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Mark Watson, former general manager, Swatch Australia
Mark Watson, former general manager, Swatch Australia

Swatch wins court battle with ex-manager

Mark Watson’s claim of wrongful dismissal against Swatch Group Australia has been rejected by the County Court. 
In dismissing all but one of Watson's four claims, Judge Maree Kennedy found him to be an unreliable witness whose evidence appeared to be influenced by ''considerable hostility'' towards Swatch.

In a damaging Reasons For Judgment document, Judge Kennedy said that Mr Watson, who was sacked after five years with the Swiss watchmaker, was sometimes given to exaggeration to suit his purposes and ''at times his evidence was simply not credible''.

The judgment read, “Mr Watson was in the witness box for more than five days.  Having had the opportunity to assess his demeanour and listen to his evidence, I am unable to consider him a reliable witness. I cannot be confident that his account of events and issues is complete and substantially accurate. He appeared to be actuated, and his evidence influenced by, a considerable hostility towards Swatch.”   

In contrast, the judgment said that Kevin Rollenhagen, member of Swatch's Extended Management Board was “an impressive and straightforward witness. He gave careful and responsive answers and was prepared to make concessions, where, for example, he was unable to recall events.” 

Rollenhagen – one of three international board members to take the stand during the trial - has previously denied Watson’s claims, telling Jeweller last December, “Swatch Group did not involve itself in any violations of the Trade Practices Act. I wouldn’t say I’m worried [about the trial] because the reason Mark was terminated was clearly spelt out in the termination letter to him. He was terminated for reasons to do with his performance of the management of the company. There were no other reasons.”

The judge came down on Watson’s side in other areas. For example, she disagreed with Swatch’s assertion that sexually explicit material found on Watson’s computer after he was terminated was cause for summary dismissal.

“However, although I am satisfied that - contrary to Mr Watson’s claims - he had seen the offensive material, I am unable to be satisfied that he otherwise perused it such as to interfere with “efficiency, unity or co-operation” [of the company]. There was evidence that he had asked people not to send inappropriate emails [from a Mr Barrie and Mr Catalano]. More significantly, there is no evidence that Mr Watson generally disseminated the material or that it was accessible to other employees.”

A great deal of the judgment surrounded Watson’s claims that he was instructed by senior Swatch executives - including Rollenhagan, Yann Gamard from the board of directors and CEO Nicolas Hayek Jr - to stop retailers from discounting. 

However, in terms of Watson’s evidence regarding Hayek’s instructions Kennedy concluded, “The evidence was generalised in the extreme.  Even at its highest it does not constitute a direction to Mr Watson to engage in unlawful conduct.”

Kennedy concluded, “Having considered the alleged directions given by Mr Gamard I am not satisfied that he has directed Mr Watson to engage in unlawful conduct. I am not satisfied that Mr Watson was directed to engage in unlawful conduct by any of the persons properly identified as his superior.”

Judge Kennedy found Watson was entitled to $12,285 for his claim of three months salary in lieu of notice.

Watson told Jeweller yesterday that he was considering an appeal. 

It is believed that representatives of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission were present throughout the hearing. Jeweller is aware that the ACCC has interviewed former and current Swatch staff, although when previously contacted, the ACCC would neither confirm nor deny whether they had begun an investigation. 

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