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Jean-Claude Biver on Steering Swiss Watch Brands with Passion

This story originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Elite Traveler.

A true visionary in the watch world, a sought-after speaker on global economic and business conference circuits, and the leader of three top Swiss watch brands, Jean-Claude Biver tirelessly pursues—and regularly achieves success,writes Roberta Naas.

At 68 years old, Jean-Claude Biver has built an impressive legacy in the watch world. One might even say that everything he touches turns to gold. A 41-year veteran in the watch industry, Biver has led a number of Swiss watch brands to global success over the decades. Today, Biver is head of LVMH Watch Division and steers at the helm of three top Swiss brands: Hublot, TAG Heuer and Zenith.

A veritable legend in this niche luxury field, the charismatic Biver is the brains behind the rise of luxury watch brand Blancpain. After spending fewer than a half a dozen years in the watch industry in positions of sales and product management, Biver and a partner purchased the Blancpain brand name in 1982 (the brand had gone out of business in the 1970s during the quartz crisis). Two years later, at the global watch exhibition that is today known as Baselworld, Biver launched Blancpain with a daring direction during the quartz era. Billing it as a brand that never had and never would make a quartz watch, Biver clearly positioned the company right from the start as a true luxury leader, and with that move is credited as one of the saviors of the Swiss mechanical watch world.

Interestingly, at the time of that launch, Biver was so broke that he was sleeping in a VW camper outside the Basel train station. “I slept in a camping bus because we had no money to pay a hotel. Nobody knew because we were ashamed to say so. We were trying to launch a luxury line so we kept it very quiet,” says Biver, deep in fond memories.

In fewer than 10 years under Biver’s leadership, Blancpain turned a profit of more than 50m Swiss Francs, and the company was sold to what is today the Swatch Group. Biver joined the Swatch Group at that time and worked similar magic on the Omega brand’s revival in the ensuing years. Finally, in 2004, he joined Hublot as CEO, where he conceived of the brand’s Art of Fusion tagline that blends tradition and futuristic approaches. When Hublot was sold to the LVMH Group shortly thereafter, Biver stayed on as its leader. Today, Biver is head of LVMH Watch Division, still retaining the global leadership of Hublot, and also acting as the CEO for TAG Heuer and Zenith.

“When I came to TAG Heuer, I was charged with turning the company around. I had a meeting with all of the heads of the different divisions of the brand and I asked them to prepare information for me. They prepared numbers. After 15 minutes, I told them I don’t want to see numbers,” says Biver. “Numbers are the consequences of the business model, I want to see our strategies. If the strategies are right, the numbers will come.”

Upon close examination of the strategies and business plans, Biver identified the core of what TAG Heuer should be. He went back to the brand’s DNA with a coherent and consistent message: TAG Heuer is avant-garde, accessible luxury. His directive: all marketing and product efforts must follow this plan. Within three short years, the brand was enjoying (in 2016) its largest turnover ever in the history of the company.

“As long as you know the mission of each brand, you know how to travel the road to the next century,” says Biver. “When you lead a brand you must remember that the brand is your king and you serve it. You cannot put your stamp on the brand because you are not entitled to do that. The brand will survive long after you are gone, so you must respect its DNA, its message and stay true to that.”

An avid watch collector, Biver says his eyes are open to all sorts of innovation, which gives him a strong advantage when considering product and marketing direction. “I am open to any project, to all other opinions and ideas because I love watches. This is a great advantage, as well,” says Biver.

Biver insists, though, that his real success is the result of his incredible passion for watches. Those who have heard him speak recognize the theme of passion as a staple in his enthralling and articulate talks. With more expression in every sentence he speaks than most can muster once in a long conversation, Biver talks ardently about passion and love.

“One hundred percent, I believe my success comes from my passion,” says Biver. “My guiding light is called love. The Beatles said ‘all you need is love’. Love is not just about two people; love is 360 degrees. If you have passion, you have love. And if you have love, you have respect because that is an expression of love. This means I respect myself, I respect my people and I respect my competition and my suppliers. And to forgive is an act of love. You need to be able to forgive mistakes, because we all make mistakes and they are a learning process. So if you have a passion, you love, you respect, you forgive. I am not successful because I am good; I am successful because I have passion.”

He also says that sharing is a vital part of that all-important passion, and he shares his successes, failures, hopes and dreams with others, especially those he works with. “If you have a passion for something, it shows. You cannot keep it inside of you. With time, it transfers to other people you work with and then before you know it they get the passion, and then you have a group of passionate people, and they all work for the same goal; they are like bees who come to the honey,” says Biver. “My people are only as good as I treat them. So I treat them with passion, with respect and with forgiveness. This is why I have some people staying with me for decades. This is my management style.”

As head of three top brands, Biver says his 41 years of experience aid him in making quicker, smarter decisions. As he juggles three brands, keeping them separate and distinct by adhering to their individual missions, he also takes advantage of the synergies. “The only thing my brands all have in common is that they make watches. But if we have the opportunity to draw on the synergies between the brands, tap the minds of people from one brand to help with another, and share an exchange of ideas, then you have to take advantage of that,” says Biver. “I owe that to every brand I oversee.”

Biver says he has never worked so much in his life, but he seems to thrive on juggling three brands. “When you have a passion, you work without even noticing it is work. It is like a mother. She can juggle one child or she can juggle five. It is amazing. You have to devote more time, of course, but I will never complain. I will say ‘thank you’ because it is a privilege that when you are 68 you have more work than when you were 28. Working is learning and learning means you are still young, still able to grow. I wish this for everybody.”