Singapore watch collectors among the world's most educated: MB&F's Max Busser
Maximilian Busser, founder of independent watch brand MB&F, has a soft spot for Singapore and its watch-loving community. Having been here more than 20 times in the last 15 years, he tells us what he appreciates most about the Lion City.
The watch industry’s had a pretty tough year in 2020, what with Switzerland’s lockdown, the closing of factories, and the sudden and forced digitalisation of the annual Watches & Wonders fair.
But when you have a strong story and a stronger fan base, the pandemic actually becomes an unexpected windfall. For radical independent watch brand MB&F, surprise that last April’s sell-out remained the same despite retailers being closed escalated into sheer bewilderment when the company ended the year with a 30 per cent increase in sell-out.
This success, claims their animated founder Maximilian Busser over a Zoom call, would not have been possible if it weren’t for the Singaporean collectors who believed in him in the first place.
HOW HAS THIS PAST YEAR BEEN TREATING YOU?
I’ll be honest, I thought in March last year that it was going to be the end of days. But it reminded me of what a great team I had. We’d had some really good years so everybody was getting a little bit comfortable, but when everything went boom in March they had so many ideas about how to save the company. The amount of energy and creativity that came back into the team – I’m actually a bit nostalgic for that era.
CAN’T BLAME YOU – YOU’VE HAD AN INCREDIBLE YEAR, DESPITE EVERYTHING.
Don’t get me wrong – I love the watch fairs, and I don’t think every brand is dancing on their tables, but I’m realising this is the beginning of a completely new era and I’m grateful for what we have.
At the end of January this year we presented our novelties to our retail partners over Zoom and we had a 4:1 ratio of orders, which meant for every timepiece we were going to deliver this year, we took four orders.
In a previous life – that is, a year-and-a-half ago – if we had a 1.5:1 ratio we would have gone, “Yay!” And all of this was happening from home. Instead of spending S$500,000 to S$600,000 on a booth at Baselworld, I paid S$95 for a Logitech webcam.
WHY DO YOU THINK MB&F IS AMONG THE FEW TO HAVE FLOURISHED?
Initially I thought it was because the big brands disappeared from social media and didn’t want to do any major launches, while we continued to release as planned.
But it can’t be only that. What I’m realising is that all the people who used to buy stuff to show off have no reason to do so anymore since they’re all stuck at home, unable to travel or party.
Status-driven brands got clobbered, while brands like ours that have always talked about our heart and soul are resonating with people more. Our tribe of followers have always been much more vocal, while the people who liked showing off their expensive watch next to their expensive car didn’t have much to do anymore on social media.
YOU’VE ALWAYS BEEN PRETTY VOCAL YOURSELF.
We’ve always been zero-bullshit. At (the watch fair) SIHH two years ago, I gave a presentation summarising all our major errors over the last 14 years, such as nearly going bankrupt in 2007, almost going down in 2009, and having a horrible time in 2012 and 2014.
I explained the reasons and what I learned from them, because I discovered over the years that most of our clients are entrepreneurs and they’ve all gone through the same shit. So they can relate to us better than the people who want to wear our watches because they think it will make them look sexy.
HAVE YOU HAD TO CHANGE YOUR LONG-TERM PLANS?
Completely. Up until the pandemic the only strategy I had was: “How do I bring my wacky idea to life?” And my only objective was that I be happy and proud; everyone in the company knew that.
But after last year’s scare, I knew this wasn’t going to be feasible for the long-term anymore. I think I’ve finally reached adulthood. I realised I have a responsibility to the 30 people on my team, the over 1,000 MB&F owners out there, and to the friends and subcontractors who work with us. I need to make sure the brand continues even if I get a heart attack or get hit by a bus.
“I need to make sure the brand continues even if I get a heart attack or get hit by a bus.”
SO WHAT’S SOMETHING YOU NEED TO CHANGE?
MB&F clients are geeks, and I love geeks. But I think our next step is to talk to customers who are more hedonistic. The ones who go “I love this piece, I heard the story, I want it. I don’t know the difference between a balance wheel and a barrel, and I don’t want to know, and it’s okay.”
WHAT ARE YOUR CUSTOMERS IN SINGAPORE LIKE?
The Singaporean collector, as we all know, has been one of the most educated for decades. You guys were at the forefront of creating watch forums, watch websites and so on.
You’re such a small city and you already had, like, six watch magazines! And I think because of that, many collectors were very, very bored of what the mainstream was doing, and were therefore much more open to listening to crazy stories and seeing crazy products like mine.
Half the people who bought the first HM1s, HM2s and HM3s were from Singapore. When the brand was nothing, they took insane risks and I will never forget that. Just thinking about it gives me goosebumps.
Our story really began in Singapore and today, it gets about 7 to 8 per cent of our pieces, which is incredible. Watch education is much lower in other countries, and people there need to be reassured first by going up the food chain: Starting with Longines, then TAG Heuer, then moving up to Jaeger-LeCoultre and Rolex.
Singaporeans have already been there and done that and so they were hungry for something that made a difference.
“The Singaporean collector, as we all know, has been one of the most educated for decades. You guys were at the forefront of creating watch forums, watch websites and so on.”
NOW THAT YOU’VE GIVEN US SOMETHING DIFFERENT, WHAT’S NEXT?
Honestly my challenge is wondering how to keep your adrenaline levels up. You can’t be as wowed by our 20th piece as you were by the first piece. It’s like medication – keep taking the same ones and you won’t feel anything anymore. People always need more, and that’s my biggest challenge with Singapore.
ANY FAVOURITE HAUNTS HERE YOU’D LIKE TO REVISIT WHEN TRAVEL RESUMES?
I’ve been to Singapore probably 25 times in the last 15 years but I can’t answer that question because – and I say this with love – The Hour Glass team are like slave drivers.
They are the most efficient, intense retail partners I’ve ever worked with. When they give me my schedule, I’m like, “When can I sleep?”
They’d put me in an office for 10 hours of interviews before dragging me to dinner at some restaurant. But it’s also my own fault. I founded this company with just my savings and no other investors. I was working 18 hours a day nonstop.
I’ve seen how some C-suite guys from big brands work, how much they give, and I’ve given five times what they have, and with pleasure. So I must admit I’ve never had the chance to go and discover Singapore.
HOPEFULLY YOU WILL, EVENTUALLY. UNTIL THEN, WHAT CAN WE EXPECT FROM MB&F FOR THE REST OF THE YEAR?
The HM9 Sapphire Vision and LMX are just a small part of 2021. I think what we have lined up will blow your socks off. You’re going to see another insane calibre, an incredible collaboration that nobody would expect, and creativity in a domain that will make people fall off their chairs in surprise.
I can’t give you more details, but 2021 is going to be the year.
“Our story really began in Singapore and today, it gets about seven to eight per cent of our pieces, which is incredible. Watch education is much lower in other countries.”