Family business takes Australian-made to watch industry

Manufacturing facilities come small and large. Miri Schroeter talks to watchmaker Josh Hacko about a quaint business that reaches far beyond a clock face.

Nicholas Hacko came to Australia in 1991 as a refugee from Croatia during the Yugoslav Wars. A watchmaker by trade, he had expertise in the design, repair and assembly of watches.

Hacko was able to make a career of repairing Swiss watches and selling high-end second-hand watches from iconic brands such as Rolex and Breitling. Arriving with just two suitcases, Hacko had little equipment to start a company in Australia.

But, having come from a family of watchmakers, he was able to create a business, in foreign territory, keeping the Hacko family tradition alive.

Hacko’s father and grandfather worked as watch repairers, which made it only logical for Hacko’s son, Josh, to also learn the trade.

While the sale of second-hand watches had proven successful for the family, a push from influential companies to end the sale of spare parts to Australian independent repairers, threw the Hacko’s a curve ball in 2011.

Companies such as Cartier and Rolex announced they were keeping repairs in-house, and by halting the sale of spare parts, repairers, such as the Hackos, had to find new ways of keeping the business thriving.

Josh said the result of these companies’ decision left his father’s company 10-20 per cent out of pocket. “We could no longer repair watches. The supply of spare parts ran out.

“As an act of rebellion my father said, ‘I’ll make my own watch’.” His father wrote an article to his company’s newsletter subscribers and said he was going to make nine watches. “That afternoon he got 140 orders and he fulfilled those orders.”

While there was a demand for the watches, the family wasn’t about ticking over order after order. They wanted to try their hand in watchmaking that started and finished in Australia. Making the parts in-house would give the Hackos more flexibility and control, said Josh.

“We wanted to make something that would last. We wanted something reliable, robust and repairable.” Josh said that at first they were naïve, as they thought they could simply buy the required machinery to make watches from scratch.

The family soon realised that focusing on the main working parts of a watch and sourcing the casing and straps was the best solution for the small manufacturer, based in Sydney. For five years now, Josh, Nicholas and their team have been making a brand of watches called Rebelde. Four critical components of the watches are designed, manufactured and assembled at the northern Sydney facility.

A classic in modern world

Josh explained the intricacies of watchmaking and the journey his family had gone through, at an Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre (AMGC)-supported event in late-2018. One query on peoples’ minds was why a watchmaker was starting a business of making classic watches in a world of smart watches.

Rebelde claims to be the only company manufacturing and assembling watches in Australia. And while the likes of Apple, Garmin and Samsung are creating watches that can measure a person’s heart rate, while allowing them to read text messages, while somewhat replicating a traditional watch, Rebelde’s focus is different.

Rebelde makes key components needed in watches.

“The smart watch is perfect because it’s a statement piece, but it lacks heritage and traditionalism,” said Josh. “Watchmaking is a very tricky field because you have this idea of traditionalism, but then you have modern, sophisticated statement piece ideas.” Classic watches work because people want that traditionalism, he said. “For us, manufacturing classic watches was the only way. We have high value, low volume products. I’m a fourth generation watchmaker and for us it’s all about tradition.”

Rebelde’s current facility can manufacture a maximum of 250 watches per year, but Josh and Nicholas hope to move the facility to Mittagong, NSW, where they have purchased land to expand the business.

They are moving from a 100 square metre to a 1000sqm facility by 2021, which Josh hopes will allow them to make up to 1000 watches per-year. Once the new facility is created there will be more room for machinery and personnel.

Time to learn

“The crowning part of that whole facility will be a watchmaking school.” Josh said that currently, there are few education providers that offer watchmaking as a career path in Australia. Rebelde already has two apprentices, but Josh hopes that people from around the world will be able to learn at his facility, which will offer a different approach to the big players, he said.

AMGC Australian Capital Territory and NSW director, Michael Sharpe, said the event was about allowing businesses to collaborate with university researchers, governments and other companies growing the manufacturing sector. “We need more Australian businesses to collaborate. We work with big and small businesses to achieve that.” Collaboration comes in many forms, said Sharpe. Josh, for example was going to visit a Sydney university to learn more about the equipment they use for other applications that could be helpful in watchmaking. “It’s about bringing industry and research together,” said Sharpe.

“We want our manufacturers competing on value not just on cost. “By creating high value products through advanced design and advanced capabilities, we can design our best products, in Australia, to show to the world. AMGC can help leverage that and help companies create very high value products.”

Austrade, Finance for Australian Exporters, and the Australian National Fabrications Facility were among those who attended the event to provide insights into opportunities in trade and exports, and manufacturing processes.

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