He heads a multimillion-dollar Swiss watch brand, but MAX BÜSSER tells Ashok Soman why he is determined to keep the business small enough for him to enjoy family life in Dubai
If you are lucky enough to wear an mb&f watch out in the wild, strangers will look, and look hard. In fact, they might even talk to you – that’s how much charisma mb&f Horological Machines, as the watches are called, casually deploy.
These striking, futuristic timepieces come from a place of pure creativity – and loneliness. As an only child, Max Büsser spent a lot of time by himself. “Being alone so often as a child, and suffering from it, meant that to survive psychologically, I needed to invent imaginary lives – and what better way to cure injustice than to be a superhero, a World War II pilot, or even a mythological hero?”
The idea of heroism as an antidote to the slings and arrows of misfortune is hardwired into mb&f watches, right down to the design of the winding rotor. It’s not often reported these days, now that mb&f (which stands for Maximilian Büsser & Friends) is so established, but the distinctive rotor design is inspired by anime character Grendizer’s battle-axe. (For the record, Grendizer is a robot under the command of an exiled alien prince who defends Earth from the villains who ravaged his home world.)
Despite those early flights of imagination and childhood dreams of designing cars (he says he was a “full-time car designer” till he was 18), Büsser ended up getting a master’s degree in microtechnology engineering and subsequently set his sights on a marketing role at Procter & Gamble.
Instead, he was headhunted to turn around two once‑again venerable watch brands, first spending seven years at Jaeger-LeCoultre, then another seven at Harry Winston. In those days, he was almost the opposite of the
mb&f mantra: “a creative adult is a child who survived”. Büsser often alludes to how strange it is to find himself where he is, and how the man he was more than 20 years ago would never have imagined the life he has now.
Today, Büsser is responsible for a watchmaking firm that makes his own dreams come true – one that also boasts some happy math, with an annual revenue of over 15 million Swiss francs (nearly S$21 million). When he hit that business goal in 2013, he decided he didn’t want to grow the business any bigger, capping its annual output at 300 timepieces. It was a “crazy decision”, he says, but it’s one he has stuck with to this day.
NOT ON SWISS TIME
Unlike owners of most independent Swiss watch brands, Büsser is neither a watchmaker nor based in Switzerland. He now spends one week out of every month in Geneva, and he travels frequently to connect with clients and journalists – he recently came to Singapore to present the new Horological Machine No. 9 Flow watch. He now spends most of his time in Dubai, where he has a home office.
“I’m in Dubai so I can be a great husband and a great father,” he shares. “If I were still in Geneva, I would never see my daughters grow up. Family life would be non-existent. Moving to Dubai in 2015 with my then one-and-a-half-year-old daughter and my wife, with three suitcases – that was an insane decision. It took us four days to find a house, get the cheapest furniture we could find from Ikea, and just make a go of it.”
“Absolutely no one thought it was a good idea then,” adds Büsser, who now also has a one-year-old daughter. “Now, three years later, people say it was such a great decision.” It was the late Rolf Schnyder of Ulysse Nardin, who was based in Kuala Lumpur but whose brand is based in Le Locle, Switzerland, who gave him the idea of keeping his business at a distance, and perhaps the courage to do it.
He has come a long way from the day that he first entered the world of watchmaking – quite literally by accident. In 1990, during his military service in Switzerland, he was driving a 1950s jeep with a trailer when it made ill-fated contact with a bump. “I was thrown out of the car – luckily onto a patch of grass – and the whole car and trailer rolled over and 2,000kg of jeep landed on my back,” he recalls.
“There is really no reason why I should be alive,” he was later quoted as saying. He spent six weeks in hospital, and got out with his entire torso encased in plaster. While recovering, he took a ski holiday and bumped into Henry-John Belmont, then ceo of Jaeger-LeCoultre, whom he had met previously while working on his thesis.
A week later, Belmont called with a job offer at the Grande Maison of Le Sentier. “Belmont asked me if I wanted to be one of thousands of employees in a corporation, or if I wanted to be one of the handful who save Jaeger-LeCoultre,” says Büsser, who took up the offer.
Belmont created a role for him at the manufacture. Büsser didn’t know it at that time, but he was to then embark on an epic quest to save not just Jaeger-LeCoultre, but Swiss watchmaking itself.
“The first gut decision I made was to join Jaeger-LeCoultre over 25 years ago,” he says. “The second was to leave and join Harry Winston (where he took the struggling watchmaking division from revenues of US$8 million to US$80 million in five years and launched the groundbreaking Opus series). The next was starting mb&f. And now every decision is a gut decision. If my gut tells me it’s a good idea, I do it.”
THE THRILL OF THE UNKNOWN
mb&f itself began as an idea Büsser developed while struggling to drive growth at Harry Winston, a long slog that saw him work 18-hour days and develop a terrible ulcer. “I owe a lot to Richard Mille (the man behind the eponymous watch brand),” says Büsser. “He allowed me to believe that I could create a brand when I was not a watchmaker.”
Knowing that he wanted to write his own story, he painstakingly saved 900,000 Swiss francs by 2004. Then, he realised he needed about twice that amount and hit upon a crazy idea: pre-sell 25 hm1s to trusted retailers and get them to pay him 35 percent of the price upfront. Amazingly, it worked, but Büsser then faced issues when his supplier went under in 2006, which meant he had no movements for the hm1.
“We came incredibly close to bankruptcy at this point. I was running out of money, and I had no watches to deliver. It was a real emergency,” Büsser admits. This is where the “&f” part kicked in because he called upon his friends, including watchmaker Peter Speake-Marin, to help complete the watches, while he tried to secure a loan of 300,000 Swiss
“I can only create when I have nothing to do; activity kills my creativity. I try to spend 45 minutes or an hour, just sitting in my garden, not doing anything but thinking”
francs from ubs. Much to Büsser’s disbelief, the Swiss bank actually came through with the loan, even though he had no collateral. In the end, the business was saved, the hm1s were delivered in good order, and mb&f lived to create for another day.
So what’s next for the company? “I’ve no idea what mb&f is going to be in 10 years,” he says. “But not knowing what the next project will be is exhilarating!” As to what drives him to keep creating, to keep innovating and pushing boundaries, he shares: “There’re only two goals in my life now: to love and to create. Love for my family, love for creating and gratitude for where I’ve arrived in life, when I never even dreamed it.”
Solitude was great for Büsser’s creativity as a child and it still is. “I can only create when I have nothing to do; activity kills my creativity,” he says. “I try to spend 45 minutes or an hour, just sitting in my garden, not doing anything but thinking.”
Büsser recognises the value of child’s play, so to speak, not just in the creative arena for work, but also in his personal life. “Children are creative because they’re not afraid of being wrong,” he explains. “I see that in my elder daughter now – she shows me something I think is a potato and tells me it’s a house. The person I used to be would say: ‘Of course not.’ Because a house has to have X, Y and Z. But the person I am now doesn’t correct her. My relationship with my daughters is interesting because they teach me – which wasn’t at all how I was brought up! I see how they see the world, and I don’t correct them... unless it’s math!”