The Jakarta Post
A legend in the watch industry, Jean-Claude Biver shared stories during a recent interview. (Time International/File)
The man was all smiles from the get-go. He spoke with great clarity, often making gestures with his hands or pounding the table for emphasis. Sharing his experience as a man involved in the watch industry for 40 years, Jean-Claude Biver largely spared us the technical and promotional jargon. Instead, we got to hear stories of a man in love with his profession and the people surrounding him. “To respect is an act of love”, he said about working with his team.
In late December 2018, a group of journalists from Jakarta had the opportunity to interview the 69-year-old in Singapore, courtesy of luxury retailer Time International and The Hour Glass in Singapore. Biver, who was born in Luxembourg, started his career with training offered by Audemars Piguet in Switzerland in 1975, after which he concentrated on sales and marketing. He made a name for himself as a superstar in the watch industry by reviving brands, such as associating Omega with stars and icons that included Cindy Crawford and James Bond movies in the 1990s, turning around Blancpain, which had been dormant since 1961, and rebirthing Hublot with an impressive growth in revenue in four years, when the brand was sold to French multinational luxury goods conglomerate LVMH in 2008.
Under Biver, Hublot became the first Official Watch and Official Timekeeper for FIFA and the World Cup. It also collaborated with Ferrari and became the first luxury brand to launch an online television service, Hublot TV. In 2014, Biver was appointed as president of the Watches Division at LVMH Group, overseeing Hublot, TAG Heuer and Zenith. In September 2018, Biver announced that he had decided to relinquish his operational responsibilities and assume the role of nonexecutive chairman of the LVMH watchmaking division.
Below are excerpts of the interview with Biver, in which he talked about the art of watchmaking and millennials, as well as his need to be surrounded by people better than himself.
What prompted you to step down from your role at LVMH?
My motivation is still my passion for watches. If I had no passion for watches, I would have stepped down totally because of my health problem. I can step down from a job, but not from a passion. Passion is love and love is eternal. My passion has not changed, but the way I live my passion has. Before, I was very concentrated on doing, making, inventing, creating, managing, and now I’m more concentrated on coaching, learning, teaching and transmitting. This is what I do now. I have left the executive and operational side, but I still coach, teach, help and give recommendations.
A recent article says the Swiss watch industry is facing a threat.
Maybe the journalist exaggerated about ‘the threat’. The real change will come when the [people] born [after] 2000 are in power. They will have other ideas, tastes, habits, philosophy and behaviors. We have to prepare ourselves for these changes, and to prepare is to learn now how these young people will react and their attitudes. In Europe, a lot of millennials don’t buy cars anymore, they share cars. They even start to share watches, they rent watches, because they’re not used to owning them. All these changes will come, and if we are not prepared and do not try to understand them, we might be at risk. If we understand and we adapt, then we will survive.
How do the millennials fit into the art of watchmaking?
The art, as you call it, is eternal. The art of Greek architecture is still there. The more we go with technology, the more we go to the future, the more we will need to be connected to something that is eternal, because eternity is what you’re dreaming about. Technology is due to become obsolete. Art is due to stay eternal.
The clock of Big Ben in London is 150 years old, and it’s still working. I have watches from the 1800s in my watch collection and they still work. So I believe that eternity is somehow the future. We would be surrounded with so much technology and technology can only grow by killing the past. Art goes to the future and kills nothing. Therefore, the watchmaking art has a lot of future. The watchmaking industry is different, but the watchmaking art is eternal.
How is the regeneration going in the industry?
Quite interesting, because we have more and more young people who want to enter the industry. They think it’s an interesting job, they like to be associated with great brands, they think that the job is very noble, also with good salary.
What’s your take on smartwatches?
I believe in smartwatches, because I believe in communication. The smartwatch is a communication tool that is very easy to wear. When you have your phone on your wrist, it’s more comfortable. There’s no doubt that smartwatches are the future, and when you wear a smartwatch, it helps you in that one day you’d wear an expensive watch. If you’ve never worn a watch in your life, it would be very difficult to sell you one.
What do you think was key to your success?
My success came from my people. I’ve had the same people since 1979. If you’ve been working for 40 years with the same people, that’s a real strength and capital. Because after 40 years people understand each other much better compared to one year. After 40 years you somehow don’t need to talk anymore, the eyes can communicate.
I always say that I must be surrounded by people that are better than me, because then they can help. If I’m the best of all, how can they help? I need people who could say, “Mr. Biver, this is wrong. Let’s do it that way.” Then I will listen, or I will challenge. I can only get help if people [around me] are better than me.
How do you maintain their loyalty?
By sharing success, experience, visions, knowledge, even doubts, and by not sharing failures. If the team does something wrong, you take it on your shoulder. If you forgive mistakes and failures, the team will be much more dynamic, because they know if they take risks and they fail, the boss will not put the blame on them. Then you have a dynamic team that’s ready to take initiatives and to innovate. Last but not least, respect people and their family lives, health and social conditions.
What do you see as your biggest challenge?
To attract millennials, to make it to a point where millennials will love watches. How to make them go crazy for watches as they are about Nike or Yeezy shoes. They look at what Supreme and Off-white is doing, so the best way to talk to them is to use an ambassador that is a reference for them. If perhaps the ambassador is wearing TAG Heuer made for Supreme, they will immediately notice.
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