Profile of an American Dream Fulfilled

Anyone looking for an embodiment of the American dream need only shake hands with Rodolfo “Rudy” Chavez, president of the Swiss luxury watch brand Baume & Mercier North America since September 2005. His family’s story ranges from the prison cells of Castro’s Cuba to the halls of the White House.

It began in the years after the Communist takeover of Cuba by Fidel Castro and his cohorts. The Chavezes were a middle-class family with a nice home in the province of Las Villas. But Chavez’s father, the head of transport for a well-known Cuban brewery, was outspoken in his criticism of Castro’s government and its effects on life and freedoms in Cuba. In 1966 he was arrested and put in prison, where he languished for a month and a half under a sentence of death. Then, the unexpected happened. An acquaintance high in the Cuban military came to his father in jail with two options: Leave Cuba immediately, with his family, or stay and be executed, leaving his wife and son to the mercies of Castro’s government.

Within 24 hours—“from one day to the next,” recalls Rudy Chavez, then 5—his father was released from prison and the family put on an airplane to Spain. They took only their lives and the clothes on their backs. “We had to leave everything behind,” says Chavez. “We left with nothing.”

In Spain they stayed with relatives on a farm for six months, and then spent six months in the Cuban exile community in Madrid. Rudy Chavez has few childhood memories of that year, other than “the hayrides on the farm,” and in Madrid, “looking in a toy-store window at hand-carved toy soldiers and wanting them.”

In 1967, the family flew to New York City. Rudy, then 6, arrived first and was met by relatives. His parents came a week later, on a Friday night, Chavez recalls. The following Monday, both parents went to work in their new homeland at jobs their New York relatives had found. His father, then 40, was a stock boy at Gimbels department store. (Among the first things he bought in America with his pay were toy soldiers for his son.) His mother went to work in an embroidery factory, toiling there for years with other women in difficult working conditions.

His father worked his way up at Gimbels and saved his money. By 1970, the family was able to move to Union City, N.Y., which had a small Cuban community, and in 1980, his father left Gimbels to open his own business, a small cosmetics store. It was also during the ’80s that the Chavezes became U.S. citizens, “one of the proudest days” of their lives, recalls Rudy Chavez.

Emulating his parents’ work ethic, the teenage Chavez went to work for a jewelry store, where, he says, “I did it all, learning the retail jewelry business from the bottom up.” He worked there during college and throughout most of his 20s, rising from stock boy to manager. But it was a family business, and his prospects there were limited. “I wanted more,” he says.

He worked five years at Saks Fifth Avenue, selling watches and jewelry, and then joined Sector sport watches, where he held several posts, ultimately overseeing key national and regional accounts. He left in 1998 to join Baume & Mercier North America as its New York regional manager. He was named director of national accounts in 1999, vice president of sales in 2002, and president in late 2005.

Chavez says his parents’ experiences taught him discipline and dogged determination. “You learn there will be obstacles, but that you can get through them,” he says. “I saw that in my father, and in what he overcame. Here was a man who knew no English when he came, who had to start over at 40 as a stock boy, but worked hard enough to own his own business within a few years.

“I saw that in my mother, who for years was already outside in the cold early morning when I was getting up for school and college, waiting for her ride to the embroidery factory, where she worked all day in an environment where some bosses harassed and browbeat employees. You don’t forget that.” His mother’s experiences influenced his managerial style and sparked a determination to ensure proper working conditions: “An environment that’s a good place for people to work in,” he says.

His years in retail also taught him valuable lessons. “I know what it means to a retailer to be well serviced by a brand—or not,” he says. That’s one reason he recently started a service-oriented program at Baume & Mercier called “Hug Your Customer.” Chavez explains its goal: “To do all we can to service our accounts, so they have confidence in the brand and are enthusiastic about pursuing its sales.” As president of Baume & Mercier North America, says Chavez, he wants to make the brand more profitable to retailers—“to the point where a retailer wants it because it makes a difference.”

Chavez also has absorbed his parents’ patriotism. “They have great regard for this country,” he says. “’This is America,’ they said. ‘Here, you can seek freedom and live your dream.’”

Last summer, Chavez and other Baume & Mercier officials attended a charity event at the White House in Washington, D.C., at which President and Mrs. Bush were also present. When the president came over to chat, Chavez told him he was a Cuban-American, said it was an honor and a pleasure for him to be in the White House, and expressed his gratitude. “If it weren’t for the United States and the opportunities it has given my parents and myself, our lives would be very different now,” Chavez told the president. He appreciated Chavez’s comments. “It’s great to see the passion you have for freedom,” he told him.

After the reception, outside the White House, Chavez called his parents on his cell phone to say he had just chatted with the president of the United States. “They thought I was joking!” he says. But later he showed them the official White House photo, with the president, Chavez, and former Baume & Mercier president Edward Wright. “They didn’t say much, but I could see tears welling up,” he says. “They were awed and quietly proud, because they love this country. They came here, leaving all behind, to give their child a better life.” Chavez says the photo was a confirmation of what they had hoped for and achieved. “I tell my own children, Don’t take for granted the opportunities this country offers,” Chavez says. “And remember what their grandparents did to ensure they have them.”