On April 14, one of the giants of the modern watch industry, Ulysse Nardin’s Rolf Schnyder, passed away unexpectedly. Schnyder transformed a small company known for marine chronometers into an innovative manufacturer producing groundbreaking timepieces. Following Schnyder’s passing, vice-president Patrik Hoffmann was appointed CEO. We go inside Schnyder’s last days, we look at the transition, and we trace the rise of Ulysse Nardin’s new captain.
Patrik Hoffmann was born and raised in Basel, Switzerland, a city long associated with the watch industry. Originally trained as a CPA, he went to work for Oris as an accountant. While there, he was advised that to climb the executive ladder, he should study marketing. Hoffmann moved to Michigan to earn an MBA, then he returned to Oris where he joined the marketing team.
Patrik Hoffmann at Ulysse Nardin headquarters in La Chaux-de-Fonds.
In the mid-90s, Hoffmann moved his family to Malaysia. From his base in Kuala Lumpur, he traveled widely in Asia. As it turned out, Oris and Ulysse Nardin shared a local watch distributor, and by way of further coincidence, UN’s owner and CEO Rolf Schnyder lived only a half mile from Hoffmann.
Schnyder was known for always seeking information that might help him in business. He played golf in the mornings, then stopped by Hoffmann’s office in the afternoons to chat. “There is a funny story about how I came to be employed by Rolf”, Hoffmann related. At a collector event, Schnyder asked Hoffmann “When are you going to come to work for me?” Hoffmann replied “I will never work for you.” Schnyder asked why, and Hoffmann said “Your factory is in Le Locle – in the middle of nowhere. Everybody there speaks French. I cannot work for you.”
The next day Hoffmann was shopping with his wife when Schnyder called him on his cell phone and said “Patrik, the job I would offer you would be to start our own U.S. operation in Florida. Would you be interested?” Hoffmann responded “That sounds tempting. That I could imagine.”
A few minutes later, Hoffmann and his wife were in the car when her cell phone rang. It was Schnyder, and he did not know that she was sitting right next to her husband. Schnyder told her “I just spoke with Patrik. He said he would like to work for me in Florida. Would you like to move to Florida?” She replied “I can imagine living in Florida.” Then Schnyder called Hoffmann back and said “I just spoke to your wife. She wants to move to Florida. Come see me over the weekend.” That was in August, 1999.
In short order, Hoffmann and his family moved to Florida. Under Hoffmann’s guidance, the U.S. market took off, becoming Ulysse Nardin’s largest. With his finance and marketing background, a lifetime of experience, and a down-to-earth style that clicked with collectors and retailers, Hoffmann became a member of Schnyder’s inner circle of five executives who worked closely with their leader managing the company.
Though he listened to his closest managers, Schnyder was clearly in charge. “He might ask for thoughts if he was unsure,” Hoffmann related, “but he would not ask too many people. He would not have a meeting and bring a lot of people together. He would just decide.”
Rolf Schnyder (below, left) with Ludwig Oechslin, and the watch that put Ulysse Nardin back on the map in 1985: the Astrolabium Galileo Galilei.
Around 2005, Schnyder began pushing Hoffmann to move to Switzerland, but Hoffmann was not eager to go. “There were a couple of reasons. I like it in the U.S. very much, and over there Rolf was still very much in charge. In the U.S. I had more freedom, and I could develop and prove what was possible.”
L to R Patrik Hoffmann, Bobby Yampolsky, Randy Johnson, and Rolf Schnyder open Ulysse Nardin’s Boca Raton boutique in December, 2010.
Then, about three years ago, Hoffmann decided to “give in half-way.” He agreed to travel back and forth between the U.S. and Ulysse Nardin’s Swiss offices, spending about 40% of his time in Switzerland and the rest in the States. During this period, Hoffmann headed up global marketing and sales. “Of course with Rolf you were always a little involved with everything. He would keep you in the loop. And it was a good move, because I was already half-way there.”
Hoffmann with Jay Leno in March this year as Ulysse Nardin raised funds for charity during the 2011 Boca Raton Concours d’ Elegance.
No one foresaw Schnyder’s departure. To those he met with at Baselworld this year, Schnyder appeared to be in good health. In fact, he began feeling ill about five days before the Fair started. Yet when the show ended on March 31, no one inside Ulysse Nardin thought there was a serious problem, and everyone went about their business as usual.
Then on April 10, Schnyder called Hoffmann at home, early in the morning. “He told me he had to go to the hospital, and that I should do what I have to do, and not wait for him. He said he knew there were some decisions that should be discussed, but he said ‘Do not wait. I will call you when I am out and better.’”
Four days later, Schnyder died in Kuala Lampur at age 76, leaving behind his wife Chai and three children. The cause was identified as acute pancreatitis.
On April 27 Chai Schnyder, who holds a Master of Science in Manufacturing Engineering degree from Queen’s University in Belfast, was appointed president of the Ulysse Nardin board of directors, and Hoffmann was named CEO. Chai and her children now own the majority of shares in the company. Hoffmann says “It is the position of the shareholders to keep UN independent. Chai came to address the people two weeks after Rolf died. She spoke to the entire management team and she assured us that this is the plan. And the management and the employees all plan as such – we will remain independent.”
Hoffmann currently spends 60% of his time in Switzerland and 40% in the U.S., but in the future he sees himself spending closer to 80% of his time in Switzerland.
For Hoffmann, looking forward involves looking back. “Rolf was a pioneer. He had guts. He did some things that big groups might not consider. We did Silicium and DIAMonSIL ten years ago. That was a combination of intuition and guts. We hope we can continue that.”
The original Freak launched a new era in watchmaking in 2001.
Between them, Schnyder’s inner-circle managers have 75 years of experience working with the former leader. “What Rolf was able to do is trickle down his life philosophy. And I am not just talking business now” Hoffmann related. “We are one of the few companies that manages to sell some of the most expensive watches, but we still have our feet on the ground. Rolf was never crazy about staying at the best hotels or driving the best cars, and I think that is part of the new management, and I hope I will be able to keep that going. We meet great people and wealthy people all over the world, but we are still humble.”
In these early days of the post-Schnyder era, Hoffman admits “We do still catch ourselves asking ‘What would Rolf do?’ For now, there are still issues where we know what Rolf wanted, because we spoke with him. The advantage is that it is a successful company. He planted trees, even though he knew he would not live to see those trees grow. That’s the kind of person he was. We do not have to make changes. There will be an evolution, but we don’t have to turn anything around. That’s a huge advantage.”
One of Rolf’s trees: the Ulysse Nardin Caliber 118.
But the new order is beginning to assert itself, as seen in this anecdote Hoffmann related about a recent meeting. “There is one existing movement where we have been planning something new, and I said ‘An evolution from what we have is not enough. We have to add one more feature.’ Some of the others said no, but I said ‘We have to have this feature.’ They said ‘OK, let’s call Ludwig [Oechslin]’ because it was a product Ludwig was involved in. So Ludwig came. He had something new with him. Then we told him that on this other movement, we have an idea for a new feature, and I saw the flicker in his eyes, and I knew. I think he will be able to put that feature in.”
Schnyder trained his protégé well.