In an industry where traditionalists and those who want to break the mold find little common ground, Max Busser has made the transition from corporate CEO to innovator and protector of mechanical and horological art.
His lifelong journey has led him in and out of the therapist chair, including a move from Geneva to Dubai, and an edict, now six years old, to halt revenue growth.
After collaborating with music box maker Reuge and penmaker Caran d’Ache, opening M.A.D. galleries dedicated to kinetic art with plans for more, a coffee maker could be next.
Navigator caught up with Busser during a two-day stop in Jupiter, Florida, and a visit to Provident Jewelry.
N: Tell us how you got started in horology?
MB: I entered the watchmaking world 29 years ago at Jaeger-LeCoultre as a young product manager at a time when nobody wanted a mechanical watch. At the time Jaeger was as big as my little brand MB&F is today. We were all crazy people talking to other crazy people, because at that time there was only a very small group of people who liked mechanical watches, and I fell in love with that world.
N: What happened after that?
MB: After seven years, at the age of 31, I was headhunted by Harry Winston to talk over its timepieces division, which I didn’t know was virtually bankrupt. It took almost two years to save it. Then in five years, by 2005, we had taken the company’s sales from $8 million to $80 million. During those years I discovered I was capable of doing what I do, which I hadn’t known. And more amazing, the more power and success I had, the less happy I was. And I felt guilty. When you come like me from no money at all like me, and you become the CEO of Harry Winston Timepieces, you can’t feel unhappy. You feel like an ungrateful bastard.
N: What was the problem?
MB: When my dad passed away in December 2001, I spent 12 seconds crying and got back on the treadmill. Then, six months later, every time I saw a movie where a son lost his father, I would start crying. So, I decided to go into therapy. In Switzerland, that’s normal to say. But in 18 months, I realized the most important thing for me in my life was to have no regrets.
I’ve been a creator my whole life since I was a kid. And in my professional life, in watchmaking, I realized everything I was doing was creating products for the market. I was creating products I thought would sell. I had sold out, and I hated it myself.
N: How did that impact you?
MB: I decided the problem wasn’t Harry Winston. The problem was me. I needed to create my kinetic sculptures — mechanical art — my 3-D vision of watchmaking, and it had to be my company, because who was going to like my crazy ideas?
The other thing I realized in therapy is my parents were the kindest people I ever met. But in business, you have to associate with horrible people, because they have money or power or both; they’re people who you would never associate, but you take them out to lunch. I hated myself for that. I hated that I was transgressing my values.
N: So, you decided to launch MB&F?
MB: A lot of people are puzzled not only by what I do but the way I do it. MB&F was a life decision, not a business decision. When I came up with the name, Max Busser and Friends, I was told by friends and others that it was the worst name ever. But, I decided that I wanted to work with people who share the same values. That was the impetus. I was not an entrepreneur. After the Basel show in 2005, I resigned from Harry Winston. I put all my savings into my company and set it up. In 2005 there had one employee, me. I worked from my little flat in Geneva, and that was how it was for the first two years trying to create my dream.
N: How would you describe MB&F?
MB: We create kinetic sculptures that give time. I deconstruct beautiful, traditional watchmaking and reconstruct it into a 3-D sculpture working only with people who share the same value, so they are the friends.
N: How has it changed over time?
MB: Originally, I was alone so everything was sub-contracted. Now 15 years later, we’re 26 in the company and we’ve integrated 70 percent of everything. We have three engineers inhouse who develop all our movements. We have our six CNC machines where we now machine a very big part of our components and cases. And we, of course, assemble all of our watches. In March we will reveal our 18th completely different movement in 15 years.
N: How often do you launch a new movement?
MB: We do at least one new movement each year. It’s a complicated process. A movement takes three and a half to four years to develop and it’s a very cash-intensive process. Everything is in parallel. Right now, we are working on six calibers, one coming out this year, two next year, one the year after and so forth.
N: What is so attractive about making timepieces?
MB: The movement is the engine of the watch. The movement alone is between 360 and 650 components. It is a master of mechanical engineering. As difficult as it is to do a car engine, it is even more difficult to do a watch engine. Every single part is so tiny. The teeth of our wheels are as thin as hair. These parts are hitting each other every second, and it’s not like a car that’s in the garage 20 hours a day. These watches keep on going every second, every hour all year. So we are talking incredibly intense engineering.
Then we add finishing all done by hand. We craft 210 watches per year. Everything is hand-angled and hand-finished. Each watchmaker assembles his or her movement from scratch. We’re still doing watchmaking the way it was done 100 years ago. I defend watchmaking as art and insanely incredible handcraft.
N: Do you ever get customers who aren’t timepiece collectors?
MB: You have to be a real connoisseur to know about us. But suddenly, when you meet somebody who is not a watch person because they’re not interested in the same round watches you get everywhere, that’s a wow. Of course, they have to have the means. Our average retail price is around $140,000, which has increased from $80,000 about three years ago.
N: What about growth?
MB: In 2013, I decided to stop the growth of my company. Since we have brought in the same revenue every year. We cut in half our number of retailers in the last three years as every retailer wants more inventory.
N: Does that seem like an odd strategy?
MB: One thing is being proud and the other thing is being happy. Seven years ago, when I had my first child MB&F was my life. I gave everything to it with pleasure. And then I realized I wanted to carve out a solid part of that life to give to my family. I decided I was going to take a step back and find a balance between MB&F and my family, and that meant stopping growth. Without that growth, our pieces have become so much more desirable. More than 50 percent of our pieces are on a waiting list.
N: And do you still travel around the world seeing retailers and customers as you once did?
MB: I travel much, much less than before. Ten years ago, I would be traveling trying to predicate my brand, now it’s about sitting down with my collector friends and talking like friends. We don’t need sales. We need to deliver more pieces. As a creator, it’s humiliating to try and sell your pieces. You create for yourself. Then you have to explain to people why you created it. I’ve taken that out of my life. The most important thing in my life today is my family, which I moved to Dubai five years ago. I work from home. At 3 pm when my girls come home, I stop working and we do things as a family. I go to the workshop in Geneva five days a month where I work 18-hour days. I do one week of traveling. My wife works from home also.
N: How is living in Dubai?
MB: It’s extraordinary. With Emirates, you can fly nonstop everywhere. It’s super safe, one of the safest places on the planet, which sometimes seems weird when you think of where it’s located. It’s got a super infrastructure. It’s super modern, growing and thriving with great schools. There is a state-of-the-art Swiss school. It’s an incredible hub to live, and it’s a very entrepreneur-friendly environment. Today I create and love. I don’t take care of production, sales, all the stuff I used to have to do.
N: You now have two daughters. Would you like to see them become the second-generation creators at MB&F?
MB: I want to allow my daughters to have choices in life, and not bog them down and say you have to take over daddy’s company. One of the things my parents gave me is a great education, one which they probably couldn’t afford, and the freedom to choose what I wanted to be. Certainly, every parent who builds a business would love their kids to take over, but if they do and it’s not their calling it could be a disaster.
N: How do the M.A.D. galleries fit in?
MB: Well, M.A.D. stands for mechanical art devices. In 2011, I had this weird idea to create an art gallery, which we had no experience in art and no experience in retail, and we just did it. The gallery was a decoding machine because our watches don’t look like watches. And that’s right, they’re art. The gallery collection is mechanical artists from all over the world, so if maybe if you understand what they’re doing, you’ll understand what we’re doing.
The people who enter usually stay at least 30 minutes. It’s also a way of giving back. Most of the artists we feature can’t find galleries because most galleries aren’t interested in mechanical or kinetic art, so many have come to depend on us. Right now we have galleries in Geneva, Dubai, Hong Kong and Tapei, with plans to open in other cities.
N: It’s not unusual for large companies in watchmaking to acquire smaller, hot brands. Is that a possibility for you?
MB: We have no shareholders, no investors, never made a loss and have no debt, and no, we are not for sale. I have had two offers to become a creative director for major brands, but I don’t think that would accomplish much for either of us. I do think the big boys would benefit from our creativity. In the fashion world, brands collaborate with small, edgy designers. I would love to do something wild with a big brand.
N: Are there any industries you would like to create for?
MB: If I met somebody in fashion who knew how the system works, I would look at it. I designed one of the coolest coffee machines, but I haven’t found a coffee machine maker who wants to make it a reality. Most of them are freaked out.
N: What’s unique about it?
MB: You will see when it comes out.
N: Any final thoughts?
MB: I never expected to be in this position, creating robot watches and Star Wars music boxes. I have no clue what I’m going to do tomorrow. Once you let go and have no idea what’s going to happen, life becomes really interesting.
For more information on MB&F Watches, please email [email protected] or call (561) 358 7721.