Spend a few hours with Max Busser and it quickly becomes apparent why the founder of rebellious watch brand MB&F is among the most respected people in the industry.
A born raconteur, Busser has paved an interesting path - from saving an icon to polishing a bankrupt diamond to creating a keenly followed independent watch brand. "My life has been amazing," says Busser, 45.
At the 41st Baselworld show last week, MB&F again turned heads with its new Megawind watch. However, the buzz didn't stop with watches, with the company causing confusion and wonderment at the MusicMachine, a high-end music player that blasts out 1970s rock classics as well as sci-fi tunes.
"What is MB&F? It stands for Maximilian Busser and Friends, but we don't consider it a brand, there is no brand DNA," says Busser. "You have to be very different to appreciate what we do. The people who bought the first piece - and it sold out pretty quickly in 2007 - were total rebels, the nutters."
A rebel in a conservative industry, Busser is a bundle of contradictions, much of which is due to his unique background. Born in Italy in 1967 to a Swiss father and Indian mother, Busser has always felt like an outsider.
"My life has been a balancing act. Half Indian, half Swiss. Half emotional, half rational. Half dreamer, half realist. Half creator, half engineer."
The engineering half came from his time at Lausanne University and a master's in microtechnology, studies which Busser admits he hated and only did to please his father. Busser's lack of love for what he saw as the dry life of the engineer almost led to a job at Procter & Gamble. "Watchmaking saved my life. If I had gone to work for P&G I would be so unhappy. My God! I would be selling Pampers today!"
a project on watchmaking at university and interviewed some managing directors - one was Henri-Jean Belmont of Jaeger-LeCoultre," he says, recounting how a chance encounter on the slopes of Verbier a few months later led to a phone call and what he calls the interview of his life. "It lasted three hours and during that time Belmont didn't ask me a single question. He took me through the almost derelict factory telling me his plans."
Jaeger-LeCoultre was much like the rest of the Swiss watch industry at the time: either bankrupt, coming out of bankruptcy or on the verge of it; hurt by the quartz revolution that began in the '70s. Busser saw the risks but was moved by Belmont's parting words: "Do you want to be one among 200,000 in a big corporation, or do you want to be among the four or five of us who can save this beautiful company?"
Busser remained at Jaeger- LeCoultre for seven years and, as product manager, helped nurse the company back to health - and record profits. Still only 31, his talents did not go unnoticed and Busser was headhunted to lead Harry Winston Timepieces.
"What I didn't know when
I took the job was that the company was virtually bankrupt. The day after I signed, I saw the headline in the Herald Tribune: 'Harry Winston for sale.' So I am at the head of a small operation, we're virtually bankrupt with the wrong product, the wrong retailers, the wrong suppliers, no reason to exist, and a team that wanted to leave." But, with the help of some ingenious products and marketing, Busser turned things around.
"I came up with the concept of 'rare timepieces' - after all, you couldn't find us anywhere - so I just flipped it into a positive. Fantastic reverse psychology,"
he says with a laugh. Busser also instituted the Opus project, now one of the most iconic watch ranges in the world.
After seven years with Harry Winston, Busser decided to pursue his dream. "I wanted to create my own thing, no shareholders, and have total freedom to do what I wanted to do. But I had no money."
So Busser packed his bag with sketches and travelled the world to try and convince retailers to forward him money for orders that wouldn't be completed for two years - unheard of in the watch industry. "That's why the company is called Maximilian Busser & Friends, those early friends, the watchmakers who helped out, the retailers who believed in us, the clients who
buy our watches now, they understand what we do and
they help us."
The latest example of help from Max's friends is the MB&F Beijing boutique.
"One of our very good clients, who has six of our pieces, lives in Beijing and adores MB&F. He was pushing me to be in China, and
I said I don't have the money."
This Beijing collector contacted the owner of the luxury ParkLife Centre, herself an MB&F collector, and the first MB&F boutique was launched.
"The guys in Beijing know and I know there is no way you can make money out of an MB&F boutique but they did it out of love. I'm constantly meeting people who inspire me and I inspire them and boom we work together and see what happens."