Personalities: Jean-Claude Biver And The Making Of The Modern Watch Industry

//Personalities: Jean-Claude Biver And The Making Of The Modern Watch Industry

Personalities: Jean-Claude Biver And The Making Of The Modern Watch Industry

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You see, I am like a cat. You throw it out the window and it lands on its feet. Even if at one point I am falling upside down, I recover. I am such a lucky man!

That was Jean-Claude Biver in Nyon, Switzerland, in 2005, in a conversation with me five months after he had launched the first Hublot Big Bang watch. We were discussing his then 30-year career in the Swiss watch industry. He had already seemed to have nine lives. He went on to have what seems like nine more.

But LVMH’s surprise September 21 announcement that Biver will step down on Nov. 1 from his posts as CEO of TAG Heuer and head of LVMH’s watch division for health reasons raises the prospect that the career of one of the Swiss watch industry’s few living legends may be over.   

That’s not certain. Biver will remain with LVMH in an advisory capacity as non-executive chairman of LVMH’s watch division. Long-time Biver watchers know you can never count this cat out, even when he is falling upside down. But, at 69, with health problems, he has decided to withdraw from the watch world’s front lines after 43 years.  

That news merits a look back at Biver’s tumultuous time in the watch arena. The core of the Biver legend is his pioneering role in the unexpected revival of Switzerland’s mechanical watch industry with Blancpain in the 1980s.

Blancpain, though, was not the half of it. He has been on the cutting edge of watch industry developments for four decades, with big brands and small, as both a maverick entrepreneur (twice) and a C-suite executive in a giant watch conglomerate (also twice). Perhaps the best measure of his importance to the rise of the Swiss industry out of the wreckage of the quartz-watch crisis of the 1970s is that, in 2016, the Harvard Business School devoted a two-part case study exclusively to Biver’s career. 

What follows is one reporter’s take on the watch odyssey of Jean-Claude Biver. 

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The University of Lausanne was Jean-Claude Biver’s first taste of watchmaking country.

Valley Boy

Biver was born in Luxembourg, but his family moved to Switzerland when he was 10. He studied economics at the University of Lausanne. While there, he fell in love with the remote, beautiful Vallée de Joux in the Jura Mountains, which form Switzerland’s western border with France. “I was ecologically minded,” Biver told me in 1997. “The Vallée de Joux is another world. The air is pure, the water is pure. I wanted to live there.”

He rented a farmhouse there in 1975 and tried his hand at raising bees and making cheese. (He has made his own artisanal cheese throughout his life. His Wikipedia profile describes him as “a Luxembourgish watchmaker, cheesemaker and businessman.”) The valley’s claim to fame, of course, is watchmaking. “Nature brought me to watchmaking,” he says. “In the Vallée de Joux, I discovered the people and I discovered their passion.”

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Though not Swiss by birth, Biver fully embraces Swiss culture.

Effervescent Personality

That year, through a friend, he met Georges Golay, chairman of Audemars Piguet, one of the Vallée’s historic brands, located in the village of Le Brassus. Golay, impressed with Biver’s energy and effervescent personality, offered him a sales job with the firm. 

Talking Watches With Jean-Claude Biver

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Early on in the history of Talking Watches, we knew that Jean-Claude Biver was a must-have guest. The man has been at the wheel of some of the most important watch brands of the modern era and is a world-class collector of vintage watches too. Some of his favorites might surprise you.

Check out Talking Watches With Jean-Claude Biver right here.

Biver spent four years at Audemars Piguet. In 1979, he was offered a position with Omega in Bienne by Fritz Ammann, vice president of sales and marketing. It was the thick of the quartz crisis and no company was more embattled than Omega. Biver became one of a number of young talents on Ammann’s team. The “Young Turks,” as industry veterans dubbed them, were intelligent, ambitious, arrogant, impatient, and critical of the failed policies of the empty suits that were their superiors. They might have saved Omega. 

But Ammann fell afoul of Peter Gross, the Union Bank of Switzerland executive overseeing the bank bailout of Omega and its parent company, SSIH. In 1980, Omega’s CEO position opened up. When Ammann didn’t get the job, he left Omega and his team resigned in protest. 

Biver went back to the Vallée de Joux. There, he and his friend Jacques Piguet hatched what seemed at the time one of the looniest schemes ever attempted in the Swiss watch industry. 

Blancpain

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Jacques Piguet owned Frédéric Piguet, a mechanical movement producer founded in Le Brassus in 1858 by his great-grandfather. Piguet inherited the firm in 1977. He felt he could deal with the quartz crisis better if he had a brand of his own to showcase his movements. The solution was Blancpain, formerly a sister brand to Omega in the SSIH Group. Blancpain had a cachet in the 1950s as a divers’ watch, thanks to its famed Fifty Fathoms model. But it fell on hard times in the 1960s. The company still made movements for others, but the brand itself had become dormant. 

Piguet and Biver realized they could own it for a song. Piguet purchased it for CHF 22,000, about $16,000 then. Biver became a significant shareholder in the new firm. They set up shop in a farmhouse in Le Brassus and began making small-batch, expensive mechanical watches. Piguet took care of manufacturing; Biver marketing and sales.

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The two were convinced that the mechanical watch had a future. It was at Omega that Biver “began to develop a contrarian view about how to save the ailing Swiss watch industry,” writes Professor Ryan Raffaelli, in his Harvard Business School Study, “Jean-Claude Biver: The Reemergence of the Swiss Watch Industry.” 

“Everyone believed the future was in quartz,” Biver told Raffaelli. “They believed that if we reduced the price, we would sell more and more. I disagreed. The strategy was killing Omega.” 

Anti-Quartz Campaign

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Biver was, from his early days in the industry, an evangelist for mechanical watches.

Biver developed an anti-quartz marketing campaign for Blancpain that was as brash as it was brilliant. He romanced the tradition of classical, hand-made mechanical watchmaking, trumpeting Blancpain’s claim to be Switzerland’s oldest watch manufacturer. (The Blancpain family traced its watchmaking lineage to Jehan-Jacques Blancpain, a farmer in the Jura village of Villeret, who started trading watches around 1735.) Biver also came up with a slogan that described the essence of his brand: “Since 1735, there has never been a quartz Blancpain watch. And there never will be.”

There were skeptics galore. Friends warned Biver he would lose his shirt and worried he had lost his mind. The Swiss press called him “a nostalgia salesman.”

Blancpain went from oblivion to sales of 56 million Swiss francs in less than 10 years.

Biver and Piguet’s gamble with Blancpain is now the stuff of watch legend: their roll of the dice came up snake-eyes. They launched the watches in 1983. In 1985, Blancpain sales totaled CHF 8.9 million, according to Pierre-Yves Donzé, author of “A Business History of the Swatch Group.” By 1991, sales had risen to CHF 56 million. In fewer than 10 years, Biver and Piguet had taken Blancpain from oblivion to lucrative respectability as a maker of luxury mechanical watches. They proved that the mechanical watch was not doomed. 

The next year, the Swatch Group (then called SMH), wanting to get in on the mechanical watch revival, purchased Blancpain and Frédéric Piguet for CHF 60 million, about $43 million.  

A dozen years before, Biver had wanted to save Omega. Now, he would get another chance. 

With Hayek

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Swatch Group Chairman Nicolas G. Hayek, Sr.

Swatch Group Chairman Nicolas G. Hayek, Sr., was delighted to have Biver join the group. He had bigger plans for Biver than Blancpain. 

Hayek came onto the Swiss watch scene after Biver had left Omega. He famously devised the recovery plan that merged SSIH and ASUAG, Switzerland’s two giant, loss-making conglomerates, into what is now the Swatch Group.  

Hayek’s mandate was clear: Biver’s magic marketing had brought Blancpain back from the dead. Now do that for Omega.

In the early 1990s, Hayek and his brain trust had decided that Omega would be the group’s flagship brand. Hayek’s beloved Swatch brand had revived Swatch Group fortunes in the 1980s thanks to its strength at the low end of the market. But it was crucial for the group to compete in the lucrative affordable-luxury range between $2,500 and $5,000, dominated by Omega’s historic rival, Rolex.

Omega, however, was still weak on world markets as a result of its collapse during the quartz crisis. Omega’s CEO, Hans Kurth, was a finance man. So, Hayek appointed Biver as director of international marketing for Omega and put him on SMH’s executive group management board. Biver remained CEO of Blancpain. He reported directly to Hayek, whose mandate was clear: Biver’s magic marketing had brought Blancpain back from the dead. Now do that for Omega.

Cindy And Bond

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Venanzio Ciampa, Cindy Crawford, and Jean-Claude Biver

Biver did. He assembled a crackerjack team of young marketing executives and set out to make Omega great again. For years Omega’s marketing plank was its NASA connection. But a quarter century had passed since astronauts wore Omegas on the moon. Omega needed a new message.

“Biver enlisted outsiders to communicate and refresh Omega’s relevance,” writes Harvard Business School’s Raffaelli. “He introduced the concept of having brand ambassadors promote products, extending their involvement beyond typical product placements or celebrity endorsements in magazines.” 

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Daniel Craig as James Bond wearing an Omega Seamaster in Casino Royale.

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Daniel Craig as James Bond wearing an Omega Seamaster in Skyfall.

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Daniel Craig as James Bond wearing an Omega Seamaster in Spectre.

To relaunch the Omega Constellation watch for women, Biver enlisted supermodel Cindy Crawford. In what became a template for other ambassadors, Biver urged her to get involved with the brand. She not only made public appearances, but toured factories and assisted in designing watches. She started with Omega in 1995, and still represents the firm. Now so does her supermodel daughter, Kaia Jordan Gerber.

It was Biver’s idea to turn James Bond into, in effect, an Omega ambassador. Omega heavily promoted its placement of the Seamaster Professional Divers’ watch on Pierce Brosnan in the 1995 movie “GoldenEye.” “In the past, James Bond wore a Rolex and a Seiko in the movies,” Biver told me. “We were the first to promote the fact that Bond was wearing our watch. It changed the image of the brand, especially among young people.” Nearly a quarter-century later, Omega is still the big-screen Bond’s official watch. 

Biver’s Boys

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Jean-Frédéric Dufour

Biver had a knack for attracting talented young marketers, inspiring — and demanding — excellence. Over the years, a striking number of his protégés went on to top positions in the Swiss watch industry. “During the 1990s, Omega’s marketing department was a training ground for managers, whose influence was not limited to the Swatch Group,” writes Donzé. “[They] were instrumental in moving the entire Swiss watch industry up into the luxury segment.”

“Biver’s Boys,” as some called them, included Michele Sofisti (former CEO of Omega, Swatch, Gucci Timepieces and Girard-Perregaux), Aldo Magada (former CEO of Gucci Timepieces and Zenith, current CEO of Anonimo and Vulcain), Jean-Frédéric Dufour (current CEO of Rolex, former CEO of Zenith), Ricardo Guadalupe (current CEO of Hublot), and Philippe Peverelli (former CEO of Tudor). The group also included marketing mavens like Venanzio Ciampa, Beatrice de Quervain, and Valérie Servageon (yes, there were “Biver Girls” too).  

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Aldo Magada

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Michele Sofisti

They remain loyal and grateful to Biver. “Biver gave me my passion for the watchmaking industry,” Peverelli, who worked with Biver at Blancpain, says in the Harvard Business School study. “He can transmit passion for anything.”

“I think all of us recognize that Jean-Claude was instrumental both in our careers and in our thinking — that is, thinking differently,” Ciampa told me. He worked with Biver at Omega and is head of his own marketing company, The Promotion Factory, in New York City. “If you are a thief of ideas, the best person you can pickpocket is Jean-Claude Biver.” 

Biver was the dashing Lancelot in King Nicolas’s Court, rumored to be a potential successor to Hayek. Then fate felled him.

Omega On The Move

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The Bond partnership has continued to be big business for Omega, even after Biver’s departure. 

The Biver team’s Omega marketing worked. “The brand saw a near-threefold increase in revenue seven years after Biver took the helm,” writes Harvard’s Raffaelli. “Between 1995 and 1999, revenues increased from $350 [million] to over $900 million.”

By the mid-1990s, Biver was at the peak of his power in the Swatch Group. Head of Blancpain and de facto head of Omega, he was the dashing Lancelot in King Nicolas’s Court. As Hayek’s confidante and right-hand man, he was one of the most powerful people in the Swiss watch world. People speculated that he would one day succeed Hayek as head of the Swatch Group.

Then fate felled him. 

On a trip to Hong Kong in November 1996, Biver began coughing and soon had a high fever, severe back pain, chills, and exhaustion. It was so serious that he did the unthinkable and cut short the trip. He flew back to Switzerland and drove directly to his doctor’s office, stopping occasionally because he was too weak to drive. His doctor hospitalized him immediately. 

The White Light

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(Photo: American Time Magazine)

That night, November 16, in the hospital, Biver saw a light. He told me about it a few months later. 

“There was a white light. It was so white. It was soothing to the eyes. It was not blinding. I heard voices. They were so nice, so sweet, so beautiful. I said to myself, ‘I don’t want to open my eyes.'”

Biver didn’t know it, but he was at death’s door. His sweet white light came at a critical moment in a battle with what was later diagnosed as a form of Legionnaires’ disease. Afterward, his doctor told him, “Those are the signs of somebody about to die.”

Though he didn’t want to, Biver did open his eyes. When he did, he was a changed man, personally and professionally. He spent weeks in the hospital and lost 50 pounds. 

“Since the 16th of November,” he told me then, “I have not worn a tie. I have not worn anything other than black. Before I always wore bright blue clothes, never black.”

I asked why. “I don’t know why,” he said.

Man In Black

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Biver speaking with the author at Baselworld 2018.

What he did know was that he was changed. “I am very patient now, I learned to be more patient. I learned to learn, to listen, to forgive, to teach others. These are values I didn’t have.”

In truth, not everyone in 1997 agreed that Biver had become more like Buddha. (Some wiseacres said his cool, all-black-attire owed more to his near-Crawford experiences than his near-death one.)

“Is he more patient?” I asked one Swatch Group executive who worked with him. “Maybe a little,” he answered. “He thinks he’s a lot more patient than he is. He’s still very intense, a very hard driver. But he has changed. His attitude is more laid back. There is a difference since the illness.”

Perhaps that was providential. Because Biver never quite recovered his health or his clout in the Swatch Group. Repeated hospitalizations as a result of the Legionnaires’ disease – four over the next four years – reduced his time and energy at work, and inevitably his power and influence. 

The Wilderness

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Biver with his second wife, Sandra. (Photo: WatchTime Magazine)

In 1999, Biver married for a second time and his new wife, Sandra, concerned that work pressures were affecting his health, urged him to slow down. At the end of that year, on another medical leave from the Swatch Group, with Sandra expecting their first child, Biver decided to resign from the Swatch Group to attend to his health and his new family. 

Hayek was sympathetic, but he advised Biver not to make such a decision under duress. He urged Biver to wait and review the situation in a few months. In the summer of 2000, Biver met with Hayek at the chairman’s vacation home in Cap d’Antibes, France. Biver told Hayek that he was exhausted and that Blancpain needed more attention than he could give it due to his illness. “I told him I cannot run it,” Biver told me, “that I was tired of Blancpain. I had a new life and did not want any operational responsibility in the Swatch Group.”

Minister Without Portfolio

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Stephen Urquhart, who would go on to become CEO of Blancpain and Omega. (Photo: Courtesy Bloomberg)

Hayek was very understanding and proposed that Biver remain in the group as a minister without portfolio. “You can help at Blancpain, Rado, anywhere in the group,” Hayek told him. Biver was delighted with the offer and agreed to stay. Stephen Urquhart, with whom Biver had worked at Audemars Piguet, succeeded him at Blancpain. Michele Sofisti, one of the Biver boys, became the head of Omega. 

Biver’s role in the Swatch Group changed dramatically. He became, in effect, an in-house consultant, a troubleshooter who offered advice to the various profit centers (PCs) but had no PC responsibility of his own. However, he soon discovered that in a multi-billion-dollar industrial group, no profit center means no power center: a minister without portfolio is a minister without power. 

What’s more, Biver’s troubleshooting inevitably created conflicts. Brand managers resented interference from the group’s superstar, fearing what he would report to Hayek or that he had designs on their jobs. Eventually, Biver told Hayek he wanted to return to running a brand. Hayek told him none was available: he could not fire one of the brand presidents to make room for Biver. Biver was stuck.

Leave Of Absence

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At that time, Biver got a call from his friend, Franck Muller, who was then involved in the bitter battle with his partner, Vartan Sirmakes, over the future of the Franck Muller company. Biver decided to help him. Biver took a one-year leave of absence from the Swatch Group to be free to advise Muller. 

In January 2004, the Swatch Group issued a terse statement that Biver was taking a leave of absence to help his friend Franck Muller. With that, Biver vanished. 

His effort to help Muller lasted only a few weeks. He advised him to patch things up with his partner, which Muller did.

It was the first Basel Fair in 30 years that I was not present as part of the industry. It was horrible. It was horrible. It was horrible.

Jean-Claude Biver

With time on his hands, Biver worked with a friend in the pharmaceutical business. The foray into the medical world interested him. For the first time he considered leaving the watch industry and pursuing a new life in the pharmaceutical field.

Biver resurfaced briefly a few months later at the 2004 Baselworld fair. There he had a terrible epiphany. 

“It was the first Basel Fair in 30 years that I was not present as part of the industry,” Biver told me. “It was horrible,” he said slowly. “It was horrible. It was horrible.

I went to the Basel Fair and I was nobody. I was like a visitor, looking in the window. I stayed maybe 12 minutes. I did not even reach the Swatch Group exhibit. I did not say hello to Hayek. I said, ‘I cannot go on.’ And I left. Because I was useless, I was nobody there.

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It was a visit to Baselworld that cause Biver to have an epiphany.

“I realized I love watches,” he said. “Watches is not my business, it is my passion. In the end, it is my biggest passion. It is what I like to do most in my life. At that point, I knew I had to come back.” 

He could not return to the Swatch Group. “I wanted to develop something small, where you can exploit 100% of your entrepreneurship, not just a part of it. I said, ‘I am an entrepreneur. I want to start again. I have to organize a comeback. And to come back my way.’ And my way,” he said with a laugh, “is the Biver way.”

He came back with a bang: a Big Bang.

Why Hublot?

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Hublot-branded cheese made on Biver’s farm.

That Biver came roaring back to the watch industry with a hot watch surprised no one. That the watch was a Hublot surprised everyone. “Hublot?” the watch world seemed to cry in unison when it learned that Biver had become CEO of a firm best known for gold quartz watches with rubber straps. “Why Hublot?” 

The news prompted two reactions. Biver rivals were delighted. They said, as he told me then, “Now he is really finished!” Biver fans and allies, on the other hand, were dismayed. “Why are you moving from the big league to the minor league?” they asked. He explained simply, “I need pleasure, I need passion, and you will see what I will do.” 

It is a very clean brand with a clear, identifiable product. The overall concept, rubber, was never betrayed.

Jean-Claude Biver

I got the answer to why Hublot on a trip to Nyon in 2005, where Hublot is headquartered, a year after Biver joined the firm. He invited me for a two-day briefing on his plans for the company and his concept of the Big Bang watch. 

The answer to why Hublot was that, over the years, Biver had done analyses of Swiss watch takeover targets. “Every analysis that I did came out the same: one should buy Hublot,” he said. “It is a very clean brand with a clear, identifiable product. The overall concept, rubber, was never betrayed. The brand had never been prostituted,” he said. “Other brands I analyzed had gone through many changes, so that the recovery process would be long and painful. My view was that Hublot was a brand slightly asleep. But when you sleep, you don’t make many mistakes. It means that I could wake it up.”

No Second Act

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Hublot founder Carlo Crocco and an early Hublot watch. (Photo: WatchTime Magazine)

Hublot was a sensation when founder Carlo Crocco launched it in 1980. He was the first to combine a gold watch with a rubber strap. Watch purists were appalled: it was the equivalent then of wearing sneakers with a tux. But it became the “it” watch for Europe’s glitterati, the epitome of understated chic, worn by kings (Constantine of Greece, Juan Carlos of Spain, Gustav of Sweden) and princes (Rainier of Monaco.)  

When the watch industry embraced Crocco’s cool innovation, Hublot sales cooled off. Hublot had no second act. A quarter century later, Hublot was struggling. (It lost $2.5 million on sales of 13,000 watches in 2004.) 

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Sports partnerships, like that with Chelsea football club, were key to Biver’s strategy.

Biver knew Crocco well: when Biver launched Blancpain in 1983, Crocco agreed to distribute Blancpain in Italy and Spain through his agencies there. Biver met with him. Crocco had no interest in selling Hublot. But he did want someone to run it, so that he could spend more time on his philanthropy. (He had opened a charity, the MDM Foundation, in India, to benefit needy children.) Would Biver be interested? Crocco offered him a 20% share in the company, the CEO post, total control of operations, and a seat on the four-person board of directors. Biver agreed. He told me “At 56, do I need to own a company again? No. What’s most important: to enjoy the job or to own the company? So, I took the job, because the fun is the job.” 

“No!” Biver shouted at Carlo Crocco. “Rubber is not the message! Rubber is an expression of the message! The message is fusion!” 

He started in June 2004. For three months, he said, “I listened, I looked, I learned.” He came to grasp the significance of Crocco’s contribution and its importance for Hublot’s future. Hublot’s core identity, its message, Biver realized, was not rubber. It was fusion. 

In September, Biver met with Crocco and Hublot board member, Marcello Binda, to report on his findings. Biver and Crocco got into a heated discussion about Hublot’s “message.” Crocco said the message is rubber.

“No!” Biver exclaimed. “Rubber is not the message! Rubber is an expression of the message! But the message is fusion!” 

The two looked at him: “What is fusion?” they asked.

Concept Man

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Biver grew Hublot from a small brand into an international sensation.

In Japan, where Biver is worshipped in watch circles, they have a name for him: Concept Man. Crocco and Binda were about to find out why. Biver took a piece of paper (he is a compulsive doodler) and began drawing – a line representing the earth, trees above ground, a gold mine below – and explaining. “Fusion is when you take two elements that can never come together, and you fuse them. You, Mr. Crocco, brought two elements together. One comes from a tree in Malaysia: natural rubber. The other comes from under the earth in South Africa: gold. Only through a big bang can those two elements come together. And suddenly, because there is such an earth-shaking and such a big bang that those two elements and those two continents come together! That is ‘fusion’!”

As soon as he had said the words “big bang” in the meeting, Biver knew he had the name of his watch. 

Biver staked his comeback plan, for Hublot and himself, on a luxury mechanical sports watch made with a mélange of metals. The Big Bang, which debuted at Baselworld in 2005, was the emblem of Biver’s fusion concept: an automatic chronograph with gold or steel 44.5 mm case; stamped carbon dial; ceramic bezel with titanium H-shaped screws; tungsten rotor treated in black PVD; Kevlar lug discs; rubber inserts in the crown and push-pieces; and, of course, a rubber strap.

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Today Hublot is known for both serious watchmaking and brash styling.

Biver’s mindset at the time is revealed in a startling question he asked me at the end of the two-day briefing in Nyon:

“Do you think I can do this?” He had been successful reviving two watch brands, he said. Most CEOs are fortunate to capture lighting once. To do it twice is nearly impossible. To try it a third time seemed to tempt fate. 

I played the question for laughs. In the course of the briefing, I was astonished to learn that 70% of Hublot sales were in Spain, where King Juan Carlos was a huge Hublot fan. “Can you do this?” I answered. “Hell, I can do this. Here’s an idea: why don’t you try to sell some watches outside of Spain.” He laughed. And, of course, he did.

The Big Bang was an instant hit. Harvard Business School’s Raffaelli explains its appeal: “For financially successful men and women who could afford the $10,000-plus price tag, owning a Hublot watch projected an image of strength, confidence and a bit of irreverence. Oversized and colorful, Hublot watches were anything but the norm compared to their historically understated Swiss counterparts.” 

In November, the Big Bang captured the Best Design prize in the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève competition.

New Market Segments

As always with Biver, marketing was key. The Harvard Business School study notes that Biver and his team targeted customers who traditionally had been ignored by the Swiss luxury watch industry. “To reach these new market segments,” the study said, “Biver personally negotiated unprecedented partnership deals with U.S. professional basketball teams, European fútbol clubs, the World Cup, famous musicians, Olympic athletes, and Formula One racing teams.” Each marketing deal led to a stream of limited-edition watches developed for Hublot partners and their fans. 

Biver, his health improved, worked furiously promoting the brand. He spoke directly to consumers, via social media, online video conferences, speaking engagements with watch collector groups (Biver is famous for riveting, soaring oratory) and anyone else who would listen. “While eating in restaurants,” the Harvard Business School study notes, “if he saw someone wearing a Hublot watch, he would call over their waiter, pay their bill, and quietly hand over his card with a personal note thanking them for supporting Hublot.” 

With Biver, Hublot found its second act. Between 2004 and 2008, sales soared from $20 million to $195 million, according to the HBS study. Biver loved being an independent entrepreneur again. Then, overnight, he wasn’t. 

With Arnault

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LVMH Chairman Bernard Arnault (Photo: Courtesy The Wall Street Journal)

In April of 2008, Carlo Crocco sold Hublot to LVMH, the world’s largest luxury group. LVMH Chairman Bernard Arnault had a thick portfolio of luxury brands. But he was thin in watches. In the 1990s, he had ignored the mechanical watch’s comeback as a luxury item. Late to the watch party, he brought three brands in three months in the fall of 1999: TAG Heuer, Ebel (which he later sold to the Movado Group) and Zenith. 

The Future Of Smartwatches

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Jean-Claude Biver is never one to stand still. Sure, he’s a die-hard vintage watch collector, a real believer in mechanical horology, and an inveterate part of the traditional watchmaking industry, but that doesn’t mean he’s stuck in the past. Over the last three or four years, Biver has led TAG Heuer into the smartwatch space with the Connected Watch, which, by all measures, seems to be a roaring success.

Check out the author’s on-camera conversation with Jean-Claude Biver at Baselworld 2018 about all things Connected Watch here.

Biver’s dramatic repositioning of Hublot had turned it into one of Switzerland’s fastest growing brands. Hublot suitors came calling on Crocco. Arnault won with an offer of CHF 490 million, Biver told me at the time, equivalent to $505 million. 

“Everything is well with me and I enjoy great independence and can still have the same fun as I had when I had Mr. Crocco as a majority shareholder,” he wrote me that June. “In reality, Hublot is now stronger than we were with Mr. Crocco.” Crocco, it was well known, was not in a position to invest much in Hublot. Arnault, France’s richest man, was. 

Arnault wanted Biver to stay on as Hublot CEO with full control, and he did. But after the awkward ending to Biver’s Swatch Group experience, the Swiss watch street was taking bets on how long the charismatic, freewheeling Biver would last with the buttoned-down conglomerate king. The consensus was not long.  

Corporate Bigwig

Personalities: Jean-Claude Biver And The Making Of The Modern Watch Industry 1600px Jean Claude Biver World Economic Forum 2013

Jean-Claude Biver speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 2013. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The watch wags were wrong. Not only did Hublot and Biver continue to thrive in LVMH, but Biver and Arnault got along famously. In 2014, Arnault created an LVMH watch division and asked Biver to head it. It included TAG Heuer, Hublot and Zenith. Biver accepted Arnault’s offer. (Bulgari, the jewelry and watch brand that LVMH acquired in 2011, remained separate from the watch division.)

Biver continued to innovate. Unhappy with the development of TAG Heuer, he promptly named himself CEO and recommitted the brand to the $1,500 to $5,000 price segment. He also moved TAG into the connected watch market, one of the few Swiss brands to embrace the new technology.

A corporate bigwig for the second time, Biver was riding high at LVMH. Then came the September 21 announcement. 

Rock On?

Personalities: Jean-Claude Biver And The Making Of The Modern Watch Industry jcb

At Baselworld 2015, at an evening reception for TAG Heuer dealers in North America, Biver addressed the guests. He had recently taken over as global CEO of the brand. His extemporaneous speech explained his new strategy for TAG. It was a typical bravura Biver performance: engaging, personal, warm, humorous yet serious. After Biver spoke, one U.S. retailer said to me, “You know, I’ve been unhappy with these guys. I was going to throw them out. But not after that.”

During the speech, Biver said he intended to work for another 10 years. He was 65 at the time.  

Another bout of ill health has forced another pause in Biver’s long-term plans. In a note to friends sent prior to the LVMH announcement of his resignation, Biver wrote, “The time has come to give my career a new impulse, to exclusively dedicate myself to the transmission and sharing of my long and vast experience.” As non-executive Chairman of LVMH’s watch division, he is doing that. 

But there may be other ways. Some in Biver’s circle doubt that he is done. By his own account, he’s the cat that always recovers. In recent emails to friends, he says that he looks forward to recovering from his illness in a few more months. “Still want to ‘rock’ and enjoy the industry,” he wrote. 

Says The Promotion Factory’s Venanzio Ciampa, who has known him for 23 years, “I think there are still many rabbits that Jean-Claude will pull out of his magician hat in the future.”

By |2018-10-25T22:10:26+00:00October 25th, 2018|Blog|Comments Off on Personalities: Jean-Claude Biver And The Making Of The Modern Watch Industry

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