MB&F’s Maximilian Busser: The end of the world didn’t happen with Covid-19

Mr Maximilian Busser, founder of MB&F. PHOTO: MB&F/THE HOUR GLASS

SINGAPORE – On March 17, 2020, when Mr Maximilian Busser – founder of independent watch label MB&F – closed his factory and sent his team home because of Covid-19 restrictions, he thought “it was the end of the world”.

“All our suppliers were locked down, all our retailers were closed,” says the 55-year-old Swiss entrepreneur, who was in town recently to open the world’s first MB&F Lab at Raffles Hotel. A new retail experience in collaboration with The Hour Glass, the gallery-like space will highlight the brand’s avant-garde horological creations as well as kinetic artworks by international artists.

But the catastrophe Mr Busser expected did not come. In fact, the reverse happened.

“In those days, we used to craft between 15 and 20 pieces a month, all of which would sell out when they reached the stores. In April, when all the stores were closed, the sell-out was 12 pieces. In May, it was 20 pieces. In June, it was 30 pieces, the highest sell-out in our history. All the watches we had were gone, there was nothing to be had.”

In fact, demand for MB&F timepieces – which have been described as “three-dimensional kinetic sculptures”, with most costing six figures – is now so high that Mr Busser has had no choice but to increase production to 350 pieces in 2023. For the last seven years, the brand has capped production at about 280 pieces a year.

Social media, he believes, is largely responsible for driving the exploding demand.

“Social media has done two things. It has ‘pasteurised’ taste,” he says, referring to how hype and exposure have led consumers to go after the same watch brands and models.

“But it has also made little communities thrive and given independent watch lovers a voice.”

The result? Edgy brands such as MB&F and their “handcrafted, hand-finished and hand-engraved pieces” are finding a bigger audience.

No longer are they loss-making propositions – “you don’t have to lose half of the value if you want to sell it”.

Prices for MB&F timepieces – including the Horological Machine and Legacy Machine collections – in the second-hand market, in fact, have now superseded retail prices.

“So now you have five to 10 times more people wanting what you do,” says the former chief executive of Harry Winston. He had set up MB&F in 2005 to “break the rules of corporate watchmaking”. Since its founding, the company has stunned the watch world by coming out with 20 mind-bending calibres.

The father of two daughters, aged five and nine, was reluctant to expand for several reasons. He wanted to keep the start-up attitude of his company and extract time for his children.

“I also wanted to prove my integrity to my team. Many corporate companies grow for only one reason – to make more money for the shareholders. It’s my way of saying ‘it’s never been about the money’,” he says.

The first MB&F Lab at the Raffles Hotel features not just horological creations by the independent watchmaker but also kinetic artworks by different artists. PHOTO: MB&F/THE HOUR GLASS

He was understandably nervous when he gathered his team of 30 in June 2021 to tell them he needed to expand for fear they thought he had sold out.

“Instead, the contrary happened. They said we would finally have the means to hire new people, buy new machines, do more, create more.”

The pandemic, he says, was sobering but there was a silver lining.

“It made people realise that while working is great, having a purpose in life is better. And that’s what we offer, purpose to all the people who join us.”

For him, the pandemic has made him not only a sharper entrepreneur but also a better dad.

“I got to spend the most critical three years with them. Every day at four in the afternoon, they would come home from school and I would stop working. From then until 8pm, I would be with them. It was really important and I can see the difference,” he says.

“I listen to my instincts more, and have become more gentle and humane. It’s not because of my age. It’s because I became a dad.”

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