'Mr. Swatch' Nicolas Hayek dies of unexpected heart failure

GENEVA -- Nicolas Hayek, chairman and former chief executive of the giant Swiss watch-manufacturing firm Swatch, has died. He was 82.

Swatch Group said Hayek died unexpectedly of heart failure Monday at his office in Biel, Switzerland.

''Nicolas G. Hayek's greatest merit was his enormous contribution to the saving of the Swiss watch industry and the foundation and the commercial development of the Swatch Group,'' the company said in a statement.

The self-styled Mr. Swatch is credited with reinventing Swiss watch-making in the 1980s by introducing radical cost-saving moves after he was asked to help close it down.

When Swiss banks asked Hayek's consultancy firm for a report on the Alpine country's watch-making industry, the two main manufacturers were on the verge of bankruptcy. The banks thought Swiss watches could not compete with digital watches made in the Far East, as the makers did not want to abandon their high prices and were rapidly losing market share.

Hayek maintained they could survive, by making less expensive products and charging a premium for top-of-the-range timepieces 'Made in Switzerland' -- the traditional home of precision timekeeping.

Guided by Hayek's consultancy, the watch-making companies merged to form SMH, in which Hayek bought a 51 percent share in 1984. Hayek reasoned that a cheap watch could tell the time just as well as an expensive one and SMH started to produce a plastic wristwatch -- the Swatch -- which revolutionized the industry. SMH was renamed the Swatch Group in 1998.

He introduced the use of plastic cases, quartz movements and mass-production to hold down prices of cheaper watches.

Although the Swatch brand became a global fashion success, Hayek also made money from the company's more upmarket brands, such as Breguet, Calvin Klein, Longines and Omega. ''People buy these watches like others buy Picassos,'' he told the International Herald Tribune in 2004.