Style Observer

My Kingston — Peter Bangerter Director of Swiss Stores Jamaica Limited

Sunday, April 01, 2018

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PETER BANGERTER Director of Swiss StoresJamaica

What are your earliest memories of Kingston?

Coming from Switzerland — a landlocked country — the sea, harbour, and the big ships made quite an impression on me.

Take us back to Swiss Stores in its halcyon days.

Up until 1967, Swiss Stores was a division of the Rum Company of Jamaica. In 1934, on one of his trips by train from Zurich to Geneva, the then owner of the Rum Co, Rudolph Waeckerlin, met Hans Wilsdorf, the inventor of the Rolex watch. Wilsdorf convinced him to try and sell his watches in Jamaica and that is how our jewellery business started. A few years later, some of the watches sold needed repairs and, as a result, a watchmaker was recruited from Switzerland.

I replaced him in 1958 when the retail location was moved from King Street to the present location on Harbour Street. Our Harbour Street shop was the first retail store on the island to be fully air-conditioned and we were warned that nobody would want to push a door to go shopping. We built up the most sophisticated service department, and in 1960 — with a head jeweller from Switzerland joining us — we started manufacturing individually handcrafted items, which led to a natural progression into mass production, especially for the tourist business. This allowed us to employ over 20 locally trained goldsmiths. At that time we had branches at both airports, at Casa Montego in Montego Bay, and Main Street, Ocho Rios.

What do you miss most about those days?

Up until 1973, downtown Kingston was a very busy shopping area. With cruise ships in the harbour, many times we had over 100 customers in the shop, and had to control the door, with persons lined up on the street. Duty-free shopping was very popular also, with companies like Stanley Motta, English Shop, LA Henriques, and others. Sales were fantastic, and the total sales of watches only could reach over 3,500 a year! We had no security problems; no grilles on the windows or glass doors. We had 12 outside show windows and never locked up any items in the vault at nights. It was a safer time.

Why has the Swiss watch remained the hallmark of sophistication, especially for men?

The Swiss watch industry had serious problems when the electronic watch came on the market, and many large companies closed. Some of the big names only barely survived being taken over by large syndicates, and obviously no longer have the individual touch. Worldwide service has become a problem, with the exception of the few manufacturers that still have the same owner structure like Rolex.

Against all predictions at that time, the old-fashioned mechanical movement has remained very popular and in this, Switzerland has its strength. A few years ago the ladies' watches could not be small enough, but finally the ladies have come into fashion with larger watches, and are even competing with the men! Branding seems to be very popular and the fashion watches for men are new and very popular. Anybody today can be in the watch business with globalisation, by making a fancy case, and purchasing an accurate quartz movement for a few dollars. Be very careful of imitations; trust your jeweller for advice; only he can tell whether you are getting value for the price.

What were some of your earliest challenges?

Before I left for Jamaica I was told not to take any appliances, as there was no electricity — they probably meant the 40 cycles and 110V — after arriving I then had to import the equipment needed to build the workshop.

I came from a very strict workplace (Longines watch factory in Switzerland) where the doors closed between 5:00 and 7:00 am, and I had a 46-hour work week. If you arrived five minutes late three times, then your salary was cut by one hour. In Jamaica I had to get used to a more relaxed situation.

How has Swiss Stores remained relevant?

By maintaining absolute honesty, insisting on quality, excellent customer service, and providing the best in after-sales service.

What has been the worst experience of your 60 years in business, and conversely, your best?

Resisting the temptation to take one of the five flights out of the island in the 70s (would the last one leaving the island please turn off the lights?). Conversely, in 1971, as president of the Lions Club of Kingston, I managed to put the Heart Foundation of Jamaica (HFJ) on its feet whilst facing many serious challenges. I was able to travel the world, attending the World Heart Federation's conferences among 20 to 30,000 others, and being able to celebrate the HFJ's 45th anniversary in 2016. Growing from just one part-time employee in 1971, the HFJ presently has over 50 permanent staff.

You have passed the business reins over to your nephew Ueli. How would you like to see him improve on your legacy?

By insisting that Swiss Stores will survive, giving the best service to our loyal customers and growing from strength to strength. Hopefully I will be around for a long time to be with my customers.

Were you the Mayor of Kingston for a day, what are a few of the immediate changes that you would make to downtown Kingston and why?

I would stop talking about redevelopment and start implementation, refurbish all the empty historic buildings, and consider the private sector by offering a pepper corn lease enforcing the law all year round.

Were you able to have dinner with five entrepreneurs living and/ or dead, who would they be?

World-class inventor Albert Einstein; top retailer in jewellery the world over Carl F Bucherer; founder of the Rolex empire Hans Wilsdorf; former first lady of the United States Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (I assisted her as a customer in Montego Bay); and my father, president of the worker's class trade union in Switzerland: he left us far too early.

Finally, what's your business mantra?

Keep going, never look back and stick to it! There is only one way and that is the correct way. I would like my staff to be able to tell me “whatever you can do, I can do better”.

— This article was first published on January 3, 2016

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