In the early 1980s, the Swiss watch industry was nearly dead. Competition from cheap, but often high-quality, products from Far Eastern manufacturers, such as Seiko and Casio, had almost obliterated the traditional Swiss industry. Trying to protect their investments, the Swiss banks organised a merger of the two largest companies on the advice of Nicolas Hayek, now boss of Swatch’s parent company SMH, which was formed from the merger.
Hayek saw the potential of a new plastic-cased watch which was already being developed inside one of the companies. One of its major advantages was that it could be made in high volume at very low cost. The quartz mechanism was built directly into the all-plastic case using very few components, less than half the number in most other watches. Fewer components also meant that the manufacture of the watch could be fully automated. This made Swatches cheap to produce, even in Switzerland, which has one of the highest labour costs in the world.
The innovative design, some creative marketing, but above all else the operation’s success at producing the watch cheaper than anyone else brought the company significant rewards. In the early 1980s, the total market share for all Swiss watches was around 25 per cent; 10 years later it had more than doubled. The ability to offer a good watch at a low price had released the potential of the watch to become a fashion accessory.
Swatch’s operations reaped the benefits of high volume, but had to cope with an everincreasing variety of product designs. Through automation and rigid standardisation of the internal mechanism of the watch, the company managed this increase in variety without crippling its costs. It is the success of the company’s operations managers in keeping their costs low (direct labour cost is less than seven per cent of the total cost of production) that has allowed Swatch to succeed.
Not that everything the company has done has...