Max Imgruth, the 43-year-old president of Swatch Watch U.S.A., doesn’t appear as wacky as the Swiss company’s hot-selling, colorful watches. He is cool and reserved, except for his taste in clothes.
He is also determined to attain his next goal. “Swatch is at the crossroads. I want to make the transition from a single-product company to a multifaceted company,” Imgruth said.
It could be hard, however, to match with other products the phenomenal success of the inexpensive Swatch, which was launched in this country in a big way in 1983.
The Swatch is a revolution in watchmaking, in more ways than one.
It is a spinoff of a race between the Swiss and Japanese to develop the world’s thinnest watch. The Swiss won, welding the watch’s components right into the case.
The Swatch--the word is a contraction of Swiss and watch and also means a patch of fabric--was created when engineers decided to apply that technology to mass production.
Swatch, which contains far fewer pieces that a regular quartz analog watch, can be produced on a single, robotic assembly line. Made of tough plastic, the Swatch is waterproof, shockproof and has a replaceable battery. It costs $30. It cannot, however, be repaired.
But the Swatch’s real attraction lies in its imaginative, constantly updated designs.
“We thought we would position the Swatch as a fashion accessory. What we’re marketing is much more a life style, an idea, rather than something that just ticks,” Imgruth said.
Imgruth primarily targeted females aged 12 to 24, whom he envisioned buying four pairs of jeans a year, four pairs of Reebok shoes a year, and hopefully at least four Swatches a year.
To reach them, he pushed Swatches into department stores, rather than limit them to watch and jewelry stores.
The company’s total sales in this country soared to $135 million in 1985 from $3 million just two years earlier. The company doesn’t disclose its profits.
And all types of people wear Swatches, including, not surprisingly, Imgruth.
Imgruth wears two Swatches at once, one set to local time, the other to Swiss time.
They also match his outfit: a bright plaid jacket, blue-and-white striped shirt, a patterned tie, navy blue pants, turquoise socks and black loafers.
The company’s lines each are made up of 24 watches, the classically styled ones that stay in the collection for one to two years, and fashion watches that are changed every two to three months.
The latter watches have themes. This fall’s will be “Coat of Arms” and “Kiva,” an American Indian-inspired design.
Notable Swatches have included the see-through “Jellyfish,” the hottest seller and no longer available; last year’s fruit-scented ones, and the upscale “Limelight,” which has four diamonds on its face and sells for $100.
Some people find that the designs make it hard to tell time on a Swatch.
“Oh, absolutely. I would tell those people to buy one of these, if you use it from a utilitarian point of view,” Imgruth said, pointing to a tray of the simpler Swatches.
Line of Accessories
What Imgruth is trying to do now is attach the Swatch mystique to a line of accessories called Fungear and to a ready-to-wear collection called Funwear. These items also are priced modestly.
A first Swatch shop featuring all the company’s products was opened in Bloomingdale’s flagship store in New York late last year. Now there are about 550 Swatch shops nationwide, the company says.
Imgruth expects the new products to account for over 30 percent of 1986 sales of Swatch Watch U.S.A. He declines to project those overall sales.
The company is a unit of Swatch S.A., which is based in Bienne, Switzerland. That company, in turn, is a unit of Societe Suisse de Microelectronique et d’Horlogerie, a watch conglomerate that is 51% controlled by private investors and whose stock is traded on the Zurich stock exchange, Imgruth said.
The United States, where per capita ownership of watches has been on the rise, is Swatch’s largest market and represents 45% of Swatch’s business, he said.
The question now is whether Swatch will sustain its momentum or see its products become a passing fad.
“It’s a great passing fad,” Imgruth said sarcastically. “The passing fad as been going on three years now. It’s in its fourth year and it’s doing well.”
He added, “I think people will continue to buy fashion watches.”
The trick to Swatch’s long-term success, Imgruth said, will be to resist over-saturating the market with Swatch products.
Imgruth was born in Lucerne into a Swiss family of shoe and fashion retailers. He remains a Swiss citizen and speaks English with a slight accent.
He studied business, art history, languages, fashion and shoe design at various schools in Switzerland, Italy, England and France. He also received a bachelor’s degree in marketing from New York University.