Rolex SA, the Swiss watchmaker, named Finance Director Bruno Meier as head of management after Chief Executive Officer Patrick Heiniger resigned, ending almost half a century of leadership under the Heiniger family.

Meier will be responsible for running the company along with the board of directors and management, Geneva-based Rolex said in an e-mailed statement today. This year will have been a “record” under Heiniger’s leadership, the watchmaker added.

One of Meier’s first tasks will be to protect Rolex’s market share as the wealthy cut spending on luxury goods. The world’s richest people are likely to see the value of their assets shrink for the first time in at least 12 years in 2008, according to a report by Capgemini SA. Weaker spending may cause a drop of as much as 15 percent in Swiss watch exports next year, John Guy, an analyst at MF Global Securities, estimated.

Heiniger, who replaced his father Andre in 1992, will leave Rolex at the end of the year, the watchmaker said Dec. 16. He was the third executive to lead the company since the brand was created by Hans Wildorf in 1908.

Rolex invented the Oyster, the world’s first waterproof watch, in 1926, and made headlines after Mercedes Gleitze swam the English Channel wearing the timepiece. The company makes more than 170 models of the Oyster now and employs 8,000 people.

In the 1990s, Rolex took over the entire manufacturing process of its watches, avoiding reliance on third-party suppliers. The brand is worth about $5 billion, according to Interbrand, a consultancy.

Interbrand Chief Executive Officer Jez Frampton said Rolex has maintained a focus on its main product, while other luxury brands have ventured into new areas or have introduced cheaper versions of their products to attract new clientele.

“They’ve stuck to their knitting,” Frampton said, adding that Rolex is one of the few watch brands that gain in value on the second-hand market.

“They really do manage it for the long term,” he said. “This is key for a luxury brand: you can’t sell yourself cheap.”

Posted by:Jason Pitsch

Jason is the founder of Professional Watches and specializes in writing, product photography, and digital marketing.