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.