In Conversation with the Legendary Jean-Claude BiverBy Ken Kessler
Few are the characters in the watch industry who combine a track record of successes on a par with Fangio or Schumacher in Formula One, the imagination and commercial genius of Steve Jobs and the conversational skills of Peter Ustinov. Jean-Claude Biver is just such a person.
One of the rescuers of the watch industry after the Quartz Crisis, a contemporary of Messrs Heuer, Hayek, Blümlein and Lang, present when they were ensuring a future for mechanical watches, saviour of Blancpain, Omega, Hublot – what you find in Biver is an interviewee like few others. He bubbles over with both reminiscences and ideas, the past and the future enjoying equal resonance.
As for the present, however, Biver is in a state of flux. He has announced his retirement a year earlier than was expected. There are those who suggest that he will never truly step back, but he has put into place a group of individuals who will continue with his grand plans – and it takes four to equal his one. Revolution was privileged to meet Biver at the Maddox Gallery in London, where he spared the time during a chaotic press event to discuss the tumultuous occasion that is his departure from a business he’s been in since 1974.
Jean-Claude, why have you chosen now to retire?
Several reasons – it is like every accident. An accident is always an accumulation of little reasons. There’s never one. First, I have gone through 13 months of daily cortisone injections. Probably, I will be in good health, eventually, by the end of the year. So, I have another three or four months to go. It will be 16 months of cortisone by the time I’m done. A common side effect is becoming diabetic, so you cannot eat sugar when you have cortisone, nor salt. Another side effect is that your bones get fragile. It means that if you fall, you could easily break somethnig. Also, the veins get harder, so circulation is poor and you get tired more easily.
Second, I have had three operations – two on my back, one of the knee – causing pain so bad that I had to take morphine. Like for everybody who is sick – and I’m not the only one – it feels never ending. I got a little bit discouraged and the doctor, who is a young man of 42 performing nano-surgery, said to me. “You know what? The body has a language, and if you don’t understand what it’s telling you now, you could have less time left, so you better try to listen to what it is telling you.
Third, when you enter your 70s – and I am 69 – you know that life is not eternal, that time has a limit. When I was 20 or 30, I thought I would live forever. So suddenly, you have a limit. Boom! I have achieved more than I ever thought I could – I have a wife and five children and I have 114 times to Tokyo 114 times but I still don’t know anything about the city because I have only ever seen it from my office window. I said to myself: “If you have so little time left, maybe you should take some time off and go to St Petersburg to see the museums, or go on a safari with David Yarrow – I asked him, by the way.
Fourth, when I was 60, I started to do conferences at universities like Cambridge and Harvard Business School, I have done around 30 conferences for young people. I wrote a book about management. I want to take more time to transmit and to give back what God has given me because if I die without giving back, I will die like a poor man. You can only get truly rich from the things that you give to others. You don’t get rich when you take for yourself because that disappears with you.
These are the four reasons that brought me to drop out one year before the end of my contract in 2019.
Who have you put in place to fill the gap your departure will create?
We have put in place several people, not one – that would be a little bit ambitious! I accumulated three positions: interim CEO of TAG Heuer, interim CEO of Zenith and CEO of Hublot. CEO of Hublot I have given to Ricardo Guadalupe, who has been with me since 1989, CEO of Zenith has been given to Julien Tornare, who took over at the beginning of this year, and interim CEO of TAG Heuer is Stephane Bianchi.
And Guy Semon?
Guy is now CEO of the R&D Institute. We have created an LVMH institute of innovation, and this is a separate profit centre but it belongs to the LVMH Watch Division, not individually to just to TAG or Hublot or Zenith. It is for the group and, as such, Guy is the CEO of this little – but actually very important – investment. It may be a small company employing just 37 people, but this R&D is feeding the demand of the three brands in terms of research.
So, either they tell us: “Here, this is what I can offer you today, who wants it?” And Zenith might say: “Yes, that’s for me!” Or they take a special project and, for example, TAG Heuer can tell them: “We want a new perpetual calendar watch.” And Guy’s team will develop it. Either we give them instructions, or they invent something.
Sort of like what the aerospace industry calls a “skunk works”?
So, there will be no more interim CEOs.
But you were more than just the interim CEO for three brands – your influence went far beyond that. Are there others, then, to help maintain the continuity?
Stephane [Bianchi] is the most adapted to do that.
Jean-Claude, what do you think it would take to save Baselworld? If you were in the mood for it, and Baselworld called you and gave you unilateral control, what would you do?
First, I have to say that I do not have enough knowledge about what all the brands are expecting from Baselworld, only what I was expecting. And I was expecting Baselworld to be no longer than four days and to be brought in line with SIHH, because who are we to ask people to come twice. Are we so arrogant?
I would have brought the prices of the booths to more reasonable levels. Not for me, but for the industry and the little guys who are so necessary for us because they feed us with new ideas, they feed us with knowledge and we need them. A big group that doesn’t think it needs the small watchmakers is making a huge mistake.
And I would have mixed the customers – and I know a lot of people don’t agree with this – so that Basel locals could visit at the same time as the professionals and pay CHF 5 or CHF 10. Basel has put the price so high for individuals – CHF 60 francs! If you come with your family on a Sunday, and you have two kids, that’s CHF 240. It’s crazy! And I would say that we absolutely need the general public so we should not treat them this way.
I would have persuaded the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (GPHG) to move to Basel, during the fair, while you have the majority of the industry in town. I would have made a forum – several forums – with key players to discuss our problems and our future. And I would have asked Apple to join because they belong! They have a watch, so make a special floor for connected watches! Where is the problem? And if you think it’s competition, then more reason to take them on board, because then they are less dangerous.
Keep your friends close?
Yes, yes. So, these are things I would have done. Now, I cannot say that this is what Baselworld should do, because I am not alone and other brands might say: “Are you crazy? We don’t want to see the customers, only the professionals.” OK, but I would have done this.
What would you like your legacy to be, and how do you think the industry will view your achievements in the years to come?
The greatest legacy is to leave a trace of love. The Beatles were singing “all you need is love” – and love, by the way, is eternal. The love a mother gives to her children never leaves them. And then the children give it back again. That is Number One.
And what is love? The love is I share is my success, my failures, by doubts, my experiences. Sharing is an act of love. Second, love is being able to forgive mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes, everybody is entitled to make mistakes, and we only learn through mistakes.
Third, love is respect. I love nature, I love animals. I respect them. I respect myself. I want people to remember that I had an attitude, I had a life with moral behaviour printed by love. Love is to share, to give and to respect. Boom!
In our business, I hope people will remember that I always had a passion for watches – I was not a CEO, I was an entrepreneur, which is different. I was a collector, and last but not least, I brought back real watchmaking in a period when they were selling off all the tools, destroying all the movements. With Blancpain, I am one of the few who started the rebirth of the mechanical watch.
Who do you think were the key people in the 1970s when you started, trying to save the industry?
One of the key players that we never talk about is Rolex. Rolex kept the house, they kept the direction, they never gave it up, they helped us all enormously. And then there is Nicolas Hayek Sr. because Hayek developed the Swatch and taught the young generation to wear a watch – which they don’t do so much today.
Who today is the industry’s safe pair of hands? Who do you really admire and respect?
My answer may not seem objective, but I swear it is. I think it is Ricardo Guadalupe – he loves the industry, he’s passionate and he has watchmaking in the blood. There is also Julien Tornare and Jean-Frederic Dufour from Rolex – they all have it in the blood. These three people I love and I respect immensely. There are others, but these three people, I would travel the world with, and I would build any brand with them.