Hans Wilsdorf Foundation It takes different strokes to move the world.
The spectrum of philanthropy emanating from watchamakers ranges from the modest to the behemoth. Here are a few examples, from Golay Spierer to the foremost player of the bunch, the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation.
The spectrum of Swiss watchmaking philanthropy is indeed one of the largest there is. In a way, it reflects the very structure of this industry, comprised of a myriad of small players, several large ones and a few global, famous giants. Charity events, limited series with gifted benefits, foundations, helping hand projects, many of them contribute according to their own means. On the one side, a behemoth like the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation has been acting massively and constantly, for over 60 years and to the current tune of hundreds of millions of Francs. On the other, the one-off and modest gesture of Golay-Spierer is worth mentionning. They recently spared part of the benefits in the auction sale of their first Heroïca Tempus one-off timepiece for charity.
Heroïca Tempus © Golay Spierer
As everything related to Rolex, the action of the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation is as intriguing as it is massive. When Hans Wilsdorf bestowed the entirety of his shares in Rolex SA to his namesake foundation, he had two things in mind. Those two thoughts have become the essence of this very hush hush player. The first one was to enshrine Rolex. Once in this special purpose vehicle, it can't be sold, doesn't distribute dividends to outside shareholders, nor does it offer any financial information, and acts solely in one strategic direction : its own perpetuation. The second goal of this childless man, who made Geneva his home and was deeply involved in the city's social affairs, was to provide support and financing to a large number of associations in the humanitarian, philanthropic and education sectors.
The aims of the foundation may have recently been altered to make them a little more vague, they once stipulated that its goal is to «make donations to various charities listed in the statutes as well as to the Geneva Watchmaking School, the Decorative Arts School of Geneva, the Social and Economic Sciences University of Geneva, the Swiss Watchamking Research Laboratory in Neuchâtel and to provide the founder's nieces and nephews and their offspring with upkeep... »
Hans Wilsdorf 1945 © Rolex
Even if said statutes aren't accessible, this scope is pretty well detailed. On the other hand, its inner workings remain almost entirely secret, bar an adress in a Geneva suburb, the name of its board members and a collection of very large deals. Its President is a Geneva notary named Costin van Berchem. He seats at the head of the Fondation board with a string of major players in the local asociations and industrial sectors. Together with an almost skeleton crew, they run a pretty secret ship designed to distribute amounts of money we can only imagine, but have to be massive.
As Rolex's sole owner, the fondation receives part of the brand's profits. Based on commonly agreed upon revenues of around 5 bn Francs, and applying a conservative profitability of 20%, Rolex releases a yearly profit in the vicinity of 1 Bn Francs. All of which is tax free since Swiss foundations are income-tax-exempt. These funds are partly (who knows exactly how much) made available to the Foundation and no matter the exact amount, it's enough to make it a major sponsor.
The new HEAD school campus, 90% of which were donated by the Fondation Hans Wilsdorf © HEAD – Genève, Michel Giesbrecht
Some of its most public deeds sum up what the foundation can do. In 2015, it saved the Servette FC, Geneva's football club, from bankruptcy. It financed, and managed the design and execution of, a spectacular bridge on Geneva's Arve river, and had it named the Hans Wilsdorf bridge. In 2017, it offered 100 out of the 114 millions needed for the HEAD, Geneva's applied arts school, to acquire a brand new and very large in-town campus. One of the latest actions was to buy out a famous downtown Geneva building which was scheduled to be torn down. It harbored a cinema theater that had been deemed unsavageable so far.
Hans-Wilsdorf Bridge © Geneve.com
Besides these flamboyant operations which get media attention, the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation is mostly working off the radar on a continuous stream of straight out philanthropic projects. It finances all or part of several associations including food banks, elderly charities, scholarships, school prizes with a special emphasis on the reduction of individual excessive debt.
These actions are restricted to the Geneva canton by design, but they're not the only ones to stem from the Foundation's work. In a way, everything Rolex does as a brand has the same roots, and it is active in the fields of arts, science, culture, environment, research, sports and so forth. And that is on a global scale.