Acquired by MELB, H. Moser was maker of one of the watch industry’s most innovative perpetual calendars. Launched in 2006, the Perpetual 1, H. Moser’s interpretation of the perpetual calendar, took the form of a highly elegant, easy-to-read and easy-to-use timepiece bringing the company much critical and commercial acclaim. By 2013, the marque was a critical celebrated if commercially floundering company with deep financial issues, that was until MELB Holding owned by Georges-Henri Meylan, former Audemars Piguet CEO, swooped in and rescued to the beleaguered watchmaker. By April of that same year, Edouard, son of Georges-Henri was appointed CEO and tasked with the enviable if challenging task of turning the watchmaker around- A tall order for a company built on the industry’s premise of traditional crafts (and the accompanying inefficiencies attached to labour intensive enterprises) and immense inertia from centuries of history.
Can one run a commercial enterprise without being entirely commercial? Deployant interviews Edouard Meylan, CEO of H. Moser & Cie, maker of the recently launched Swiss Alps Watch, to clear some of the nagging doubts harboured by many watch collectors.
An Interview with Edouard Meylan, CEO, H. Moser
You took leadership of H. Moser in 2013. It was a respectable but financially troubled brand. Under your management, what has changed?
It’s still respectable brand and we have no financial issues today. It was important to retain the essence of the brand but also create one with its own positioning in order to distinguish ourselves from other established brands who are also positioned as classic and traditional.
What followed was re-engineering to improve quality and reliability appropriate to the price points of our watches. The entire team worked on 8 calibres, some were not produced anymore, others we re-designed to improve the quality while reducing time needed for assembly and servicing. A a small brand, H. Moser has found its own voice and segment by producing classic watches with an aesthetic that is dynamic and fresh. Our brand communication “Very Rare” follows accordingly.
Whether it’s the open letter to the Swiss National Bank or the idea of the Swiss Alps watch, you have been very on-point in generating the kind of publicity that other independent firms can only dream of, what’s your secret?
Be lucky; The letter gave us confidence that we can be creative, punch above our weight and not be fearful that we were small. It was our revelation in 2015 and since then we have nurtured the idea of how we could work on topics beyond new watch launches. H. Moser goes beyond simply making watches but also providing commentary about industry subjects and news. With the Swiss Alps Watch, we expressed a counter-point to the Apple Watch and got tremendous PR value. Being a family business also means freedom from political correctness and to break some rules.
Speaking about punching above your weight, even back then, there was talk of an in-house chronograph, any updates on the project?
We have spent about 5 years on the project; on the computer, everything works. Until we are in a position to deliver something like the Perpetual 1 which is easy to use (reliable, calendar setting forward and backwards), only then will we launch it. In the past, H. Moser was a bit too quick with the Perpetual 1 and there were issues and we are going to get this right from the start.
Would it be like a standard three register chronograph or your two register edition?
For me, it should be everything from a point of central indicators with some hidden complications. That’s the essence of H. Moser, like in the Perpetual 1. I won’t reveal everything [laughs]. Most of Moser’s watches look like regular three-hand watches until closer inspection, we like to surprise.
H. Moser built its reputation on exceptional, highly technical innovations like the double hairspring. Are you at all concerned with how your streamlined production process has polarised many watch collectors?
We are still using the double hairspring (editor’s note: though not in as many models and collections as before). It was a 3 year process and we needed to go back to basics by concentrating on best practices. In the near future, people will see that all those elements that made them excited are still very much a part of the brand. Fact is, we didn’t re-create a new perpetual calendar, we simply made the Perpetual 1 better; our movements were already great, we were just making them more reliable and robust; once we had raised them to the level and quality that you would expect, now we can start moving onto other aspects.
We are going to launch a new revolutionary material for hairspring. We are going to continue developing our double hairspring and releasing them in special collections. We are also going to have 2 new complications next year, one of them being completely new to H. Moser. In the pipeline there’s the chronograph and a minute repeater.
The one thing different about H. Moser compared to other small brands is that we don’t go to an external developer to work on novelties, everything is done internally at Moser, it’s not our philosophy and because it’s done in-house, it takes more time.
Commercially, it’s understandable that a company has to make compromises in order to maintain profitability so there’s money for research and development, it’s a fine line to walk, were you at all concerned of how far you could go before it affected the brand?
I think ‘compromising’ is not the right word to use. On the contrary, we re-engineered movements and watches. If you compare the Perpetual 1 from 2006 and the one today, it’s the same movement and virtually same number of components. From the escapement to the chaton, even the finishing is better today, the difference was: rather than have parts which were not up to spec, we took the time to look at every single component in order to produce them the right way. We didn’t compromise, we spent years making it better and optimising things for the watchmaker. Rather than assemble one watch in 2 weeks, he can do it in 30 hours now.
Our watchmakers are no longer setting springs by trial and error by repeatedly bending them. I think many people misunderstood when we said we were re-engineering, they thought we were cutting the value of the movements. Tell me what I cut? Nothing. We saved money and improved profits by saving assembly time through having better parts, better processes and better production. It costs 100 Swiss francs per hour on watches that used to take 90 hours and now reduced by a third. I couldn’t pass these costs to the consumer and so these efficiencies now give me better margins without compromising any aspect of design or function.
Two part question: First, did you use someone to re-engineer the movements and second, before you took over, H. Moser was using external suppliers who weren’t giving you components in the right dimensions?
No, we produced most of them ourselves. The problem was that my predecessors were under so much pressure financially that they had to accept problems that their watchmakers and engineers already knew about. Everything is done internally because our people know best. I put together a ‘Tiger team’ of three people comprising of one engineer and two watchmakers and they worked together for a year solely on improving, modifying, prototyping and testing. In fact, one of the watchmakers was the pioneer for assembling the perpetual calendar and in those days, it took him 9 months to assemble one.
Would you say that the situation within H. Moser today is very different from what most other companies go through where management is constantly overriding the watchmakers?
I think we have the entrepreneurial spirit. Yes, there are some occasions where management makes a decision but most of the time, it’s a team discussion and I feel that the watchmakers are experts and I would rather trust the opinions of my trusted advisors. Sometimes, in terms of communication or product design, you might need to take a stand because others don’t believe in it, like with the Swiss Alps Watch. I said that’s what we’re going to do because while I was an engineer, I was also a marketer and I had a feeling that we could tap on popular culture and produce something provocative so that we create some buzz. My team initially questioned my decision but they have come around and now respect it. That said, differences in opinions gives us opportunity to have robust discussions; but as a trained engineer, i can ask the right questions.
There used to be reliability issues with H. Moser watches but with the new processes in place, what’s the after-sales situation like now?
You should ask the customers [laughs]. It’s totally different now. Products that were on the shelves for some time but sold had some issues, we had a customer with a 2009 model come in but we changed the movement very quickly and we made him one of biggest fans now. That said, most of the older models are fine and some simply have never gotten the right level of service. Some using the older date systems were updated. We don’t change functional elements.
Could you give an average of number of watches returned for after-sales service before you took over and after?
In 2012-13, we had more people in after-sales servicing department and today we only have two people. The lead time is very low now and at any given moment, we only have 20-30 watches in the office. We do 150 watches a year. At H. Moser, servicing takes 3 to 4 months but mostly because of administrative work – collection, register it, assessment, quotation, getting approvals, doing the servicing, doing the tests for power reserve and chronometry, return to the customer. I consider 3 months is pretty short.
In the past, H Moser worked with Andreas Strehler, how have you developed the company’s in-house know-how since and do you still work with external specialists?
We have developed our in-house capabilities and we no longer work with Andreas Strehler nor others. There might be some specific elements where we might seek some help, the tourbillon is a good example as we don’t claim to be experts in that complication. That said, we have an investment in another workshop in Vallée de Joux to work on aspects of the tourbillon. As a group, we have shared competencies through Hautlence and Moser. Hautlence guys are develop crazy complications and H. Moser is about simple, well-optimised products.
H. Moser aims to be provocative and yet you have a descendant of Heinrich Moser currently functioning as honorary chairman, a fairly common heritage practice; do you foresee the importance of such familial connections increasing or decreasing? Is it still relevant today?
To us, yes; because, the Moser family is an amazing one. They were provocative people who challenged the status quo.
But they aren’t watchmakers today…
But they are still very proud of their history. In the H. Moser museum, there are five rooms chronicling their history of innovation and only one devoted to watches. I like to be provocative but I also love history and tradition and it would be a pity to lose that. I think it’s important for future generations to learn how Mr. Moser industrialised Schaffhausen because you shouldn’t forget where you come from. That said, it’s not the main thing we promote. We are very careful with our history, we are happy to show it but we don’t make boring movies and statements about it and lord about how we are from 1828, we leave the things which make us sleep to the established brands. I want to keep this element as one of the pillars but not the main one.
Today, H. Moser is a family-run Schaffhausen watchmaker with 55 dedicated watchmakers producing 1,000 handcrafted watches per annum, a far cry from 80 people producing 700 watches. They aim to hit 3,000 watches per annum in 3-5 years.