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On the surface, the story of Jack Heuer’s career is quite straight forward. From the time that he took over the running of his family business in 1962, Jack Heuer led a wave of innovation at Heuer- firstly through mechanical movements and later as a pioneer in electronics. Then the Swiss watch crisis crashed over Heuer, Jack Heuer sold the company and left the industry, before returning to what was now TAG Heuer in 2001 as the Honorary Chairman.
While this outline is accurate enough, it neglects the deeper story of Jack Heuer’s career- the wrenching emotions of leaving Heuer, his successes in re-building his career at 50 years of age and the contribution that he made to what is today a large multi-national business listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange.
So, in the week following Jack Heuer’s 80th birthday, Let’s look at the story of Jack Heuer’s career during the 20 years of his self-imposed exile from TAG Heuer- not to dwell on the sad days of 1982, but to highlight the successes that are less well-known. It’s the story of what Jack did next.
After years of struggle, the end for Heuer-Leonidas S.A as an independent, family owned firm came in 1982. Heuer had secured a significant order of stopwatches from a Chinese customer in the middle of 1981, and to meet that order had ordered a large quantity of parts from a Swiss supplier. When this supplier went bankrupt, Heuer managed to find a second supplier…which promptly followed the first supplier into bankruptcy.
Heuer was now in a difficult position, as it needed the revenue from the Chinese deal, and so the company decided to buy the remaining stock of the second supplier, which meant a significant outlay of what little cash Heuer-Leonidas had. As fate would have it, a few weeks later, the Chinese government closed its borders to imports, and the Chinese order was cancelled….meaning that Heuer was left holding a vast inventory of parts without a customer. For Heuer-Leonidas, it would prove to be the last straw.
Earlier this year, Jack Heuer told the story of what happened next to Laura Lovett at The Times:
“In 1982, my banker told me that I had to give up my shares for nothing… and I gave in”. “I had to start again at 50 years old. I had a wife and two children, and it was very tough. All I can say is to never give up. It felt terrible to have to hand over my family business and I was in pieces. I was screwed. For 10 years I couldn’t pass by our old stand at the Basel watch fair until the final guy who did this to us was fired.”
Yves Piaget, who had run the Piaget Group since 1980, now owned 80% of Heuer-Leonidas, with Nouvelle Lemania owning the balance. While Heuer would stumble along for another three years until the acquisition by TAG in 1985, Jack Heuer left the business and started on the next phase of his business life.
While you may have expected Jack Heuer to stay in the watch industry, he instead chose to join a relatively new technology company called Integrated Display Technology Ltd. (“IDT”). Founded by Dr. Raymond Chan, IDT was the first company in Hong Kong to design, develop and market an Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) Alarm Clock. Following this feat in 1977, IDT began to manufacture other LCD products, including its first watch in 1979.
As the market for LCD consumer products grew, IDT, by now with 200 employees, began to look at expanding outside of Hong Kong and linked up with Jack Heuer. Jack was tasked with setting up the first international IDT Sales Office in Bern, Switzerland in 1983.
As IDT grew, it expanded into the healthcare sector, launching the first consumer digital thermometer. Today the company designs and manufacturers LCD products for other companies, as well as for itself, which it sells under its Oregon Scientific brand. Acquired in 1997, Oregon Scientific is the consumer face of IDT.
Matching this product growth was a growth in new offices. Under Jack Heuer’s management, new branch offices were launched in London, Paris, Milan, Madrid and Frankfurt, with Heuer having responsibility for all European operations at IDT. Jack Heuer was also an Executive Director of the IDT International Group, which went on to list on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in 1988.
Return of the Prodigal Son
Over the years, Jack Heuer had almost no contact with TAG Heuer. It wasn’t until 1996 when the company reached out to Jack Heuer to seek his assistance in putting together a book on the history of TAG Heuer and to play a role in launching the first Carrera re-edition at Monza. But it would prove a fleeting re-engagement for a group of owners who were focused on trying to sell TAG Heuer.
In 2000, Jack Heuer decided to retire from his Executive role at IDT, but stayed on as a Director. If Jack Heuer planned to have a quiet retirement, events back at his “old company” would soon change that. Following the acquisition of TAG Heuer in 1999, LVMH had appointed a new CEO to lead TAG Heuer- and one from outside the watch industry.
One of Jean-Christophe Babin’s first steps as CEO was to invite Jack Heuer back to “his” old company, to the position of Honorary Chairman. The move was as much about respecting the heritage of the Heuer brand as it was to provide Babin with access to a true “product guy” with an incredible depth of understanding of how the watch industry worked. Far from a token role, Jack Heuer played a key role in the development of many watches, especially the Grand Carrera series.
Retirement from IDT
While Jack Heuer retired from his Executive role at IDT in 2000, he remained a member of the supervisory board and the strategic management committee until finally retiring from IDT in 2005 at the age of 73. Jack had spent 23 years at IDT and during that time built the European operations from a single office in 1983, to being the most important region for IDT today, accounting for 46% of revenue in 2012.
Just before Jack’s finally left IDT, the company announced a new partnership with Ferrari to market a range of carbon fibre clocks and weather stations. It was a deal that would have taken Jack Heuer back to 1971 when he sat down with Enzo Ferrari to strike a deal to supply timing equipment and sponsorship to their Formula 1 team. More than 30 years later, the wheel had turned full circle.
So why did Jack Heuer take the unusual move of leaving the watch industry to work for more than 20 years in the consumer LCD business? The truth is that while Jack was born into a watch-making family, he had initially intended to follow his true passion and work in electronics. As he told The Times:
“I’m an electrical engineer, and I have had the privilege to live through a world revolution. To go from low current to integrated circuit meant progressing from big circuits to small things that you can hold in your hand or have on your wrist. I went to Silicon Valley on holiday in 1971 and it was an eye opener. It was a fascinating period in my life and I am still amazed by it today”.
Jack Heuer’s passion for electronics was a constant in his time at Heuer-Leonidas, when the company was one of the true pioneers in the development of electronic timing. The company launched the electronic Microtimer in 1966 and then a series of pioneering LED/ LCD wristwatches, such as the Chronosplit, Manhattan and the Senator.
It’s fascinating to think about what type of watches Jack Heuer would make today if he ran TAG Heuer. Of course, there would be the classic Chronographs, but I suspect that there would also be several high-end quartz models, pushing the boundaries of electronic technology. In a 2007 interview with Handelszeitung Jack Heuer was asked whether there were any innovations left for the wristwatch:
“Yes, for example, a clock that receives via radio waves the exact time from an atomic clock. The Swiss industry ignored this development, but in China today, almost everyone has a radio clock alarm.The same applies to the area of the heart rate watches: The Scandinavians were here much more innovative….[maybe] a watch with a built-in GPS”.
Heuer and TAG Heuer fans know what an immense contribution Jack Heuer made in developing watches that are still revered, more than 40 years after they were first designed. We may think of these as classic designs today, but at the time they were radical, disruptive creations…almost everything Jack Heuer touched being the world’s first “something” (first automatic Chronograph, first square-case waterproof watch, first 1/ 100th second electronic timer, first quartz chronograph- the list goes on).
Jack Heuer’s role at IDT may not be as well known as his work at Heuer, but it’s credit to the man that he managed to turn the bitter disappointment of 1982 into a highly successful second career, one which would pave the way for his eventual return “home” to TAG Heuer.
Photos: Courtesy of TAG Heuer