At the beginning of 12 questions I normally present the individual with a few words including the name which encapsulate the person, ie designer, watchmaker, journalist etc. With Max, I am little lost. He can't be so easily described; business man, entrepreneur, creator, visionary? What I can say, he is an individual who has helped shape a new generation of watchmaking and has helped many people along the way.
1. What did your parents do? Describe your childhood.
My mother is Indian, my father was Swiss but lived virtually all his life outside Switzerland before we all arrived in 1971 when I was four. My parents met in Bombay in the sixties and were crazily in love with each other for all their life.
Apart for a stint as trade commissioner in India where he met my mother, my father worked most of his life for Nestlé in different countries. Once he got married and I was born, he decided that it was time to “settle down” and the whole family came first to Italy and then finally to Switzerland for the first time, where he worked from the Nestle head office – still travelling a lot. My mother did not work.
As an only child I was always pretty lonely. We lived in the countryside, whilst my school was in town, so it was difficult to interact with any friends outside school time. I was never a daring kid, and always felt a little awkward. At 13 I had to start wearing glasses and ended up in a class where most students were 15 or 16 years old. My teenager years therefore turned out to be pretty tough… I withdrew and felt desperately incapable of “fitting in”.
2. As a child did you have any driving ambition? What did you want to be?
A car designer. From 4 to 18 I sketched and drew cars all the time. It was my calling. When I turned 18 and finished school, the Pasadena Art Center college of design (THE most famous car design college in the world) opened their European campus in Switzerland 20 minutes from where we lived. It was insanely expensive and my parents did not have the means, but they told me they would try to find the money for it. I did not feel I could ask them for that sacrifice, so I did a masters in micro-technology engineering instead. And found watchmaking during that tenure…
3. What is your first memory as a child?
Around 3 ½ years old, opening the fridge door (that handle was so high !) and trying to get my finger dipped into the Nutella pot before my dad or mum’s big hand would catch me by the collar and lift me out of it.
4. Have you ever had another profession? what did you do?
Since university, 26 years ago, I have been in watchmaking.
5. What made you choose to become a _creator_ ? Who have you worked for in the past? What made you decide to go it alone.
The realization around 35 that the little kid who dreamt of being a creator had sold out and become a marketer. For 7 years at JLC and 7 years at HW I always created products by focusing on what the market wanted and what would sell, instead of what I would have liked to create. And it did not make me proud at all. Also I realized that the very respectful and honest values my parents had tried to pass on to me were way too often being trampled by a lot of unscrupulous people in my industry and that for multiple reasons I had to put up with them. That clearly had to stop. Hence I called my brand MB&F (& Friends) even though everyone told me it was the worst name ever for a watch brand… !
6. What’s the worst job you’ve had to do?
As a youngster to earn a living I was a cinema usher during weekday evenings, a hifi-salesman on Saturdays, and would give math private tuition during lunch breaks. I actually enjoyed every one of those jobs. At 24 my first real job was Product Manager at Jaeger-LeCoultre, and it turned out to be a real epiphany. I had found my path, a surrogate family and a meaning to my work.
I really do not like everything administrative (accounting, legal, processes, mrp systems, etc…). I procrastinate and always end up doing it badly. I need to surround myself with people who love doing all that and be way better than me at it.
7. What’s been the hardest moment in your life so far, how did you over come it?
There have been some very tough years at MB&F – some where we were close to bankruptcy – but nothing was ever as hard as my first year at Harry Winston. At age 31 I left the comfort of JLC to take over their timepiece division to discover it was virtually bankrupt, and the brand was put on sale a few weeks later. The New York head office was experiencing such difficulties that it could not help us at all. I was basically told “you save the company or we put it bankrupt”. We had the wrong product, the wrong suppliers, nearly only the wrong retailers, a small demotivated team who all wanted to leave and could barely pay the salaries at end of the month. And to top it up, apart for Mr. Winston himself and our C.O.O. Robert Benvenuto, everyone in the company wanted the timepiece division to be shut down. It was an insane battle to bring it back from the brink of bankruptcy. After three months of 18 hours work a day I got a massive stress related ulcer but there was no choice than to continue battling ahead. It took the better part of 14 to 16 months to start seeing light at the end of the tunnel. 1998-1999 were horrible years, but having survived them, it gave me the courage six years later to create my own adventure. Am not sure I would have taken that next step, if I had not known what sort of stress levels I could sustain.
8. Who has had the strongest influence on you? who are your inspirations. ?
Clearly my parents as far as values go. Unfortunately like most youngsters I realized that way too late in life. Too busy constructing myself and being angry at too many people.
Professionally Günther Blümlein and Henry-John Belmont nurtured me during my early years at Jaeger-LeCoultre. My love of great products comes from them, my quest for value-for-money and integrity also. I was so lucky to have started in watchmaking in an era pre-publicly owned groups, where we never ever discussed how to make more money, just how to first save the company and then how to build it. And the only way we knew was to create fantastic products.
9. What are you most proud of?
Having upheld at all times the values my parents brought me up with.
10. What advice would you give to a 20 something someone thinking of taking a similar path as you?
Only do it if it is your passion. Your chances of failure are extremely high so become an entrepreneur only if you think you will have enormous regrets for not trying.
A brand is by far not only a product. One needs an incredible array of talents to succeed, and no single person has all of them. So make sure you have a lot of talented people around you.
Pride is the best ever driver as a creative entrepreneur. Stay far from any decision which would not make you proud.
Karma is a bitch but it can be incredibly positive and powerful, so treat everyone the way you would want to be treated.
11. Name three things on your bucket list.
See my daughters find their way and be happy
Create a very innovative piece of watchmaking which could be at much more affordable prices
Say thank you to all those who believed in me, and helped me over the years. So let’s start with you Peter. I will never be able to repay you for your kindness and help. Without you there would probably be no MB&F today.
12. Where do you think the industry is going to be in 10 years time.
The winter is coming... It seems to me we are at the end of a cycle, where most big players have bought their growth and forgotten, or not dared, to invest in creativity. It seems there will be two sorts of watchmaking: industrial highly marketed volume brands, and artisan highly creative micro-players. In between am not sure there will be much oxygen to breathe.