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Jean-Claude Biver: “There’s no question of going one round...

Jean-Claude Biver: “There’s no question of going one round too many!”

Thursday, 18 October 2018
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Christophe Roulet
Editor-in-chief, HH Journal

“The desire to learn is the key to understanding.”

“Thirty years in journalism are a powerful stimulant for curiosity”.

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10 min read

Last month, Jean-Claude Biver announced he was retiring from his daily duties at LVMH’s Watch division. After an extraordinary 40-year career that took him from Blancpain to Omega, then on to Hublot, TAG Heuer and Zenith, he talks about whether there is such a thing as a “Biver touch”, and how he plans to spend his time.

His eyes have the same spark, and conversation the same easy flow. At seventy years of age, Jean-Claude Biver recently announced he was stepping down from operational responsibilities, having resuscitated Blancpain, turned Omega into a truly international brand and positioned Hublot on the world watch map, prior to turning his attention to TAG Heuer and Zenith. At the head of LVMH’s Watch division (Hublot, TAG Heuer and Zenith), until a few months ago he was still active on all fronts at TAG Heuer. He now intends to devote his energy and passion to passing on his expertise. And maybe slowing down his hundred-mile-an-hour lifestyle enough to properly enjoy all those places he’s never had time to discover.

You've been involved with five brands. Looking back, what, if anything, do they have in common?

Jean-Claude Biver: People. I’ve had more or less the same people with me since we bought Blancpain forty years ago. Some joined along the way, like Ricardo in 1989 [Ricardo Guadalupe, CEO of Hublot] and Valérie in 1993, [Valérie Servageon, marketing director] but they’ve all stayed. That’s the common denominator: the inner circle, so to speak, who assist me in all circumstances and enable the company to implement the strategy, the ideas and the concepts we want to put in place. I always say a boss is only as strong as the people around him, hence why it’s important to hire professionals who know their respective fields better than you do. Generally, though, it’s the other way round. Bosses hire people who won’t take the spotlight away from them. Which is a mistake. By putting together a team of highly competent individuals, everyone progresses for the benefit of the company. It’s then up to me to get the best out of each one, like a conductor leading an orchestra. Obviously, some people have strong characters and aren’t easy to manage, in which case you need to act with principle. If you want your staff to stick with you, you have to respect their personality, be prepared to move on from their mistakes, and share what you know. If you tick all these boxes, you’ll have their support for ever.

In a word, we immersed ourselves in the past to take ourselves into the future.
Jean-Claude Biver
So there's no single strategy? No "Biver touch"?

A single strategy? Impossible. Every brand is different. Each has its own message, price range, clientele… At least all the brands I’ve been involved with do. When we bought Blancpain, it had been dormant for decades. Omega revolved around hugely diverse product ranges. Hublot’s production was nothing like it is today and not particularly well-known. The same goes for TAG Heuer and Zenith, two historic brands that are miles apart. When you take a brand under your wing, the last thing you should be doing is to mould it to fit your image. You have to see it as the customer sees it, which is a harder thing to do. There’s no one-size-fits-all winning strategy; that would be too easy. Take Zenith as an example. There’d been a lot of tinkering with the brand before I arrived, to no great avail. We immediately felt the need to reconnect Zenith with its roots; to get the sap rising and strengthen the tree. To carry on the metaphor, I’d say previous attempts had been more concerned with replanting with no regard for the original roots. And what are those roots? There are two vital components to Zenith: the invention of the incredible El Primero, the first 1/10th of a second chronograph, and unparalleled expertise in precision timekeeping which has won the brand 2,323 awards and certificates over the course of its history. They had to be the foundations on which to build the brand’s future. And I mean build, not recreate. So we made the El Primero II, accurate to 1/100th of a second. And we developed a new escapement that broke with everything that’s ever been done since Huygens. An escapement of unprecedented precision, thanks to the use of silicon, that gave rise to the Zenith Defy Lab. In a word, we immersed ourselves in the past to take ourselves into the future. We wanted to express the future of Switzerland’s watchmaking tradition. It’s a simple logic but it only works if you’re prepared to take a backseat to the brand. You cannot want to leave your mark. Do you want to inscribe your name on a gravestone or a commemorative plaque? Certainly not. You want to take care of it and keep it looking its best.

A new El Primero, a revolutionary escapement, that kind of thing takes money.

We bought Blancpain with a CHF 30,000 bank loan. We slept in a camper van and showered at the train station. And we succeeded. At the end of the day, the means are proportionate to the brand. My predecessors at Zenith weren’t lacking in means, but success wasn’t forthcoming.

The one thing these brands do seem to share is an obsession with communication.

Imagine I were a research scientist working away quietly in my lab, and I’d succeeded in finding a revolutionary vaccine against Aids. Would I just pat myself on the back and tell no-one? What would be the point of that? Whatever you do, you’re obliged to communicate. Communication is as important as the invention itself. They go together, but the thing that connects them has to be authentic. You can exaggerate the message, you can speak from the heart, but you can never lie. Think of the Impressionists. Now imagine putting Monet’s Water Lilies next to a photograph of the same view. You’d be looking at the same reality, from two perspectives. Communication is no different. I’m perfectly capable of putting Impressionism into what I say, of firing the imagination in the same way a painting does. But even if my message isn’t always rational, it is grounded in reality. To come back to what I was saying to begin with, you can’t invent something if you aren’t able to tell others about it. Or to put it another way, if you’re capable of inventing you have to be capable of communicating, too. My team knows exactly what I mean. Let me give you an example, something that might seem like a non-event; renewal of the contract between TAG Heuer and the Red Bull Formula 1 team, say. If all we do is send out a press release, the best we can hope for will be a couple of lines in a watch magazine. If, on the other hand, we invite journalists and photographers to the next Grand Prix circuit, and tell them they’ll be meeting the boss of Red Bull, and just as we’re going into the stands, who do they see but Alec Monopoly painting a giant graffiti on the wall, chances are we’ll get some very different coverage. What I mean by this fictional example is that it’s how you communicate that counts. It’s something not many people know how to do. In fact we do it better than anyone, which is why we’re doing so well!

I needed a manufacture as somewhere to invent, develop and make.
Jean-Claude Biver
Is in-house production an imperative?

We built Hublot from nothing. There were 36 of us in a building we shared with the Salvation Army. The thing Hublot needed was substance. You can go all out to market a brand, but if at the end of the day there’s no substance to hold it up, all you’ll have is a limp balloon. Hublot would have gone the fashion route and the balloon would have burst. I always said Hublot was in need of substance, hence why it was so important to create a manufacture. Of course, a manufacture is also synonymous with innovation and creative independence. Independence brings the freedom to create. This was vital. I needed a manufacture as somewhere to invent, develop and make. Having said that, it didn’t have to cover 100% of Hublot’s needs. With 50% of in-house movements, reserved for Hublot’s high-end watches, we could meet our objectives. Ultimately, whether or not a brand should have its own manufacture depends on the concept you adopt for that brand. A brand such as Zenith has to have that kind of industrial tool. TAG Heuer much less so. The priority with TAG was for the production centres to turn a profit, which we’ve now achieved. Dials, cases and movements have become profit centres.

What's driven you all these years?

My motivation has always been to make brands blossom, not to create a new one so I can put my signature on it. I see myself as a gardener, keeping everything blooming.

And now that you've retired from your operational responsibilities?

I gave up my operational duties at Hublot in 2012 and no-one noticed, despite the fact we’re always hearing how nobody can step into Biver’s shoes. It’s just not true. This clearly shows the transition is under way. In fact the same process is happening at all three brands in LVMH’s Watch division. Obviously then, I can’t stay in the driver’s seat. Instead, I’m the driving instructor. You can’t hand over the keys when you’re up to your elbows in grease. My role now is to pass on 45 years of experience, my ideas, my concepts, my successes as well as my mistakes. The more I can pass on, and I see this as a legitimate and noble thing to do, the more my career will have served a purpose. I take a Buddhist vision of the world. Each link is as important as the next one and has something to give. Also, the health issues I’ve experienced in the past couple of months didn’t appear out of nowhere. The doctors said my body was trying to tell me something, and the message was clear. I’m 70. I still have 15 years of active life ahead of me, and I want to use this time to travel and make new discoveries. I’ve been to Japan 141 times, yet I know nothing about the country. It’s time to change all that. With my past and my passion for the industry, it would be tempting to start a new chapter. But there can be no question of going one round too many!

Any regrets?

How could I have regrets when I’ve been given so much. I have nothing but thanks and humility for having received ten times more than I could ever have expected.

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