Patrick Heiniger 1950-2013

Patrick Heiniger 1950-2013

Patrick Heiniger ran Rolex for sixteen years, between 1992 and 2008; which might seem like a fleeting moment, compared to the 90 years at the helm of his two predecessors in the job, his father Andre and Hans Wilsdorf. But under his management, Rolex changed more than they ever did under their reign. What we now think of as 'Rolex' is essentially his creation; he was responsible for three major changes; he consolidated the firm's manufacturing sites down from thirty to four, with the construction of huge new factories on Greenfield sites; he bought 'The Other Rolex' Rolex SA, the Bienne firm owned by the Aegler-Borer family, who had been manufacturing their movements since the inception of Rolex and he re-positioned the brand in the market. He re-positioned the brand by focusing on a statement made by his late father, Andre, who famously said: "Rolex is not in the watch business, we are in the luxury business." Patrick realized that a woman who is thinking about buying a two tone Datejust, isn't deciding whether to spend the purchase price on an Omega or a Rolex; rather she is deciding whether to spend it on a Louis Vuitton handbag or a Rolex. Whilst the potential purchaser of a Day Date might be contemplating trading his current Porsche 911 for a new one, and does the money go to the Porsche dealer or the Rolex one. Like most things at Rolex, these changes (whilst radical) were done quietly and it is only if you look at the company as it was twenty years ago and as it is now, that you can take in the scope of these changes.

But, I guarantee that his greatest memorial will be the four giant manufacturing complexes whose construction he oversaw; Bienne for movement manufacture, dials were made at Chéne-Bourg, which is also where diamond and jewel setting takes place; Plan les Ouates is where both cases and bracelets are manufactured and where Rolex operates its own gold foundry; whilst Acacias is where final assembly and testing takes place. The Acacias plant is also the firm's world HQ and where all of their research & development is carried out. By purchasing all of their subcontractors and then concentrating all work within these plants Rolex were not only able to rationalize their production but also able to increase the quality of the product, look at a twenty year old Rolex bracelet and compare it to a new one, the change in quality is obvious even to an untrained eye.

The previous paragraphs were about his accomplishments, now let's talk about the man; it is important to understand two things about him, he was a Swiss lawyer by training; but, on the other hand, he was the least Swiss lawyer like person I have ever met who actually was one. He always reminded me of the polo playing younger son of some minor European royal family. Tall, slim and always exquisitely attired, even on the weekend: I remember running into him at London's Portobello Road antiques market at 7:30am, one Saturday morning over a dozen years ago. He stood out amongst the crowd, not only because he was several inches taller than them, but also because he was immaculately turned out at this ungodly hour. His blazer was impeccably cut, his shoes shone like patent leather and the knot in his necktie was just that bit bigger than any one you had ever seen. That was the second or third time I had met him, and on every occasion he was the epitome of graciousness.

But, what most people who know Rolex will think of when they hear of his demise is the mystery surrounding his departure from the firm at the end of 2008. Like most things to do with Rolex, it was a private affair with little explanations given either by the firm or himself; so, as nature abhors a vacuum, the lack of information encouraged a swarm of rumours to arise. The firm batted down the most evidently incorrect ones, like the Madoff connection, but the rest continued to swirl around. Immediately below these words you will find the Rolex press release about his demise and the opening sentence explains his departure from the firm with these words; 'after a long illness'; in other words, he was suffering from cancer, he knew his time was limited and chose to spend it with his family.

For most watchnuts, Hans Wilsdorf will always be the man behind Rolex; but, for me Patrick Heiniger comes a close second. In London's St. Paul's Cathederal, the grave of its architect bears the legend "Si monumentum requiris, circumspice" (If you seek his memorial, look around you); it is also a fitting epitaph for Patrick Heiniger, when you look at the company he left behind.

Geneva, 5 March 2013 The Board of Directors and the General Management of Rolex SA express their deep sorrow on the passing of Patrick Heiniger, former Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of the company, in Monaco after a long illness. They would like to pay tribute to the memory of a man who marked the history of the company when he presided over its destiny from 1992 to 2008, and extend their sincere condolences to his family and friends.

Throughout his 16 years as head of the company, Patrick Heiniger was the faithful heir to the spirit of enterprise that has made Rolex an exceptional brand. He combined tradition with the demands of an ever-evolving world and his vision brought the company solidly into the third millennium.

Patrick Heiniger was appointed Managing Director of Rolex in 1992, six years after he joined as Commercial Director. He was also named Chief Executive Officer in 1997. As the company's third Managing Director since it was founded, he followed his father, André J. Heiniger, who in 1963 had succeeded Hans Wilsdorf, the founder of Rolex. Born in Argentina in 1950, Patrick Heiniger was a lawyer by training, specializing in international and intellectual property law. He made it his mission to reinforce the defence of the brand throughout the world.

Under his impetus, in the mid-1990s Rolex made a fundamental strategic choice and opted for the vertical integration of its means of production. This strategy was intended to guarantee control over manufacturing of the essential components of the brand's watches and thus to ensure its autonomy.

Rolex decided to group at three industrial sites all of its activities located in the canton of Geneva. This step was designed to reinforce the quality of its products while remaining true to the best watchmaking tradition. The vast vertical integration programme led to the construction of new, state-of-the-art production facilities at Rolex headquarters at Acacias, at Plan-les-Ouates and at Chêne-Bourg in the 2000s, as well as at Bienne in north-western Switzerland, where a new extension building was inaugurated in October 2012.

As a true independent watchmaker of the 21st century, enjoying unprecedented freedom in the design and manufacture of its watches, Rolex could take its ambition for excellence and innovation to new heights.

In 2002, Patrick Heiniger created the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, dedicated to helping promising young artists realize their full potential under the watchful eye of a renowned mentor in their discipline.

That same year, he was awarded the insignia of Chevalier of the National Order of the Legion of Honour and, in 2005, he was appointed Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters.

Patrick Heiniger retired from the helm of Rolex in December 2008.

Part Three of my Rolex Factory Articles

For the last fifty years Rolex have pursued one policy with an almost myopic vision; that of self-sufficiency. In that period, they have purchased bought almost all of the sub-contractors who used to supply them. Genex, who made cases were one of the first to be bought, then they bought Gay Freres, who made their bracelets and around a decade ago they bought Beyeler who were one of their major dial suppliers. These suppliers, and many more were scattered all around Geneva and throughout Switzerland, at one point Rolex had 27 factories; hardly the height of efficiency, so, starting in the 1990s they began a decade long programme of consolidation.
The 27 factories became three mega factories; dials were made at Chéne-Bourg, which is also where diamond and jewel setting takes place; Plan les Ouates is where both cases and bracelets are manufactured and where Rolex operates its own gold foundry; whilst Acacias is where final assembly and testing takes place. The Acacias plant is also the firm’s world HQ and where all of their research & development is carried out.

Rolex Chéne-Bourg

Rolex Plan les Ouates

Rolex Acacias

Yet despite all this consolidation, there was one part of the watch that Rolex didn’t make, and that was a rather important part, the movement. Although all the movements came from one factory which even bore the name Rolex, they didn’t own it, it was owned by the Aegler/Borer family; a family arguably as important as Wilsdorf in the history of Rolex. To understand the relationship we have to travel back over a century to the very founding of Rolex; actually, even further back, to the founding of Wilsdorf and Davis in 1905. In these early days, the firm didn’t make watches, rather it assembled them; buying movements from a few Swiss firms and putting these in cases bought from firms in the UK and in Switzerland. The vast majority of the watches they were selling were ladies’ watches, because (at this point) almost no men wore wristwatches.
As the business progressed, Wilsdorf decided to return to Switzerland, where he had previously worked, to seek out a single movement supplier, rather than the several he had been using. His eye alighted on the firm of Jean Aegler in Bienne, as they specialised in movements for ladies’ watches, as this advertisement for the original company emphasises.

He developed a close relationship with Hermann Aegler (one of Jean Aegler’s sons) and subsequently gave him the largest order for small watch movements ever placed in Switzerland. What was special about Aegler was that they specialised in Lever Escapement movements at a time when almost all small movements had Cylinder Escapements, which are inherently less accurate. Look at the label on the back of this 1912 Rolex, powered by a Rebberg movement from Aegler, the word ‘Lever’ is as prominent as ‘Rolex’.

Over the next few years the relationship between Rolex and Aegler blossomed, each riding on the popularity of the wristwatch, in 1920 Hermann Aegler became one of the owners of Rolex when he purchased 6,960 shares and was appointed to the board, along with Wilsdorf and Davis. By now Rolex was Aegler’s largest client and their second largest was the US firm Gruen. In the late 1920s two important things happened, Hermann’s nephew Emile Borer became technical director at Aegler and the relationship between Aegler and its two most important clients became formalised for the first time. Both Rolex & Gruen purchased shares in Aegler, which was then renamed “Aegler, Society Anonyme, Manufacture des Montres: Rolex et Gruen Guild A” which means “Aegler Inc; makers of watches (actually movements) for Rolex & Gruen Guild A” (the Guild A watches were the highest grade watches that Gruen sold). For the first time Rolex owned a piece of its own movement manufacturing operation.

What was quite funny was that both Rolex and Gruen liked to imply that the factory, which was still majority owned by the Aegler/Borer family, was actually owned by each of the watch firms. Have a look at the image in Gruen’s advertising.

and at one from a similar period in a Rolex publication;

The interesting thing to note is that both these illustrations are actually drawings, because neither of them reflects the real signage on the factory.
Towards the end of the 1930s, Gruen sold their shares in Aegler back to the factory and at that time Rolex Geneva did the same thing; simultaneously with this, Aegler sold their Rolex shares back to Wilsdorf. This meant that the two factories now had single family ownership; Geneva with Wilsdorf and his wife, May and Bienne with the Aegler/Borer family. However, this did not reflect a worsening relationship between the two, rather it signified a new stage in the relationship; the Aegler factory was renamed “Manufactre des Montres Rolex SA” and the two families agreed that, from now on, Geneva would only use movements from Bienne and that Bienne would only sell movements to Geneva.
This convivial, yet completely informal, relationship lasted for almost seventy years, but in March 2004 an email landed in my in-box which amazed me; Rolex Geneva had bought Rolex Bienne outright; and, not long after, the consolidation masterplan was modified to include the Bienne facilities.
Over the years, the Bienne factory had been expanded to meet the increased production needs, but it was already becoming cramped; take a look at the image below.

The tallest building, in the centre with the word “Aegler” on the roof was the original Jean Aegler building and all the others were added on, over the years, sometimes this involved parts of the complex being on different sides of the road, connected by overhead bridges.

So, even prior to the acquisition, it was decided to move to a green field site on the outskirts of Bienne and the first stage of the move to the new facility at Champs-de-Boujean was made in 1993, with a subsequent move in 2003. In other words, Rolex Bienne was out of the old factories even before Rolex Geneva purchased them. But two years after the purchase, Rolex bought a 46,000 Sq M site adjacent to the Champs-de-Boujean site. For those of you unused to metric measurements, the new site is the equivalent of over six US Football fields and is connected to the existing site which is the same size; in other words the new Rolex Bienne facility is the size of 13 US Football fields.
Construction on the site began in the summer of 2009 and almost exactly three years later, the site was ready for the official opening. The delays between the purchase of the site and the start of construction were due to the decision to make the new factories in the mould of the Rolex Geneva ones, with high levels of energy efficiency and a very sophisticated parts storage and retrieval system.
I do half a dozen watch factory visits a year; and with almost all the major brands, there is one constant: none of them allow photography within the production areas. But this isn’t because they don’t want their competitors to know what is going on; rather it is because they don’t want us customers to know that the inside of one watch factory looks just like every other watch factory. A few Electro erosion machines and banks of CNC controlled multi axis drilling & boring machines. And there isn’t even much variety amongst the machines, as all of them come from a very small group of suppliers. Not at Rolex, who make so many watches that they are in the privileged position to design and commission much of their own production machinery. So, the Rolex factory doesn’t look like everyone else’s; for example, let’s talk about security; watches are small, portable and high value. So, many firms will lock away their watches, which are in the process of production, every night in a safe like this:

This is the Rolex equivalent at the new Bienne facility:

Three stories high, but all underground, the automated stocking system is a high-security vault, located on the underground floors of the new building.
Consisting of 14 aisles of shelves, each alround 30 feet high, it has a total of more than 46,000 storage compartments.
Each of these spaces is able to receive parts in various forms of packaging placed on transport trays. In total, the vault is able to store tens of millions of components. Each aisle is served by conveyor robots –14 in all – (one per aisle) which pick up from the shelves the required trays and automatically place them on the distribution conveyors which go to the various working areas. These conveyor robots move at 10 feet a second. The delivery takes place via this vast horizontal conveyor network, including four vertical distribution towers similar to elevators which are almost 90 feet tall. The system is so efficient that it takes barely a few minutes to deliver the tray to its destination.
On each floor, near the distribution tower, a delivery station allows the users to pick up the trays they have ordered from stock and to send back those that are to be returned for storage. In total, 22 stations are set up, two of which are double: one at the receiving docks and the other dedicated to the checking and washing of components delivered by suppliers.
Computers control the automated stocking system and all the flows. A routing system coordinates some 60 programmable controllers, which manage the tray movements under way and guide the trays between the stock area and the workshops. The whole installation is continuously overseen, 24 hours a day, by an extremely high-performance software program.
Because the whole operation is computer controlled and parts can be accessed at any part of the factory, there is no need for a human being ever to enter the space; so it is not only an automated storage and retrieval system but it is also a very high security vault, containing literally millions of parts, worth millions of Swiss Francs.
Earlier I talked about the machinery that Rolex use, what is important to understand is that this machinery is used to produce the parts, the assembly of those parts is still done by hand, the way it has always been done at Rolex.
Here are the assemblers at Rolex, hard at work in the 1950s:

And here they are in the new Bienne facility:

The most specialised workers at Bienne are the folks who produce the Parachrom hairspring; which is completely made at Bienne; right from alloying the special Rolex patented alloy, all the way to making the Breguet overcoil before it is attached to the balance wheel.
Here are some of those folks at work:

In the lower image you can see how the view from the windows is on to a forest, although the site is not far out of Bienne it is not only set in a green environment, it is a very ‘green’ building, following in the footsteps of the new Rolex Geneva factories.

Like them, there is a rooftop garden, where water used by the factory is used to water the plants, many of which are herbs used in the kitchens in the nearby rooftop restaurant. The plants and their soil also provide a very efficient thermal barrier for the buildings, preventing heat from escaping during the cold months and protecting the interior from the heat of the sun during the summer.

As well as having almost all glass walls, the interior of the building is also flooded with natural light by virtue of ‘light wells’ situated throughout the central area. Reaching from the roof to the ground floor; like lamps, these overlapping wells bring natural daylight to the centre of the common areas. Their layout is reminiscent of the gear trains of a watch, a spectacular visual reference to the movement. The materials used – glass, stainless steel, light and dark wood – give a very contemporary feel to the whole interior.

The reason for having so much natural light is that not only does it cut down on the need for artificial light and energy but it is so much better to work under, and it is for this reason that watch ateliers were always on the top floor of buildings and if we look at images of Bienne in the 1960s, we see that even then, as much work as possible was done in under natural light.

What seems amazing, if you think about it, is that this giant complex is devoted to the production of only four different movements; the Rolex 22XX series, as found in the ladies’ and mid size watches; the 31XX series found in the gents’ watches; the 41XX Daytona movement, also used in the YM II and the new 90XX calibre used, so far, only in the new Sky Dweller. However, when you realise that they don’t just make the movement blanks and bridges here, but they even make the jewels, the shock protection and even the lubricants used in the watch right here in Bienne, you realise just how monumental the operation needs to be.
Bienne currently employs around 2,000 people, around a third of the firm’s total Swiss staff, with the rest at the three Geneva factories and head office. These new facilities are designed so that they can be doubled in size should the need arise; meaning that after more than a century on one site in Bienne, Rolex are set for their second century in the town in their new complex.

Posted by James Dowling at 06:04 No comments:
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Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Pre Basel Bombshell; Citizen buys Swiss Watchmaking Group

Hello All;

Citizen, by one measure, the world's biggest watchmaking company today announced the purchase of Prothor.

Yes, I know that you have never heard of Prothor, but you might well have heard of the firms owned by Prothor; La Joux Perret a movement manufacturer, Prototec, a components maker and Arnold & Son a high end watch brand.

In their submission to the Tokyo Stock Exchange, Citizen said that they paid 64.6 million Swiss Francs for the company.

The plans are two fold, there is now a possibility for Citizen to produce 'Swiss Made' watches and there is potential for Porotec to become a full fledged competitor to the Swatch Group's ETA as Porotec will now have access to Citizen's hairspring manufacturing technology.

This is major news, by any measure. I plan to speak to someone at Citizen on Wednesday & will pass on any information I can obtain.

The above are the few facts as known at this moment; here is some wild and utterly unverified speculation;
1 Citizen were upset when the rules of the 2009 chronometry competition were announced and they saw that Asian manufacturers were excluded. Unlike Seiko who won major prizes in the mid 1960s, Citizen have never entered the Swiss chronometer competitions and they saw their new mechanical 'The Citizen' watch as their chance to garner some laurels. By buying a Swiss company, they can then make the watch in Switzerland and then enter it.

2 The three largest hairspring manufacturers in the world are the Nivarox/FAR division of ETA, Citizen and Seiko. Should Citizen transfer some of their hairspring manufacturing technology to their new Swiss subsidiary along with Swiss production of their Miyota movements; they have the POTENTIAL to become the first ever real competition to ETA. Sure, lots of people from DeBethune to Rolex are making their own hairsprings nowadays, but they are almost all used in house. To the best of my knowledge, there is no-one producing them on a large scale for sale. If Citizen start to produce them in Switzerland, it will genuinely be a game changer.

Please feel free to comment & I will update this with any information I get at Basel in the next few days.

Posted by James Dowling at 04:53 No comments:
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Labels: Chronometers, Citizen, Hairsprings

Monday, 5 September 2011

Doing it right at Roger Dubuis

In August I had the pleasure of spending a few days at the Roger Dubuis factory and had essentially unfettered access to the place and the staff.

If we are honest, RD have previously been known for three things: phenomenally designed movements, over the top case & dial designs and a reliability record only rivalled by the TU 144 'Konkordski'.

The new management are truly determined to change the final point, but you hear these sort of things from PR people all the time, so I learn to take them with the proverbial grain of salt.

Probably the most complex movement that Roger Dubuis make is the RD 01, a double flying tourbillon with 319 parts.

In parallel with developing the brand new movement for the new Monagasque line

their design department also undertook a detailed analysis of all the current movements.

In the course of this analysis, they diagnosed several inherent areas in the RD 01 movement which could prove to be problematic. So, they redesigned the movement; this wasn't just a quick fix, it involved redesigning 32 individual components, including the main plate and changing the watch from having the two tourbillons rotating in opposite directions to having them move in the same one.

That was a good idea, redesigning the movement so that it was less likely to present problems down the line. But it was what they did next that signaled that the firm were truly committed to quality. They then contacted all their distributors and asked them to return any watches still in stock and they retro fitted them with the new movements and returned them. Then they went to the retailers and asked them to send back any watches they had and finally, they had the retailers contact all the original owners of the watches, and they were all brought back to the factory, no matter if they were out of warranty, and brought right up to date.

In all, around 100 watches were revised, not exactly an insignificant operation. I don't know if any other firm has done this, but I have to say it certainly shows a commitment to quality I haven't previously encountered.


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