Interview with Jean-Claude Biver

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.

This post is also available in: German

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