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By Chris | February 28 2013
He was the well known Chief Executive of Audemars Piguet who oversaw the watch maker’s meteoric growth.
Having left, Georges-Henri Meylan has now created a new company, MELB Holding, acquiring well respected brands Hautlence and H. Moser plus taken a minority stake in mechanical phone Celsius X VI II. What’s next? Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief, Douglas Gollan, recently caught up with Meylan during the Geneva Time Exhibition to find out.
ET: How did the idea of MELB come together?
Georges-Henri Meylan: I always wanted to start my own business, so I founded this company about eight years ago without knowing exactly what I would do. It worked okay and one day the shareholders deserted us and all of a sudden I was alone. Thankfully a friend of mine was a CFO and we said, “Why don’t we do something together?”. So he took over the company, we put money back into the company and began to rebuild. We believed we needed to create a platform for small independent companies because alone the cost of goods are too high, which makes the cost of the product too high and the period of selling everything at any price is gone. Soon friends came to me and said, “We have something for you”, and that’s how H. Moser came into the fold.
The owner of Moser is the head of the company that makes implants and had no idea about manufacturing watches. They spent millions without any (financial) success and so they asked us to present them with a survey of their company’s performance. So we met and presented them with some negative feedback, the meeting went so-so but two months later they called us and said, “We understand your analysis. Now you have to explain how to implement these suggestions”. So we went and told them we were ready to help but we would have to run the business. They gave us majority shares, we both put in money, and now we run the business entirely. I am the chairman of the two companies, my employees are on the board and my executive runs the business, but we try to maintain maximum synergy between the two companies. In any business you need margin, if there is no margin you won’t stay in business for long. We try to do this, we work hard and I am hoping to add one or two additional brands to help grow our small group.
ET: What other brands/companies would fit the vision of your company?
Georges-Henri Meylan: I have an idea that is in the process of being executed. It is linked to watchmaking roots in the mountains that began over a century and a half ago. We are trying to restart that but the problem is finding a product that is different from the products we already have – it has to be unusual and interesting.
ET: You’re a legend in the watch industry – what are some of the changes you’ve seen over the years?
Georges-Henri Meylan: The growth of the big groups has been the biggest change because it is has made it more difficult for independent watchmakers to operate. A lot of people think it has made it easier to come into the industry but, in fact, it has made it more challenging. Now you need money because marketing is expensive and you need very strong marketing when you are starting a business. Luxe products, however, are very successful right now. The rich customers, though less rich due to the economy, are still rich. Maybe they spend a little bit less these days but the market hasn’t been bad, nor do I think it will collapse.
ET: When you retired from Audemars Piguet, did you intend to stay active in the business world?
Georges-Henri Meylan: I had a few ideas like this but I didn’t start immediately. I played golf and skied but it was my sons and friends that pushed me, saying, “We will do something but you have to be the guy to put it together.” Being an entrepreneur is an interesting thing but it’s a bit much for me these days. Now I just transmit the ideas to the younger management. I am the chairman now but I don’t want to be the executive.
ET: During your tenure at Audemars Piguet you were a shareholder. What is the difference between being chief executive of a company like Audemars and being an entrepreneur/investor?
Georges-Henri Meylan: It is a big, big difference. The difference is the relationship with the CEO, which is not always easy. I am a very independent guy which is why those weren’t always excellent relationships. But now, at the top, there is nobody to refer to and nobody to give advice to you. I think we have a good team though. We have three generations – I am in my seventies, my sons are in their thirties, and I have friends in their fifties. Altogether I think we have a good mixture, the young guys often have very good ideas but are sometimes a little optimistic so we go back and forth.
ET: You said you had an independent personality as a CEO. Do they have independent personalities as well?
Georges-Henri Meylan: To be an entrepreneur you must be independent but you’re never completely independent. Every company depends on good customers and a good relationship with those customers. The same goes for your employees, if you aren’t good at managing either then your company won’t be successful.
ET: Obviously you travel the world for both business and vacation. What are some of your favorite hotels and resorts?
Georges-Henri Meylan: For holidays I have a house on the Atlantic Ocean where I spend at least three months every summer. I like some places in Asia, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, with great golf and beaches. I go to Oman often as well and I stay at the Shangri-La when I do.
ET: It sounds like you’re really invigorated and excited about this project.
Georges-Henri Meylan: Well I think in order to stay in good health at my age you need to be active. If you sit around and watch the TV you won’t live long. To be an entrepreneur at my age is to get a second life.