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A second act

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Above, left: "I don't want to grow too fast, even though there is demand," says Mr Jacques. Above, right: DB25 Starry Varius.

IT wasn't the second coming of Steve Jobs, but there were broad similarities.

Pierre Jacques grew De Bethune fast and furious when he was running the independent Swiss watchmaking firm. Then came the fall. De Bethune was hit by a triple blow in 2015-16 - the Russia-Ukraine war, the euro crisis and a big hike in the prices of De Bethune's watches. Mr Jacques left the firm after the first blow, in late 2015. Now he's back to lead De Bethune out of the mess.

The late Apple chief's attachment to the computer company was understandable. He was a co-founder of the firm. While Mr Jacques was De Bethune's chief executive, he had no hand in starting it. Yet he says his heart has always been with De Bethune, whose timepieces reflect watchmaking art in the 21st century.

Mr Jacques might have been with the firm for only five years - from 2011 to 2015 - but he says it was really like a lifetime.

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"I never really left De Bethune," Mr Jacques says, in halting English. "I (only) went on a two-year journey. It's a journey because I knew that I was going to come back someday. So when the opportunity to take over De Bethune came up, I did not hesitate."

De Bethune's desperate situation open its door to buyers. Together with Luxembourg-based private equity investor Giovanni Perin, Mr Jacques led an investment consortium to take a major stake in the firm.

"We came with a project that De Bethune believes in," he says. "Otherwise they won't sell. We came with solutions and financing."

De Bethune's co-founder David Zanetta ceded all his shares and stepped down, but the firm's other co-founder and master watchmaker Denis Flageollet stayed on. In fact, Mr Zanetta was the only who departed after the takeover.

"There was nothing to change," Mr Jacques says. "We've the most talented watchmakers in the industry."

In any case, the staff strength was already chopped from its peak of 60 in 2014 to 26 by the time the former CEO returned.

There was also a more urgent concern. The firm had lost over half its market by 2017. The first order of things was then to stop the haemorrhaging. There's nothing he could do about the war and the rise of the Swiss franc against the euro, but Mr Jacques could at least reverse De Bethune's price increases, which were made for "strategic reasons".

Prices of De Bethune watches were slashed by a third to their 2015 levels. They now range from S$50,000 to S$400,000.

Production - De Bethune did virtually everything in-house, and still does - jumped four times to over 400 timepieces yearly during Mr Jacques' first tenure, over-stretching its staff. It has been cut to 100 this year. The number will rise in the next three years and stabilise at around 200.

"I don't want to grow too fast, even though there is demand," Mr Jacques says. "There're no pressures from investors now. We will only grow in innovation and in the complication of our watches."

Which falls neatly in line with De Bethune's philosophy of "not doing more but better", a philosophy Mr Jacques believes in wholeheartedly.

De Bethune's watch collection has been simplified, but Mr Jacques is not about to change the products. They will retain their key features: the flexibly curved lugs which sits comfortably on the wrist; the 3-D moon phase which De Bethune pioneered; the highly polished titanium material that accounts for 70 per cent of De Bethune watches; and the superior finishing.

The new DB25 Starry Varius, the first new watch rolled out after Mr Jacques' comeback, was launched in March, just as Swiss watch exports finally bounced back following two years of decline. This augurs well for De Bethune - and Mr Jacques' return.

Though the firm has yet to see any sign of recovery in Europe, it's already posting growth in other markets, especially in the United States.

"America is now 30 per cent of our market," Mr Jacques notes. "It's the first time, it's never been that big."

Will Mr Jacques take De Bethune to new heights with his comeback, as Mr Jobs did at Apple? Only time will tell.