Omega Ltd.

Bienne, a compact city of 50,000 inhabitants, is completely flat except for one side of town where the terrain abruptly turns into steep hillsides because it's the beginning of the Jura Mountains. Less than a mile from Bienne's city center and already I find myself at Omega's headquarters/factory complex. Omega, now part of the Swatch Group, was founded back in 1848 in La Chaux-de-Fonds, a town way up in the nearby Jura Mountains. In 1882 the company moved to Bienne and has been located on this site ever since. How did the company end up in this particular spot? A river runs past the place and one has to remember that back then water was the primary source for generating power.

In the picture that accompanies this story you can see two of the buildings onsite. The six-story building on the left is the Administration building and was built in the mid-1950's. Believe it or not, the taller newer-looking nine-story building was also built the same time but went through a facelift in 1998.

I check in with the two receptionists sitting behind separate desks. Both are friendly but to my dismay, both are smoking. Jeez, I can't believe the company makes non-smoking visitors endure the unpleasant smell. I count three large Omega poster ads on the walls; one has model Cindy Crawford, another golfer Ernie Els and the third of an Omega watch. Ten five-foot tall fake plants line the back wall. What really catches one's eye though is the pendulum swinging back and forth in the lobby. There's a cool-looking spiral staircase going from the lobby to the top floor (6th) and in the midst of the space created from the spiral is where the pendulum hangs thanks to a steel wire. It's a reduced replica of the historic pendulum suspended from the dome of the Pantheon in Paris by the physicist Leon Foucault in 1851. The original sphere weighs 28 kilograms and hangs at the end of a 67-meter-long steel wire.

I sent my letter of introduction to company president Stephen Urquhart. In a few minutes a woman comes to the lobby and says Urquhart and his secretary aren't in today. I take a seat while she tries to find someone to meet with me. She returns and says her boss will be down in a few minutes. A real nice helpful woman but unfortunately I forget to ask her name.

It turns out to be an excellent visit thanks to Raynald Aeschlimann, Vice President-Sales. Though he has no advance notice of what I do, he goes all out to answer questions and show me around the premises-even though it means canceling a meeting.

About 350 people work here. The area is mixed-use with apartments and residential housing nearby. Employee parking is plentiful, commuting cyclists enjoy a covered enclosure for their bikes, smoking is allowed in the workplace and there's no formal dress code. A building across a public street houses the company's cafeteria where employees have the option of eating outside or outside. Next door to the cafeteria is a beach volleyball court (with sand) plus there's a Ping-Pong table. It's three minutes to the nearest freeway and an hour and a half to Geneva or Zurich airport. Any employee perks? Special prices not just on Omega watches but on watches of other Swatch Group brands.

There's lot of yellow in Urquhart's fourth floor corner office. Yellow walls with the yellow blinds and parquet floor gives the room a distinctive look. I note the laptop computer, one real plant and two posters of Omega watches. The view out his window? The nearby mountainside.

The company's watch museum resides above the cafeteria and it ranks a big two thumbs up from this visitor. Walking through the displays I see watches very similar-looking to models other companies are coming out with in the present day-yet Omega did those designs 50 or 75 years ago.

Touring the watch workshops I'm introduced to several watchmakers working on tourbillon watches. Wow, I didn't know Omega made them. Tourbillon is a highly complicated mechanism to help watches compensate for the influence of gravity on the movement precision of the portable watch. It also results in a very big increase to the price of a watch. How difficult is it to do? One of the watchmakers said his watch output for the year would be four.