the story.’”
According to Büsser, his clientele are courageous, self-asserted, and don’t care about showing off. As such, his clients are unique and unpredictable to Büsser himself as well. “Our sales in Dubai have been a big surprise for us, in that that an enormous part of our revenue here is tourist-based, and actually, residents don’t account for much in the success of this gallery,” Büsser says, noting that the Middle East represented 8% of the MB&F sales in 2018, which is estimated to rise to 14% in 2019. “We were looking at the numbers from the beginning of this year and we’ve done incredibly well here, I think we’ve sold 11 watches, which is a lot and means that 5% of my yearly production was sold in just six months here, but none to any UAE resident. The new clients were from countries where we have no retailers, where we don’t do any PR, where we don’t even know how to access press in those countries, but still, people come in, and they already know the brand, and they spend half an hour here, and say, ‘Okay, I want a AED 600,000 watch.’ I’m like, whoa, and then you realize the power of social media today, even at our price points. That’s actually what’s driving most of our business today. When I started the company, I used to say that we couldn’t have done this without the internet, but now, it’s [impossible] without social media. That’s amazing.”
I got to meet with Büsserat the M.A.D. Gallery (Mechanical Art Devices) in the Dubai Mall, one of four he has opened worldwide. The other three are in Geneva, Taipei, and Hong Kong. The four M.A.D. Galleries showcase MB&F’s machines and collaborations, as well as kindred mechanical and kinetic artists. Apart from the one in Geneva, the other three are franchises. “We’ve got complete artistic curation in the contracts, and the only thing that I will accept is that nothing can be presented in the gallery if we haven’t said it’s okay,” he says. “Most of the partners are more into retail, and this is not their theme. Although they can come up with ideas, we basically do all the work of finding the artists. And then we organize that the artist’s work goes from one gallery to another. What’s important is that the galleries buy directly from the artists. We don’t mingle in that, we don’t make any money, it’s just a curation platform.”
Before we delve into why Büsser has chosen to make Dubai a home for his family, despite the company with all of its 25-member staff still being located in Geneva, we talk about a turning point that led to him establishing MB&F in the first place. Perhaps not surprisingly, there was an earlier career, and there were struggles, many of them. Büsser’s love for high-end horology was nurtured by his first employer, Jaeger-LeCoultre, where he spent seven years in senior management positions, and in 1998, aged 31 at the time, he was appointed Managing Director of Harry Winston Rare Timepieces in Geneva for another seven years. The results were a 900% increase in turnover, and the positioning of Harry Winston as one of the leaders in this very competitive segment. However, to everyone’s surprise, Büsser declined a generous new contract from Harry Winston, opting instead to follow his dreams.
Here’s why: “The higher you get into positions of power, the more you get into power struggles,” he says. “It’s as if people come to work in the morning, and put their coat of ethics on a hanger. This dogfight where it’s okay to lie, it’s okay to backstab, it’s okay to do politics, it’s okay to manipulate, because you want to make money. So, when the grail is money, you have all these deviate social behaviors. I came from no money, I made money, and then I realized that having money in those sorts of circumstances was the worst thing ever, so I realized that money was absolutely not what was going to make me happy, but being proud and trying to abide by the values my parents had.”
MB&F M.A.D. Gallery. Source: MB&F
Born in Italy, growing up in Switzerland, and now being a resident of Dubai, Büsser has developed a cross-cultural, broad-based approach to life and to business. Even more because he grew up in a multi-cultural environment and family– his father was a Swiss diplomat who met his mother, an Indian national, in Mumbai. “She was a Zoroastrian, and Zoroastrians abide by three simple rules -good thoughts, words, and deeds- and my mom was the epitome of that,” he says. “But, when you try to do that in business, you get massacred. So, I just wanted to put myself in a situation where I could keep those values.” Therefore, in 2005, with CHF900,000 of personal savings, Büsser started out by working alone in his flat for the first two years.
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However, he got six retailers on board, all of them agreeing to pay him in advance one-thirdof the price for his first watch line, the Horological Machine (HM1), which he would deliver two years later. One of those clients was Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons, the Dubai-born family business that’s today the largest retailer of Swiss brand watches in the Middle East. “It’s not by chance that they’ve got a gallery today,” Büsser explains. “Clearly, they’re not doing it [just] for the money, but that it’s the relationship that is important for them, and that’s one of the things I really appreciate in this part of the world. Relationships are still meaningful here, and I have tried to build my business on that.” Büsser comes across as an energetic and friendly person with a can-do attitude, and it is clear why any kind of problem that he might have encountered would not have mellowed his desire to develop MB&F’s into a fully-fledged haute horlogerie brand that it is today.
However, the company’s growing success shed a new light on his compulsion to guard the creative process from any negative influence. Consistently failing to achieve work-life balance, in 2015, Büsser moved to Dubai with his young family (a wife and a baby daughter at the time; they have welcomed one more daughter since). “Talking about not having regrets, every time I’ve read a biography of a great entrepreneur, the number one regret at the end of their life was not seeing their children growing up,” Büsser says, while commenting on the family’s decision to move out of Switzerland. “But actually, it has had an enormous resonance on my company, because when you founded a company yourself, all alone in your little flat, and you’ve done everything for it, and you’ve micromanaged every-single thing, you have to let go at some point. Yet, it’s very difficult for people like us to let go. So, one of my ways [of doing that] is by not being in the workshop or the office for 26 days out of 31. I’ve put a structure in place which allows that. So, it has forced me to let go, and now, I micromanage much less. It has completely changed the way I manage.”
In another nod to his fairly unusual self-awareness, Büsser settles back and recalls another similar situation when he decided to stop the company’s future growth, in order to ensure that the MB&F watches remained looking and functioning different from other familiar timepieces (MB&F currently manufactures only 220 timepieces per year). “I built MB&F as much around my strengths as around my shortcomings,” he says. “I hate managing people, it takes all my life force out of me. Managing people is managing other people’s problems, whereas I just want to create. So, this has been a long journey. From doing everything myself to saying, ‘I don’t even want to be the CEO anymore.’ One of the many reasons I didn’t want the company to grow, and to have any middle management, is because they exhaust me. Another reason is that over the last 14 years, the awareness of the brand has grown significantly, and I said this before, but I used to be terrified that nobody would buy what I do, and now I’m terrified that people are going to be disappointed, because expectations have grown.”
Maximilian Büsser, founder, Maximilian Büsser and Friends. Source: MB&F
Towards the end of our conversation, Büsser brings one more proof that he has passed the point where he believed he could do everything by himself. Even though it is not unusual in the watch industry that a large group acquires an eclectic and independent brand, it certainly would have been an unusual thing to hear had I met Büsser a couple of years ago. However, he is now willing to admit that the need to secure his brand in a period after him has been occupying his thoughts lately. “You have to think of what’s going to happen [to your brand] if something happens to you,” Büsser concludes. “I am absolutely not announcing anything, I’m not in discussion with anybody, but I have to start thinking of things like that. It’s not about making money, but about making sure that it’s still there after I’m gone. Because, I owe it to the people in my team, and to the customers. If you want to do things well, you have to think of these things.”