Interview with Jean-Claude Biver

MARK VAN HUISSELING about…

Jean-Claude Biver; Arguably currently the most successful boss in the Swiss watch industry is publishing a book about his life. He describes himself as a hippie, and his drive is love.

On a Friday afternoon last August, David Guetta and Martin Garrix sat next to Jean-Claude Biver by the pool of a finca in Ibiza, in front of perhaps a hundred watch dealers, a few former Spanish football stars and other guests. A TV presenter asked well-intentioned questions – the event was about announcing the partnership of the watch brand Tag Heuer with the Primera División, the highest Spanish football league: «On what occasion did you last feel passion?» – «When I was allowed to introduce my track ‹In the Name of love› in the Jimmy Kimmel Live show,» answered Garrix, a 20-year-old disc jockey from the Netherlands. «Two months ago, when I was allowed to perform my official European Championship song at the Stade de France in Paris previous to the whistle for kickoff of the final French against Portugal,» said Guetta, surpassing his 29-year-old colleague. Then Biver stood up and told he was coming from China where he had an appearance in front of 200 senior officers. Since he hadn’t prepared a speech he lay on the floor on the stage instead of just bowing to the military officers. (Which he then also did at the edge of the pool in Ibiza.) As he was standing again, he shouted: «China flies to Mars, as the first nation – good! And Hublot flies too, as the first watch brand – super good!!» And then the officers of the people’s army cheered so loudly that the roof of the big hall almost flew away…

An Exceptional Luxembourger

It doesn’t often happen that a Swiss manager steals the show from two of the world’s best selling DJs, who are, by the way, advertising ambassadors of his company. Especially not in Ibiza where the social prestige of electronic-dance-music-producers is higher than that of managers. However, Jean-Claude Biver is probably not an ordinary Swiss CEO. But an exceptional Luxembourger entrepreneur with a Swiss passport who is currently an employee – since the sale of Hublot, the brand, of which he owned twenty percent of, to the Louis-Vuitton-Moët-Hennessy Group in 2008, he works as president of the watch business of the French LVMH group, to which, besides Hublot, also Tag Heuer and Zenith belong. In the next few days «You can do everything, if only you want to», a mixture of biography and how-to-book, is being published by the 67-year-old.

The biographical parts of the volume – result of conversations between Biver and a journalist from the Romandy who wrote them down – do not contain any news. If you read newspapers or magazines, you know that Biver as a child, after the divorce of his parents – the father owned several shoe shops in Luxembourg – moved with his mother and his younger brother from the Grand Duchy to the Lake Geneva to be put into a boarding school there. Also about his stations and commitments in the watch industry one has already read: Audemars Piguet (intern), Blancpain (co-owner and turn-around managing director), Swatch Group (Omega managing director, close collaborator of Nicolas Hayek; later his adviser), Hublot (co-owner and turnaround manager as well as seller of his share to LVMH, then president), Tag Heuer and Zenith (president as well, respectively operative Chief). The divorce from the first wife appears in the book – scarcely. Getting to know, getting married and again starting a family with the second one, with whom he has a ten-year-old son today, dito. It is not mentioned that he had earned a fortune on his way from Audemars to LVMH that is estimated in the “Bilanz” at 150 to 200 million francs.

Nonetheless the book is worth reading. Because at least as interesting as the answer to the question of how he did all that are answers to the questions why he still works 15 hours a day, 300 days a year – at the age of 67, with that much money? Or why he succeeds in what other entrepreneurs and managers usually don’t: To turn several companies in succession and to make them succeed (again). On that he provides deeper insight in the book than what one could get so far.

Picture of Jean-Claude Biver

«China flies to Mars – good! and Hublot flies too – super good!!»: Watch seller extraordinaire Biver, 67 (Picture: Nicole Bachmann).

What Jean-Claude Biver is good at: surprising

As a mainspring, he states love. Much love in everything he does. He doesn’t distinguish between work and leisure. Because what he does in business is exactly what he prefers to do in his life – to let love work. Love for employees and customers. For Swiss watches and, especially, craftsmen who master the art of watchmaking. Especially taken he, a Beatles fan, logically was with the song «All you Need Is Love». In the book he describes himself as a hippie…  Whether he really was one who indulged in free love, drugs and rebellion against the bourgeois order? I, with all due respect, tend to doubt – but whatever, authorized biographies have the advantage (as well as the disadvantage) that they spread the view of the described on themselves and the world. Therefore All you need is love. And thereof especially the first line: «There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done.»

Maybe he was a hippie after all – the phrase is difficult to understand, it seems to me (maybe it gets easier after the enjoyment of drugs). This is not the phrase that many CEOs would call a key leitmotif for their journey, I think. The statement is rather dampening than winging, fits more to a stoner than to a high-flyer: what goes, goes. What doesn’t work, even you can’t accomplish. That’s how I read it. From an entrepreneur and manager, as well as from Jimmy Cliff and Roger Schawinski, one would rather expect: You can do everything, if only you want to. Oh, just that is the title of the book.

What he can, for sure: surprise. And in fact not only with ideas that strengthen the sale of his watches. Also with his body weight, which can vary greatly from one meeting to the next. In Gstaad in the summer of 2015, he was, let’s say, corpulent; In Ibiza in the summer of 2016 he had gained weight. And in January 2017 in Geneva – a gaunt man. When he entered the room, in a casual jacket by Loro Piana, I first took him for his younger, slender brother Marc, the sports marketer. Reasons for the new ease, he says, are more warm lemon juice and more sports, off-piste skiing especially.

When I asked how diligent one has to be in order to take, on top of all the tasks and jobs he already has, the operational leadership of the Zenith brand, he said he was actually a lazy person who doesn’t want to work. I consider this statement to be about as true as the one that he was a hippie; But it’s a but-sentence. «But when I feel passion, it makes me accomplish the highest performance without it feeling like work, but like a pleasure.» And currently he is full of passion to bring Zenith back to where the brand belongs in his eyes, namely to the very top.

To be successful in business, he says, you must be humble. And realize that a brand is bigger than yourself. That it was there before you were and, if you do your job well, will be there even after you aren’t anymore. Brands outlast people. Next lesson: To be a good boss, one must be able to share (the success), respect (the brand) and forgive (the employees). And, very importantly, to allow mistakes. That’s his morality. Adopted by – the hippies, he says. And what’s more: Nowadays he’s working without the influence of his ego, «I’m over that.»

Self-perception is one thing; I have asked competitors how they perceive Jean-Claude Biver. «Mr. Hayek will very often be on business trips in the next few weeks and his agenda is brimful, so unfortunately he will not be able to take part in your article», the Swatch Group spokesman communicated. «Unfortunately, we do not comment on CEOs or brands of third parties. I am sorry, but Mr. Lambert will not be able to express himself», wrote the spokeswoman for Jérôme Lambert, the new head of operations of the Richemont Group. From Georges Kern, the supreme watch boss of the same group, respectively his spokeswoman, did not even come so little – no statement. «The man has a gift: what he touches becomes a success. In this sense he’s a genius», says Nicholas Foulkes, watch connoisseur and author of the London Financial Times and Vanity Fair. He has known Biver for decades. And he goes on to say that he barely cares about things that are important to other managers, like how he is perceived. Instead: “He works a lot. And brings in a lot of love and emotion. He is a superstar [of the watch industry], but also has a life [outside the branch].»

«What will you do next, Mr. Biver?»

The self-perception coincides with the perception of the long-time observer quite accurately, and my attitude too does not deviate greatly from it. Even if I think that he oversells in reality and undersells in the book. What I mean shows the following excerpt from a conversation that we held almost two years ago: «What will you do next?», I asked. «Dealing with my Chinese grandchildren, hopefully.» His son Loic, then 33, is Hublot brand director in China, lives in Shanghai and had a Chinese girlfriend… A few weeks ago I asked father Biver if he had become a grandfather meanwhile and could watch his first half-Chinese grandson grow up. So to speak, he said. Loic had married the Chinese last year – so the descendant/s is or are in the making…

In other words: Jean-Claude Biver says things sometimes sooner than others. Probably because he sees them sooner than others.

Interview with Tony Prince

MARK VAN HUISSELING meets…

When hearing «radio pirate and businessman» you think of someone else – at least we do.

I almost had to postpone our appointment because I come from Ibiza and the plane was late…» – «Were you in Ibiza? My son lives there.» – «… to my knowledge you yourself are often there.» – «Yes, I was often busy there; It’s a good life when you can enable it to yourself.» – «Yes, yes. My impression, in general: Radio stations are in trouble, everywhere, disc jockeys are successful.» – «This is nicely expressed.» – «Do you agree?» – «Yes. The reason is that the music world is overpopulated. And music is so easy to get, you can download it and so on. I was in Los Angeles, met a friend and asked his 15-year-old daughter what radio stations she listens to. She said: ‹I don’t listen to the radio.› Unbelievable.» – «Is she listening to music then?» – «She listens a lot of music, and I asked: ‹Where do you find your music?› She answered, her friends find it, they know what music she likes. “

Tony Prince, born Thomas Whitehead in Oldham near Manchester, 69, is a radio disc jockey (to us: moderator) and businessman (Wikipedia). In the sixties and seventies of the last century, he could be heard on Radio Luxembourg and Caroline; Caroline was a so-called pirate radio that broadcasted from a ship in the Irish Sea. The film “Radio Rock Revolution” (by Richard Curtis, with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy) partly tells the story. He then founded the magazine Mixmag, the club culture Bible (self-advertisement); He later sold it to the British media group Emap International for then eight million pounds. This conversation took place when he was in Zurich for the International Radio Festival.

«DJs in nightclubs should stop talking after every song.» – Tony Prince

«What do you advise radio bosses to keep them in business?» – «Back to the start: DJ personalities are needed. Do you remember Radio Luxembourg? Every DJ was a personality. Today you can only hear this in the morning shows, but these DJs talk too much, I think. The future is, as it looks like, internet radio; The radio as a device, as we know it, is probably over soon, even in the car.» – «But you do believe in the DJ as a business model, don’t you?» – «Yes. Although today everyone’s a DJ, even kids make mixtapes in their room. But because there is so unbelievably much music on the internet, it takes professionals who find the music for you you want to listen to. And whose voice, attitude or humor you like. Or DJs that you like because they don’t talk – I was program director of Radio Luxembourg and got sent a tape, which was in 1981, on which the DJ did not speak. At first I thought: a nutjob. But then I hired him and we became mixing pioneers with DMC [Disco Mix Club, a show on Radio Luxembourg], and in my magazine Mixmag I preached, DJs in nightclubs should stop talking after every song, which was normal because they were imitating radio DJs. We got heaps of requests, all wanted DJs who didn’t butt in. Today this is normal, no club DJ talks anymore and everyone is also a producer. But I believe that even radio DJs can be kings again. “

Young Tony Prince and Cliff Richard

«Roger Schawinski?»

«Are there actually still pirate radio stations in London? For a time there were many such.» – «Yes, they still exist.» – «Why, today, is there anybody operating an illegal radio in a basement if he can spread it over the internet, which is allowed?» – «I don’t know, I think it’s a hobby, and I don’t know if anyone listens to these channels. It’s hard enough for legal radio stations to find listeners.» – «Have you ever heard the name Roger Schawinski?» – «No.» – «He invented, among other things, the pirate radio in Switzerland.» – «When was that?» – «About 1979.» – «Yeah, well, Radio Caroline began 1964. I must say, however, that the first pirate radio, as far as I know, was a Swedish one. Of which Ronan O’Rahilly [founder of Radio Caroline] had the idea.» – «‹I can’t listen to oldies anymore› was the headline of an interview with you [Newsnet], actually?» – «I think that was probably a mistranslation. What I said: I am not stuck in the past with my music taste… That’s something else. I still listen a lot to Elvis for example.» – «Can you tell from which artist you last bought an album or a single?» – «No, I can’t. I listen to a lot of new music on BBC Radio 6 Music.»

Tony Prince’s favourite restaurant

«‹The Cliff › [Derricks, St. James, Barbados, phone +1 246 432 1922], magic, magic. That was a simple question.» – «Many people find this the most difficult question.» – «Great interview, like as if you had questioned me in your living room.»

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Interview with Tommy Hilfiger

MARK VAN HUISSELING meets…

TOMMY HILFIGER

«The book about your past life that you published [with Peter Knobler, a former journalist], is a very open, honest book. Why?» – «I think, when doing something like that, one should do it properly. I have nothing to hide. And if some people don’t like it, they may not buy my clothes anymore. But I don’t think I wrote anything terribly abusive.» (He writes for example that he had a violent father that had often beaten him as a child. Or that at least two of his children had drug problems and that the small son he has with his second wife is autistic.) «The title of the book ‹American Dreamer›, is nice but, with respect, wrong. I perceive you as a doer, a realist … dreamers don’t build companies that they sell for billions.» – «But I had dreams and and my dreams turned into something. I was a dreamer, I am a dreamer; I still dream about what could come next for me.» – «Do you have nightmares?» – «I had some: my bankruptcy, my failure … »

Thomas Jacob Hilfiger, better known as Tommy Hilfiger, 65, from Elmira, New York, is an american fashion designer. What is not described on Wikipedia: Hilfiger is entrepreneur first, the designing of fashion comes in second place. Together with business and financial partners he build his brand that primarily offers clothing in the so called college- or preppy-style (from preparatory school). 2006 Hilfiger sold his shares for 1.6 billion to a holding company; about 5 years later it resold the company to the american fashion group Philips-Van Heusen for about 3 billion. He doesn’t have any noteworthy share in the company anymore and is ambassador of the brand, meaning that he gives interviews, opens shops in important cities, et cetera; the operational chief is the Swiss national Daniel Grieder. Hilfiger is married the second time, has five children of his own plus two stepchildren; his biography «American Dreamer» was published in 2016, I recommend this book.

«You write that one of your managers was partly responsible for the company succeeding again. He was right, others, including yourself, were not for some time. You rarely read that, success mostly isn’t shared …» – «Yes, but it was like that. I have always been supported by people to get ahead. There were and there are unusually strong people in the company.» – «How does one lead employees that are better than oneself?» – «I am very confident with where I am in life – my name is on the logo, I am the creator and visionary behind the brand.» – «But how do you prevent these people from wanting your job?» – «It’s like in sports: You are a group that wants to win. Everybody is willing to do everything for it except cheating. I was the motivator and influencer of the team; I enabled the success, praised and rewarded my people.»

Tommy Hilfiger Gründer (Thomas Jacob Hilfiger)

Tommy Hilfiger (Thomas Jacob Hilfiger)«How important is luck?» – «You need luck to get big. But fortune can be followed by misfortune – we were excessively successful in America in the beginning of the [19]90s but towards the end of the decade we suffered a setback and several partners sold their shares, pulled out … But with good people one can influence luck a little.» – «When you have been in business for four decades, fortunate and less fortunate phases should be distributed evenly, shouldn’t they?» – «I hope so. And then there’s this: A successful career is associated with hard work. You never get to rest, always have to keep going. How do you perfect this or that? What do we do next?» – «Your income in 2016 will reach 33 million dollars; that means during the time we talk you earn 15 000 dollars. But the extrapolated media value of the articles I publish is approximately 100 000 francs or dollars – You are underpaid.» – «Haha, I will tell the CEO, my friend Daniel Grieder.»

Tommy Hilfiger’s favourite restaurant:

Harry’s Bar, Calle Vallaresso 1323, Venice, Italy, phone +39 (0)41 528 5777

 

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Interview with Karl Lagerfeld

MARK VAN HUISSELING meets…

KARL LAGERFELD; a short conversation with a great informant (under difficult circumstances).

If it was the year 2004 and I would have interviewed the fashion designer and photographer for this column back then, I would have had a field day – would have described, how he came with delay to the vernissage of his «Fire Etchings»-photographs in the gallery Gmurzynska in St. Moritz. And how little time there was remaining for the many journalists. Perhaps I would have admitted that german colleagues got a longer interview-slot than I (for instance Sven Michaelsen and Philipp Jessen for Gala, a people-magazine, furthermore with the oldest trick – «We put him on the cover»). And possibly, that their columnist had to share his time with colleagues (and yet from Switzerland), because the last flight movement from the Airport Engadin Samedan/St. Moritz had to take place at 6:30 pm, also for private jets with Lagerfeld as a passenger. But this is 2013 and I display (mostly) what Lagerfeld answered  and said in little time (11 minutes and 8 seconds including greeting and saying good bye). He likes to be asked questions; interviews are his social life I think.

Politics and style

«When I interviewed you last time you said you would get inspiration from the financial crisis and financial fraudsters. What news currently affects you?» – «Everything, everything; zeitgeist, zeitgeist, zeitgeist. This shall not be put into words too much, otherwise this again becomes marketing, and I don’t do marketing. It’s a capture of the zeitgeist, without analyzing it but somehow instinctively making proper use of it for the work.» – «Are you worried about the new high tax for people earning very good money in France, where you live?» (75 percent taxes for income above one million euros.) «If looking for something to get the people out of the country, then they found something. But that doesn’t bother me.» – «Why not?» – «I live in a world apart from reality. I only care about my work, what I do in Paris, in Milan and Rome, what I do in New York and so on and so forth.» – «What do you think about Gérard Depardieu’s performance?» (He became an honorary citizen of Russia, received a passport from Wladimir Putin, wants to move to Russia.) «I mean he’s a funny guy, he’s a brilliant actor but I have the feeling that he did this for his driving licence; he has driving licence problems in France and in Russia you get it for free.» – «Are you interested in politics?» – «I’m quite up to date but because I have not yet voted in my life I also don’t have an opinion.» – «Why don’t you vote?» – «Because I can look behind the scenes too much to then still vote for the people.» – «How do you like the SPD candidate for chancellor Peer Steinbrück in terms of style?» – «In politics everybody can have his style. Ms Merkel’s style is right for her job. The germans better keep Ms Merkel.»

Karl Lagerfeld mit Brille und weissem Kragen

«Everything, everything; zeitgeist, zeitgeist, zeitgeist»: Lagerfeld, fashion designer and photographer, 84.

What Karl Lagerfeld cannot do

«Is Switzerland on your map?» – «I am no resident here and can therefore not say much about it. It’s a wonderful country, I haven’t been to Saint-Moritz for ages, you have a great view there with the snow and so, but I am not a man of leisure time or holidays . . .» – «‹No camper›, you once said.» – «Exactly. I only go out for the work, otherwise I stay at home with my books.» – «Is there something you can’t do?» –  «Playing the piano, this is the big regret of my life. I love music and I have many friends who truly can play.» – «Have you tried it?» – «For one year. Then my mother banged the piano lid on my fingers and said: ‹Go painting, that makes less noise.›» – «What is the most important thing you learned from your mother?» – «This, among other things.» – «You have a cat since recently, was it allowed to come along too today?» (This question came from a friend who works for Bolero; but there is something about it as I find.) «No, not today. But when I go to America or stay away for longer she’s coming along.» – «Even though she has her own governess, hasn’t she?» – «Yes, that is true.» – «You live luxuriously, could you imagine a normal life?» – «If i were to be pretentious I would say that I have a normal life. I work very much, it’s just the circumstances that lead to it being a little more beautiful.»

Karl Lagerfeld’s favourite restaurant

«Do you have a favourite restaurant?» – «Yes, ‹La Maison du Caviar› in Paris. But I don’t go to restaurants very often because I have my own diet; I have a cook.»

‹La Maison du Caviar›, 21 rue Quentin-Bauchart, Paris, France, phone +33 1 47 23 53 43


Sidenote

(According to a generally accessible encyclopedia on the internet.)

For a long time Lagerfeld claimed 1938 to be his year of birth, then later on 1935. In 2008, the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag published excerpts from the church baptismal registry of Hamburg as well as statements by the teacher and a classmate of Karl Lagerfeld, who named 1933 his year of birth. Nevertheless, still mysterious, on the 10th of september 2008 Karl was congratulated on his 70th birthday (analogous to 2003, when it was his «65th» birthday). Some journalists went by the fashion designer, others didn’t.

On the 7th of July 2013, «Welt am Sonntag» published Karl Lagerfeld’s true birthday; the 10th of September 1933. This publication is based on the book by leisure historians Maike and Ronald Holst from the Hamburg district of Blankenese. During research on their book «Women of Blankenese» they discovered a card with a birth announcement. On it «Otto Lagerfeld and Ms. Elisabeth, born Bahlmann» announced the birth of their son. On the card there’s a small additional card with a blue ribbon of silk with the inscription «Karl Otto», and below «Sunday, 10th of September 1933».