Meet the maverick entrepreneur behind watches like these

Max Busser, Founder MB&F, tells EDGAR how the death of his father triggered a change of direction in his life and business

April 12, 2017

Take us back to the opening of your first M.A.D. Gallery in Geneva.
We opened in 2011 and it was so stressful. We didn’t even have a credit card machine so people couldn’t pay for anything. We just hoped we wouldn’t lose too much money. 

What is the purpose of the gallery?
I want to prove that mechanical objects can be art. I want to showcase the work of artists who have been shunned by traditional galleries. I want artists who have an incredible story and who have given everything, not because they thought there was a market for it, but because they needed to express themselves. This gallery is for the misfits. Do you remember the famous Steve Jobs ad for the Apple Mac? ‘To you, the misfits, the rebels, the crazy ones...’ I get goosebumps just thinking about it. I love nutty people.

Are you nutty?
I think I’ve become nuts [laughs]. I was a crazy, creative young kid who became a boring adult. At 20 I was the epitome of boring. I had a masters in micro technology; I was a dork, a nerd, a geek. Luckily I fell into mechanical  watchmaking 25 years ago when it was dead as a doornail. 

How did you get that job?
I bumped into the MD of Jaeger Le-Coultre at a café on a ski slope. 

Life is incredible, right? This guy saw something in me that I didn’t see myself. We went to the factory and he sold me his dream for three hours and then gave me a job. I tell young people to never discount the people you meet. We are like pinballs in a machine – let yourself be pushed.

Did you enjoy the job?
Yeah, I got my mojo back. I created watches and I adored it. But every time I wanted to take risks my bosses said, ‘No, we can’t do that.’ I got frustrated. 

But you were successful.
Yes, I became MD of Harry Winston Timepieces. I should have been happy but the more the company grew the less I was enjoying it and I didn’t understand why. Then my dad passed away when I was 35. We didn’t get along. I cried for 12 seconds and that was it. But a year later I would watch any silly TV show and cry – I realised it was not over. I saw a psychologist for 18 months in Geneva and it was extraordinary. I started to understand what I truly wanted to do. I left Harry Winston and created my company at 38. 

Were you nervous?
I was scared. I put all my savings into it – $700,000 – which wasn’t enough. I needed a minimum of $1.4 million just to start. Six retailers around the world were either crazy enough or trusted me enough to pay me one third in advance based on a drawing of my first piece. 

What did your friends think when you started out?
Everybody told me MB&F [Max Busser & Friends] was the worst name [laughs].

How do you manage the creative side of your brain with the business side of your brain?
For a long time I suffered from the fact that I’m half Swiss, half Indian. My father was Swiss, I was brought up in Switzerland and I was a boring Swiss guy. Slowly I came back to my more emotional Indian roots. With MB&F it’s a balancing act: crazy ideas coming from my gut versus my brain trying to make it come true. But now I know how to use it I find that actually it’s a weapon. 

What do you hope to achieve in the future?
The most important day of my life is not the day I was born, the day I got married, or the day my child was born. It’s going to be my last day. When you look back at your life you’d better be proud of what you’ve done.