Today we talk to Maximilian Büsser about MB&F. Without question one of the industry’s apex creatives. With MB&F he has introduced some of the most unique designs in horological history. MB&F has been on one heck of an adventure since its inception, and Max seems hell bent on making sure he, and all of his friends, enjoy the ride.
In this interview we talk all things MB&F. We discuss a variety of topics including what lies ahead for MB&F and the broader watch industry. Click the picture below to view the full video interview:
I can not overstate this enough, but I have rarely spoken to a man in this industry who is so passionate and so genuine about what makes him tick . I no doubt you will enjoy this inspiring interview with Max Büsser.
The full transcript can be consulted below, although I highly recommend you watch the video interview instead of course!
Jan: Before we start, what’s on your wrist?
Maximilian Büsser: Legacy Machine Perpetual EVO. It’s the incredible Stephen McDonnell movement. Steven invented, over four years, this revolutionary perpetual calendar for us. We launched it in 2015. It’s the most foolproof concept ever made in perpetual calendars and it’s in my opinion the most beautiful. 581 components in a hand winding double barrel perpetual calendar.
On top of all the innovations which went into it it’s the human story of Stephen McDonnell who’s part of the watchmakers who helped me save my company 2007. Then in 2011 I hear that he’s in trouble and I go and see him. So how can I help you? He says “I had an idea maybe we could do a new perpetual calendar”.. And I’m like oh no, I don’t want to do perpetual calendars. And that’s how he said: “look well i’ve got an idea and i think it actually could solve all the issues that all perpetuals have”. And and it took him four years and in 2015 we were able to present it. We craft about 30 to 35 movements a year of this perpetual calendar and last year we unveiled what we call the EVO.
So the EVO is the watch I created actually really super, as usual I feel like saying super selfishly, for myself. I’ve been living in Dubai for seven years and when you live in Dubai.. we’re lucky that we’ve got the sea just next door and I’m very lucky to have a swimming pool as well. And so I jump in there with the kids and, what do I do with a watch with a croco strap? So I basically redesigned this to be a much more shock proof, completely water resistant with an integrated rubber strap. We did three times 15 pieces last year for our 15th anniversary and that was the beginning of a whole new story with us.
Jan: How would you describe MB&F in your own words?
Maximilian: Good grief the elevator pitch… It’s a thing i hate! The elevator pitch is really complicated for me. I think the easiest way for us to explain is that we’re crazy dreamers who believe that watchmaking is art and therefore we deconstruct traditional beautiful watchmaking and reconstruct it into 3d kinetic art pieces which give time. That’s more or less the common denominator.
Of course it can be completely crazy pieces coming from more or less my psychotherapy which are the horological machines. It can be much more cerebral pieces which are the legacy machines which are our way of saying thank you to the great master watchmakers of 18th 19th century. And then you’ve got an array of weird ideas which circulate around that. But it’s always kinetic sculptures giving time. It’s always mechanical, it’s always about human values. The ones we convey and the ones we want to work with, hence the word “and friends”. I think i’ll stop there because otherwise I’m just going to go on and on and on and on so I’ll just finish here.
Jan: Does MB&F make watches?
Maximilian: For a very long time I refused the word “watches”. Even in our press kits or anything. It wouldn’t be written watches.
At the end of the day I can’t escape what brought me here. We call them horological machines, legacy machines, we call them kinetic sculptures… but their common essence is that they are watchmaking. Are they watches as the world of watches is today? I beg to differ, even though most people would probably disagree. I see them as my my kinetic sculptures.
Jan: Your creations are nothing if not super creative. Can you talk a little about your creative process?
Maximilian: The creative process has changed a lot in 16 years. The first piece was insanely cerebral, trying to find myself, who was I and what was important for me. Every single detail.. for example the font we used, just the font took us like 350 fonts until I went “I think that’s the one”. I think my designer Eric was going to kill me! So it was very introspective.
It then went into a sketching creative process. So I would have an initial idea on a basic sketch. Then we would sketch it further and further. And I was never happy. The best example is if you take our HM4 Thunderbolt which was launched in 2010. It started off as a flat watch with two dials and a balance wheel. And it ended up looking as a fighter pilot’s dream! It was a whole process of “oh maybe we could actually put the dials a little bit like this at the back”. And then slowly we brought them front and then we moved them vertical. And then we went “Wow we could do like like turbines let’s do turbines!”. This was a whole process which lasts months. This doesn’t happen anymore.
Now i think I think. Creativity is a muscle and if you exercise it a lot it gets so much more efficient and powerful. So now ideas just pop into my head. I’ll take a good example which is the HM10 Bulldog. The Bulldog as you see it, was as I saw it. I don’t sketch anymore. Now I see. It’s a bit scary.. it’s like I see stuff. And that actually happens when I am completely disconnected from the world. And when are we disconnected from the world? Virtually never. That’s one of the big things which has changed my life in going to Dubai. Not being in the workshops, not being in link with everybody all the time, not being on emails, now on zooms..
From time to time I’ll take an hour and go into the garden. Without phone, without anything. Everybody knows they can’t speak to me for an hour. That’s a long time an hour! And I just sit there and think. Now there have been years where, especially when I had my younger daughters I would just like fall asleep because I wasn’t sleeping at night. I can just think about my life it, doesn’t have to be about watches. And sometimes there’s a free flowing process where you follow an idea and then you start bringing it in your mind. And it sort of comes into your lap. If you lose it, you lose it. So you just have to go and grab it.
Remember Minority Report? When Tom Cruise was like on this virtual thing, that’s what I sort of do… I think people are gonna put me in a loony bin if I continue talking. But that’s that’s what happens now and I don’t sketch anymore. I sketch afterwards and then I go and see my team. Especially Eric and Serge. We discuss that this is my latest idea how we can make this come to life. And that’s how it works now.
Jan: Do you set any creative boundaries? Things you actively try not to do for example when creating a new piece?
Maximilian: Yes the boundaries are that I want to be proud and I can only be proud if I feel that I am not copying myself or I am not doing something which has already been done before. Either by myself or anybody else. So there are two ways of seeing it. Either it is completely new. Which doesn’t happen all the time. I mean 19 calibers in 16 years. There have been some which have been incredibly new languages or some evolutions. I’ll take a bulldog, even though it’s something completely new, let’s face it it’s incorporating virtually every language I had created over the previous 15 years. So it’s not completely new.
You’re going to see the next HM in… 2023 if i’m not wrong. Which is a complete new design language. At some point I realized this is it. Even though I’m sure we could sell tons of them I’m sure people will love them, I’m sure. But I want to create something which is completely different. Being creative means getting out of my comfort zone. Taking creative risks. Putting myself in danger. Creating something which is going to antagonize. It’s interesting when I present my new projects to my team, if everybody likes it at the beginning i’m like “oh there’s something wrong here”. I need to have a part of the team go “oh what is this” and so that is in the creative process. Of course you’ve got all the engineering behind which let’s never forget that. I would love to be able to just do a sketch and it comes to life! It’s a three to four year process, it’s thousands of hours of engineering, incredible amount of problems to solve. Our movements are like no others. They’re not evolutive, we have to recreate completely different products from scratch. The challenges we face, or I bring my poor team to face, are infinitely higher than for any traditional watch brand.
Jan: I feel that there is currently a lack of creativity in the broader watch industry. Do you agree?
Maximilian: Look i I have to agree with you. The very big brands are facing an enormous challenge. To grow is a necessity of success and when you’ve got a necessity of success you’re not going to take insane creative risks. You’re going to stay in the comfort zone, you’re going to be evolutive. And of course everybody’s running after icons. For those who’ve got their icons it’s about bringing different versions of them out. And those who don’t have them are grappling to try and create an icon or at least find one in their in their archives.
Today’s icons were incredibly disruptive pieces when they came out and most of them were not successes when they came up. Because they were much too different and much too clever. Many years later we dig out this piece and say “oh this is really a cool piece”. And people say “oh that was incredible because it’s got history”. The history has given it it’s lettre de noblesse.
I’m a little sad that these big boys are not seeding for the future. Because their revenues are enormous. Today they could afford to create wacky products which don’t sell, which would actually seed the next generation of icons. What’s important for the industry is to take risks and I also think that it would be absolutely great that all these big brands allow themselves to fail. Because by failing it means that you’ve actually taken a risk. They actually should devote x percent, a small percent of their revenue, to something which is completely wacky. In a way that’s what we did at Harry Winston. We created the Opus. And what’s interesting is the Opus was actually created by other watchmakers (…) So maybe the next step of this industry, if you wanted to be more creative, is the big boys work with the small artisans. I think that would be an incredible moment in our history.
Jan: What do you consider some of the bigger challenges for the watch industry and for MB&F?
Maximilian: Every decade has had its challenges for the industry. 30 years ago when I started we were all virtually dying. And nobody thought in March last year that we would be doing so well today. So the only thing we’re sure of is that we’re sure of nothing. But starting from there, the issues of the industry are multiple..
The first is we’re an industry which people loved because it was artisanship. And it’s become completely industrial. It is for most players anyways. I’m talking of the industry, not us. The industry has attracted a lot of people who are more interested in status than in watchmaking. So they’re buying a a beautiful piece of watchmaking, not because they appreciate it, not because they understand it, but because it’s a logo that they bear on their t-shirt. And from there onwards i think that is one of the biggest dangers of our industry. It’s what made it grow but it’s what for me is the biggest danger. Because when your clients cannot recognize quality, that’s open free range to sell them anything and everything. And it’s very dangerous for an industry when its client doesn’t actually understand the product it’s buying.
So do we have such a problem? No of course not. We are a miniature brand, we crafted 215 pieces last year. Our clients are total watch geeks, and i say this with love. I’m a watch geek! Our clients are people like you and me. We sit down and we can talk about watches for hours. They have a complete recognition and understanding of what watchmaking is and what makes quality. What makes artisanship and hand engraving and hand finishing.. Is there a point to all of that? No. Is it better than a machine finishing? Probably not, except for interior angles of course, but that’s what I signed up for when I entered watchmaking 30 years ago. All of us were hand finishing our movements and there were little ladies and little men doing decorations and the engraving. And that’s what made me fall in love with watchmaking. And that’s why I am one of the very few still trying to capture that. To maintain that. Because even though it’s a bit surreal, it’s it’s the reason we exist.
Jan: Can you talk about your highest highs and lowest lows so far?
Maximilian: Yes of course there are things which stung. There were things where we were hurt. The things which were difficult economically. But looking back I’m today glad we had those issues because we learned. You do not learn much from successes. They make you believe your own narrative.
Errors, screw-ups, issues, make you doubt what you’re doing and try and understand what you’re doing wrong and re-engineer yourself to try to avoid this going forward. And I feel we’ve grown so much more as human beings, as entrepreneurs, as creators, by all the issues we’ve had than through our successes. So we’ve had four horrible years: 2007, 2009, 2012, and 2014 and all four years the issues were different luckily. Which means that we’re not too bad as entrepreneurs, we’re not all the time reproducing the same error!
2007, I haven’t even launched my first piece. My main supplier who is supposed to actually engineer and manufacture the components and assemble the components of our movement gets sold overnight to a brand. That brand had no intention of creating movements for third parties. A total nightmare and I nearly went bankrupt. I still wonder how I am still around.
2009, global crisis. All our retailers are telling me we’re not selling Pateks or Rolexes do you think we really want to order an MB&F?! I remember, it was our first year at SIHH. We were inviting retailers and we had planned 175 pieces in our budget. We took 17 pieces on order at SIHH, and we’re not doing Basel in those years. So we’re taking 10 of the year and everybody was telling us forget it we don’t want your watches!
2012, it was a conjunction of many issues. Suppliers and some of our retailers got upset with us because we did that incredible collab with Urwerk. Called c3n5h3o9 i think. The chemical formula of nitroglycerin and that definitely blew up in our face. A lot of our retailers got really upset with us, because we’ve done it and we were actually only selling them online. They were only 12 pieces and so there was a blockade from our retailers towards us. At the same times our suppliers started not delivering. We were going right into the wall.
2014, was excess of.. um of uh how do you say… I started believing my own narrative. I started thinking that we were immortal because every time we managed to get over our issues so in 2012 i decided we’re not going to do one caliber a year we’re going to do two calibers a year. Well we cannot do two calibers a year. Financially it’s totally impossible and in 2014 we nearly went right into the wall because our cash flow was negative seven months in a row. And I thought we were going to die.
So four different years, four different reasons, we learned a ton from everything. Look at Covid for example, in march last year I thought it was going to be the end of the world and we ended up last year having the best sellout year of our history. So that means the sales at our retailers which was highest ever. And we’re now having this insane stratospheric year. Well yeah 18 months ago I was thinking “guys I don’t know we’ll survive”. At the end of the year, every time we have a hard knock, every time we get super scared, we can become better, we become much better at what we do. We become more creative, more innovative, take more risks, rethink everything. Because success makes you.. and I think probably this is what applies to the bigger brands… it starts going that you just take the same recipe which made you successful and apply it again again and again. But that doesn’t work in 2021. The world is changing all the time. The customers are changing, the modus operandi of how this industry is working is changing, and we have to rethink ourselves.
The end goal of this whole project is for me to be proud the last day of my life of everything I’ve done since I decided to create MB&F. Whatever I do I want to be proud of it going forward. So I feel like saying that the journey is the gift which keeps on giving. The ups and the downs, I’m gonna welcome every down, hoping of course there’ll be an up as well. Because that, that is what makes the journey interesting. Look at the end of the day, you go to the Maldives on holiday, spend an incredible week in the blue lagoons you can tell all your friends it’s really cool but are you going to talk about in 20 years? No. You go and jump into a frozen fjord in the north of Norway in the middle of winter, I think you’re going to tell your grandchildren you actually did it! And that’s what you realize. You need to take risks, you need to put yourself in danger, to feel proud. If your life is just a walk in the park, I think it’s.. I think my pride level would be much lower.
Jan: What still keeps you up at night?
Maximilian: I think what keeps me up at night is that I’ll never be able to close. In 16 years I’ve created an incredible team with 30 people. Some have been here for 12-13 years. That’s virtually from the beginning. And what keeps me up at night is how a to keep them happy and motivated and encouraged. And at the same time how to increase the level of competence in my team. We’re a very small company, who for the last seven years decided not to grow. I decided in 2013 the company’s not going to grow anymore. So how do you keep great people when you don’t grow? So that was really a big issue over the last seven years. And the other is when you don’t grow how, do you increase the level of competence in your company? How do the people who are there get better at what they do?
The members of your team have to be people who doubt themselves. People who believe their own narrative, people who are persuaded that they’re good at what they do, do not grow. People who keep on doubting and going “I screwed up, I should do better, how can I do better, what is the other guy doing, how can we do this..” are actually those who will bring us to the next step. So it’s always people/ It’s always people.
The second thing which keeps me up at night is how do I make sure this company survives me. And there’s a fantasy as a creator which is actually that the company doesn’t survive you. It’s a very very selfish fantasy. It’s saying to the world where you know what I will continue producing watches till 2028. Then you can imagine what will happen for the production of those last years. People will go wild. That’s a fantasy. So once you take that fantasy out, because you’re responsible to your customers, you’re responsible to your team, you’re responsible to everybody who’s gravitated around your company, to continue. At the same time anything can happen to me. I’m 54 and I started the company when i was 38. When you’re 38 you definitely don’t think about mortality. When you’re 54 you think of it much more. I’ve already started losing a couple of friends around me um and it can happen like that for stupid reasons from one day to the other. The other thing you realize also is I have never been so gung-ho and so creative. But maybe when i turn 60… That big 6-0 is super scary I must admit… I may not want to be in this whole crazy race. Because this is race. Maybe I’ll want to take a step back?
And so how do I make sure this company survives the fact either I die or that I want to take a step back? So it’s been unconsciously being done over the years. The first thing I did was actually going to move to Dubai. It was one of the many reasons seven years ago. I’ve been managing this company from six thousand kilometers away (…) I was the king of micromanagement because I’d created the company in my flat and everybody who came after was my team, so I was looking into every little detail. Going back to Dubai, take a big step back, relinquishing the role of CEO. De facto there is no CEO in this company.. with five directors and I am the creative director. Do I supervise? Of course I supervise, but de facto I don’t want to be the CEO. I haven’t been on everybody’s back and everybody knows what they have to do. We work as a college of directors. We’re five out of the 31, so 26 people directly under us.
Then if i’m only the creative director how do I make sure that if I pass away the company continues? Well the first thing is we’ve got now 10 calibers in the pipeline, which will come out in the 5 to 10 years to come. So that gives some time. Second, with the body of work which has been created an art director or a creative director can be hired. Then not only has he got already five to ten years in front of him but he’s got, he can then rework what has been done. Exactly like Karl Lagerfeld did to coco chanel. And now Karl is not there and somebody else is doing it. Now I’m not trying to say I’m Karl Lagerfeld but it’s the whole idea. It is that somebody can work with that body of work. If i disappear after three calibers, how is the next person going to do anything? Because there’s not a body of work. Now there’s a body of work of 19 movements which have been done so I think that’s possible.
Of course everything is done that financially the company is Super Saiyan. We’re totally auto financed with no shareholders. So it’s a super saiyan company. If something happens it’s that. Worst case scenario, if all of that doesn’t work, my team has one clear order. If you feel once I’ve gone that for whatever reason the company is going to tank, the last thing you do before you pull the plug is you put all the plans of all our calibers online. Open source! Everybody can see them because whatever we do, even though it looks completely crazy, is steel and brass, and a great mechanic and a great watchmaker can remake every single part. If something happens it will be open source and everybody can go and find the plans if they want to redo a part in the after sale service. Because that’s actually what keeps me up at night. So there you go. That’s the plan. Of course never does anything happen according to plan, but that’s how we’re trying to make this happen.
Jan: You are famous for not wanting to grow. However, I have to ask, do you have any future growth plans?
Maximilian: So the last 12 months have been mind-boggling for us. Last semester 50 pieces went out from the stores. I mean 50 more than what we could deliver. This first semester 60 went out on top of what we could deliver. Which means that in the next 12 months, if we stay where we are on demand stage, there will not be a watch anywhere to be had in any store in the world.
So we’re at a point where we have to have a hard look at each other and sayIi think we have to increase. We’re putting together a plan now this summer which is incredibly aggressive. We expect to increase by 11 percent every year. But demand this year outstrips production already by 43% so that means that even if we do manage to do plus 11 it will still be a massive issue.
This has never been about business. This has always been about having the means to create the next piece. So we’ll stick to our guns. We will grow a little bit and it’ll give a new dynamic to my my team. We will be able to hire more people and maybe invest a little bit more money which is cool. And I must admit it makes me happy. I know when I told the team three weeks ago that we’re going to grow again after seven years of frozen growth, everybody’s like yeah! Well let’s go. I realize it’s also gonna help motivation in the team.
Jan: What keeps you so motivated? Do you never have difficult Monday Morning?
Maximilian: I’ve always looked forward to tomorrow since i’m at MB&F. Because writing your own story, there is absolutely nothing which can give you the same adrenaline or thrill. Nothing. So yeah, no bad monday mornings at MB&F.