René Kamm, CEO of the MCH Group

Baselworld, A Series of Unfortunate Events Followed By A Hillbilly Rebellion?

René Kamm, CEO of the MCH Group, owner of Baselworld has "resigned by mutual agreement". Is the age of arrogance finally over for Basel? Will we see a ‘watchmaker’ take his place?

By Joël A. Grandjean

Forgive me, financial and MCH leaders, but watchmaking is not a branch like any other. Its characters largely speak French and, apart from a few Genevans, they all come from the mountains or from secondary boroughs such as Biel. It is governed by codes that are specific to it and that you seem to have missed.

From the first crack to chronic bleeding

An example? Not every watch brand or group is lucky enough to own complete production tools, whether artisanal or industrial. Also, the world of watch suppliers is to watchmaking excellence what local products are to great chefs. Would it occur to you, at a trade fair dedicated to gastronomy that brings together several world-renowned chefs, to drive away producers of fresh products in a nearby town more than a hundred kilometers away, just because you have to make space for Asian or fast-food restaurants?

No? However, this is what MCH tried to do in 2001 for all watchmaking suppliers. Those very same who were making a substantial financial effort to be able to be in the wake of their customers, the prestigious brands. The organizer quickly backed off. From his organizer's point of view, he certainly had no bad intentions in wanting to gather brands in the same place, even from Hong Kong, because construction works was temporarily depriving him of space. After all, it seems logical, visitors to Baselworld are looking for brands and not companies whose customers are brands.

Imagine, gentlemen of finance, this – can we say – arrogance? Not having understood that by letting a crazy idea germinate in your brains and by daring to formulate it you have struck your first blow with an axe in the hull of your own ship, an age-old, extraordinary boat. The first big break through which water entered: there were 92 of them at the EPHJ in 2002, they are now more than 800. The loss of income for which you are solely responsible, and which was further accentuated in 2018 with the birth in Geneva of the Gemstones and Jewelry Show, GemGeneva. More than 100 exhibitors who will never be in Basel.

Arrogance? Keeping the best

In 1991, even before there had been Geneva and its wishes for red carpets, the act of secession of a handful of brands disturbed by the smell of sausages and bratwurst salads with Gruyère cheese. Also overcharged in the surrounding area, those hotels applying special rates for watchmakers. So, SIHH was born in Geneva, a little snobby, a little arrogant but not in the same way. Thanks to it, Basel was forced to install blue carpets in a few places, set up sushi trains here and there, and move up a bit in terms of accommodation and luxury. Imperceptibly, a first crevice cracked the hull of the great Basel Exhibition ship. And always from the organizers, as a reaction and as a position, there was this kind of disdain that suits the giants who do not yet know that they have clay feet. Because MCH, from the top of its stock-exchange capitalization, is a giant.

During the past 20 years, there have been so many missed events, these little touches of arrogance that have sprinkled the exhibitors' news. There were also real insults, blatant disrespects. While in 2008 there were more than 2000 exhibitors, in 2016 there were only 1200. In 2017, as if the ship's hull had split in two, more than half decided to withdraw outright. In front of the media, the former Director, Mrs. Sylvie Ritter flanked by her CEO René Kamm will have this depressing formula more inspired by an ego shaken up than by a desire for conciliation: "We kept only the best". This was a real outrage for the resigning exhibitors who, for years, faithfully made enormous financial efforts to enable MCH to nourish its dreams of grandeur, its ambitions for expansion and its desire for real estate. Those little mouths that blew relentlessly into the sails of your big boat.

"Captain in good weather"

This is the formula used at a press conference by René Kamm in Basel on August 3rd, 2018, to accompany his "resignation by mutual agreement". A resignation that occurred after the Swatch Group's announcement to withdraw its 18 brands from the game in 2019. The formula is succulent, crispy. Above all, it is once again the expression of an arrogance which, at this level, resembles naivety more than the unawareness of good intentions. René Kamm sailed in good weather, he is still convinced, even proud of it. At no time does it seem to suspect that the seabed collided during his reign, that there were incredible slaloms between unanticipated reefs, opposing currents, angry whales and... No, for him, these two decades were spent seeing only good weather, looking at the horizon line, keeping away from a breath of voice any kind of small boat in his path. And even, to launch Lausannetec in French-speaking Switzerland, a monumental and failed plagiarism of the suppliers' fair EPHJ-EPMT-SMT.

What is so incomprehensible, gentlemen of Finance, in this watch industry which, in Basel, came upon you without giving you time to measure your luck? Let's make some history, please. Let's make some history, please. Once upon a time there were mountain farmers who, in order to kill time and find a complementary source of income, tinkered with small micromechanical wonders in the heated kitchen adjoining the stable. Watches...! These modest, poor people hoped to sell them at the end of winter, as soon as the first snow melts. In search of a place to exhibit them, they made their choice at the first public spring fair, an event in Basel called La Foire aux Echantillons. The only show that corresponded to the end of winter. So, they took their sites there, they regrouped there. Then, after surviving crises and wars, their displays became multi-story stands, then they became luxury brands. Then, in this German-speaking city between three borders, they created the world's largest watch exhibition heritage.

A watchmaking personality to be recruited?

However, the players in this sector, with the exception of a few prestigious Geneva names, are from French-speaking Switzerland and descend from the mountains. And maybe that's what generates this omnipresent disdain that turns into arrogance. Nobody here saw them coming. This "hillbilly" aspect means that the watchmaking industry in Basel was perceived as a good big cow that produces good milk and that never seems to want to stop producing it. A cow that doesn't squeal, that doesn't complain. A cow to milk, at all costs. Turns out the hillbillies rebelled. They decided that their cattle could graze elsewhere and that they would find fresh grass.

The big boat has been taking on a lot of water. It still floats, even though one of its main sails has flown away. As for the "captain by good weather", René Kamm, he will be replaced. After all, financial people, I promise you that at the head of your main source of income, the common sense of the hillbillies and the progress they have made to maintain themselves well in society, would be excellent assets. I assure you that they will not embarrass you in the alleyways of Art Basel and that they know how to speak the language of your shareholders. In short, a watchmaker at the head of MCH. That’s what you need….

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