SMH AG (Swatch)

Getting to Biel, Switzerland involves making a side trip from my Bern to Basel route but what the heck, it's home to SMH, the world's largest manufacturer of watches.

I'm expecting to find a high-profile building with the company's name atop in big letters in this small town but it turns out to be the opposite. Located a half-mile from downtown the six-story, plain, unmarked structure has the definite 1970's look to it and is shrouded by tall trees on the grounds. A public parking lot sits next to the building and directly across the lot (a shotput away) there's a small park, which includes an archery range.

Entering the building I pass a giant vase filled with fresh flowers and spot a six foot tall Swatch watch hanging on a wall as I make my way to the two receptionists. Also in the lobby is a Rado watch display and a Longines time flashing display clock. SMH, manufactures 90% of its products in Switzerland but sells 95% of the goods abroad. Brands include Hamilton, Swatch, Rado, Tissot, Omega, Blancpain, Longines and Mido. What do the letters SMH stand for? Societe de Microelectronique & d' Horlogerie.

The receptionists tell me I picked the worst possible day to show up because the annual meeting is today. I leave disappointed.

A week after making my way up to Basel I decide to catch a train back to SMH for another visit. Why? As I mentioned it's the world's largest watchmaker (1995 revenues US$2.3 billion) plus I read stories about CEO Nicolas Hayek being quite a character.

Well, it turns out my returning wasn't worth enduring the hour and a half train ride and rain. Beatrice Howald, Responsible of Press Office (that's what it reads on her business card, which also means she's head of the press department), gives me one of those "I'm busy but I'll give you 10 minutes" greetings and just go through the motions.

My questions are answered sitting in the small no-frill cafeteria located on the top floor. About 100 people work here. I can't see CEO Hayek's office due to "security reasons" which Howald says is silly because "Hayek has meetings with press in his office all the time". Looks like I don't get to check out what kind of watch Hayek wears. Howald says Hayek regularly wears FOUR watches at once including the first Swatch watch to come off the assembly line.

The nearest airport is either Zurich or Geneva, both an hour and a half away. I can tell Howald isn't a savy marketing person or else she would have noticed the Swiss Army watch I was wearing and offered me one of their watches to wear. Then again, she was probably too busy looking at her own watch to see how much of her time I was taking. I noticed she's wearing the Edwin Moses Swatch watch.