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Interview with Jean-Claude Biver

by Jerome Pineau
11 February, 2011
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This is a text version of Jerome Pineau’s radio interview with star guest Jean-Claude Biver.

Listen to the Jean-Claude Biverinterview here.

Interview with Jean-Claude Biver

Jean-Claude Biver is CEO, board member, and minority shareholder of Hublot, a Swiss luxury watchmaker. Biver has been extremely successful at Hublot, and was previously successful in rejuvenating the Blancpain and Omega brands, both currently owned by the Swatch Group. Biver is also known for his own exclusive cheese. Biver’s leadership in the Swiss watch industry has been credited as “single handedly [sic]… saving [the industry] from the quartz movement.” At Hublot, Biver has emphasised ‘the fusion of tradition and future.’

Jerome: We have a very, very special guest today an industry legend. He was born in Luxembourg and moved to Switzerland at the tender age of ten. He started his watch career at Audemars Piguet, and then he bought a company called Blancpain with his buddy Jacques Piguet from there. And in the 1980s he is credited as having saved the Swiss watch industry. Which he actually did during the Quartz crisis, he then sold the company to Swatch for a sweet fortune.

Then he went to the board of directors at Swatch, and run Omega’s marketing.

And if you love James Bond movies as much as I did, then you see him wearing Omega watches, that’s thanks to our guest coming up in a few seconds. He took over a company caller Hublot in September of 2004, at the time the company made about 20 million a year, and now the turnover is around 260 million.

The next guest is a master of sponsorships, he did the FIFA, he did the F1, he believes in a very simple thing. To be first, unique and different in the watch industry, and so it is with huge pleasure and great honor I present you Jean-Claude Biver from Hublot, CEO of Hublot, and my ex boss actually. Mr Biver thank you so much for joining us from New York City today.

Jean-Claude Biver: I am quite happy to be here, sitting in my hotel in New York I hope you can hear me very well?

What Hublot does Jean-Claude Biver wear?

Jerome: I certainly can hear you, I hope our listeners can as well. Which Hublot are you wearing today Mr Biver?

Jean-Claude Biver: I am always wearing the same, the Big Bang all black, which was done in a limited edition of eighteen pieces in 2006. I bought it in those days and I still wear it because it for me its the perfect watch. It has tourbillion, it has it a chronograph it has a black surround, I can wear it for Golf or Cycling, or I can wear it for cocktail evening. It always works, so it is the perfect watch for me to wear everyday.

Jerome: Did you bring any cheese to the US, at this time?

Jean-Claude Biver: No. In the US you can only smuggle it in. I don’t smuggle. I will need one day to make it very regular importation to get all the papers done. I specialize in watches not cheese. Although I make cheese, but to import cheese into America is a nightmare you have so many regulations this and that. You also now have also these terrorists law, they check your cheese is not a bomb inside, its difficult.

Jerome: No exploding cheese for you today.

Jean-Claude Biver in America

Jerome:You are in New York City, I want to focus this show on the American market, as I know it is a very important market to Hublot and to yourself. Can you tell what you are doing in New York right now. I think you are inaugurating some shops and what else is going on out there?

Jean-Claude Biver: We had two events yesterday. We had the opening of our first American shop in Madison Avenue, 3pm yesterday, the shop is open. Yesterday evening we were the title sponsor on the 25th anniversary of amfAR foundation. So I went yesterday and donated a watch, which was auctioned 75,00 US dollar. Those were the two reasons I came to New York yesterday.

So I flew in yesterday at 5pm, fly out tonight at 7pm.

Jerome: You spend a lot of time on planes don’t you?

Jean-Claude Biver: Yes, I am kind of a good customer for Swiss and Lufthansa.

Jean-Claude Biver a master of sponsorships

Jerome: You are a master of sponsorships. You have made deals for all sports, you name it. For the US anything coming up that is interesting? You are not in football, I mean American football. Is that something you might look at in the future?

Jean-Claude Biver: No, because we don’t understand it. Firstly we cannot be everywhere, secondly we think that in the States that basketball in more adapted for us. We just signed a relationship with Dwayne Wade from Miami Heats and we are starting to make some events with him. We are starting to do advertising with him, that will all start at the end of this month. In fact we have entered basketball.

We cannot be in every sport.

Jerome: You play basketball yourself?

Jean-Claude, sports and success

Jean-Claude Biver: No. I played basketball, I played football, I skied, I sailed, I play golf, I never played Polo. Most of the sports I did because we use to be in Switzerland, and was always active in sport. I always loved sport. I was in tennis. I do a lot of sport. I think sport is a fantastic education tool.

In sports you learn how to lose, and you learn how to recover from the loss. Very important you learn from every defeat. You learn that defeat brings you success, every defeat brings you closer to your next success.

Therefore sports is probably the best educating tool we can have. As a boy I would play often in sports. I still remember that I wished my strength, and how to transform a bad situation into a good one, this comes from the education from sport.

Jean-Claude sleeps 3-4 hours a night

Jerome: That probably keeps you in good shape. I know you get around all the time. I don’t know how you do it quite honestly. I think you sleep 3 or 4 hours a night?

Jean-Claude Biver: Yes that’s true. When you sleep you don’t work, when you sleep you are not active. So somehow to sleep is nice, as you can eventually dream. I prefer to be active, and I wish one day we can get a new pill that enables you never to sleep. That would be fantastic, and you could be awake 24 hours. We have to find a new way to live to hundred years, or we can live a hundred years within 24 hours.

Jerome: I am going for the hundred year option. I want to talk to you about the American market. What do you think of the Hublot brand that fits well into the American way, why should Americans be interested in and love Hublot?

Hublot and the American market

Jean-Claude Biver: It is a strong watch, its a little macho. Its a different watch, it has a certain sporty look. It is a watch that connects to the future and tradition, it has both. I think those elements are quite popular in America. America is the country of tomorrow.

It is a country of conquerors of the world, and to conquer the world you not only have the future you need strong tradition. American people are looking for their tradition, it is a young country, but they are looking for their roots.

Hublot has not only future, but tradition. We have what I call fusion.

We bring the tradition and we connect tradition to the future.

You can tell from the size, and look of our watches, and the sporty look of our watches. And conceptualization we fuse yesterday with tomorrow, that is quite appealing to Americans. And I think that is one of the reason for our success in America. We must not forget we are still in a very niche market.

Celebrity Hublot fans

I was yesterday sitting at the table of President Clinton.

I sat between him and Mathilde Krim the president of amfAR. She launched amfAR 25 years ago with Liz Taylor. So I had the chance to sit at the same table next to them both. I was amazed when he told me I know you, I have one. He had Diego Maradona watch.

Then Elton John came to the table and said hello to President Clinton. Said hello to me and said I love your watches. I am a big collector.

Even though these people know my watches, I am very conscious that we are still very small and niche American is a huge country. And at the moment we do 3 to 5 percent of our potential. So at the moment we are at the starting blocks.

Hublot watch pricing

Jerome: I want to talk to you about pricing as well, as America is a nation that wants to have a lot of bang for their buck. Often you hear that a 75,000 dollars watch, is a huge price. I have a quote from you. You said “when you sell a watch at a certain price, your not just selling a watch you are selling a whole universe of social positioning and so on”.

How do you justify the prices to people who might say that the prices are too high? How do you overcome that push-back?

Jean-Claude Biver: I don’t overcome, I tell them that’s their opinion. And they should buy a watch that is the right price for them, I don’t need to convince people you know. Whoever believes it is too expensive, how can you change his mind. This is the beauty of the competition. You have a watch for everybody and every price. You have a watch for every dealer, and we have a price that is a very logical price. It is not that we make more profit than others. I think the whole watch industry has the same calculations.

I have been 37 years in this business, and I know a lot of brands and I know how we calculate prices. I was on the board of Swatch Group, and I now very well there is no mystery. I would say that this is the beauty of the Swiss watch industry. 80 percent of the pieces are very easy to justify.

Even if you justify you will always find some one who thinks it is to expensive. That you have a California wine that is half the price. You must just make the decision. You can drink very expensive wines or drink California.

The Hublot heritage and manufacture

Jerome: Most of the time people day that the brand has a very limited heritage, 30 years old and so on. You started Hublot’s own manufacture, and that’s is a significant investment. The message sent out is that we are going to make our own movements. That’s a real shift in strategy and redevelopment of the brand.

Jean-Claude Biver: It is not a shift. When you restructure a brand, you cannot immediately restructure every department. And you cannot immediately transform a 400 sqm office into a huge manufacturer, you need time.

It was always on our plan, that we would end up having a full integrated manufacture. If you remember we took over Hublot, in 2004, its now the 6th year. To make the buildings, and buy machines is already 18-24 months, so you see we are absolutely ahead of our plan.

We have even performed very well and very rapidly. But clearly from day one we wanted to pursue an integrated manufacture, not only making the movements, that is only a part of it. We wanted to make our screws, our own watch wheels, our own watch metals and our own watch alloys. We developing a now a segment called Metallurgy that will bring us new alloys, that we will do ourselves, we are not going to buy them anymore.

This full integration is in the program, but now suddenly it comes to reality.

Between being in the program and being a reality there is a time frame. It has taken 5 to 6 years, and slowly we are coming there.

The Hublot interdependency

That will give to Hublot not the interdependency on movements, but it will give us much more, because it will give us interdependency in creation and innovation. If you buy from suppliers, even if you buy premium quality, even if you buy something done soporifically for you, you only buy what others have developed. That is what happens when working with suppliers. If you do it yourself you can also develop inside your own manufacturer. Whatever if you want. If you want to develop a new alloy between aluminum and ceramic, we do not need to go to a ceramic or aluminum factory. It is all in house, and brings you independency in the creativity. That is the key. Also of course it gives you later independency in the supply chain.

But that was not the only reason we invested, we invested also because creativity and innovation is our future. If Hublot cannot be creative we have no future anymore. We are a brand that connects tradition to the future through innovation. If we don’t innovate we repeat tradition, we do not want to repeat yesterday.

Hublot innovation and philosophy

Jerome: I hear you say innovation is really important to Hublot. I hear you say that all the time. You are personally dedicated to Hublot everyday. If somebody really wants to understand your brand do people need to research you or the product?

Jean-Claude Biver: The best way is to research the product. The concept and the message should always be transported by the product. If you have a message, or concept or philosophy and it is not reflected in the product, where are you trying to reflect it?

The product is the key, if you understand the product, then you understand the message.

Critisms towards Hublot

Jerome: When you hear things about Hublot, do you take it personally. You were on the first on the watch forums. When you hear things about the brand that are negative do you take it personally.

Jean-Claude Biver: If it is wrong I will take it personally.

In the sense that Hublot I am very close too. It is, like if you say something wrong about my wife, I hate what is wrong.

If you say something bad that is true I am grateful because then we can improve. Critics are very important, you must always listen and hear other opinions. If you reject other opinions then you are in danger. Other opinions are necessary because they help you grow in right direction. You must always be open to critics and never talk personally.

But if it is wrong, a lie and done to hurt you I would defend Hublot as if I was attacked personally.

Horology team

Jerome: I would not want to piss you off, and you are a big person. Do you have any friends in the horology industry you rely ? Do you have go to friend that you help and support you.

Jean-Claude Biver: I am very close to my team, which has been with me for certain people since 1979, 1986, 1989 and my Marketing Director has been with me since 93. All these people have between 32 and 20 years, and I rely on these people these are my friends. This is my team. Those are the people who have built what we have done.

These people I rely on them and these people give me youth and enormous help. People outside I respect a few of them, but most of these people I do not have any contact. I cannot tell you about how they are. I honestly don’t have many contacts.

I have a few contacts with a few owners from Patek, but mostly its my own team that helps me.

Horology family

Jerome: I know you are very big on family. I know your son runs Hublot China, and your lovely daughter is in the headquarters here. And you have a small boy too. Why bring family members into a corporate structure like that? Is it for support or is it just the way it happens?

Jean-Claude Biver: It is just the way it happens. I was not necessary in favor to have my son to be in China for Hublot, I was in an uncomfortable position.

It is like if you are a doctor, you don’t like to have to do an operation to your own son. You don’t have the same attitudes, so it is better to have another doctor do the surgery than yourself. I am a little bit like that, I don’t want to do surgery intervention on my kids.

My people said why don’t we take your son, do whatever you want but don’t ask my opinion. I am not necessary in favor of it. They finally convinced my son to move from Hong Kong to go to China, now I feel a little bit free, because it was not my idea. I did not push it, they did it. Why should I not accept it if everybody wants it. At the end of the day he must be a manager like anybody else.

He is treated like everybody else, that’s very important. If you give a preference to some of your guys, as you are more friends with them or family relations, then there is no business any more. You lose objectivity and become partial.

Jerome: I know your little boy Pierre. I heard you say that the real challenging for a son succeeding a genius father is to do better than his dad?

Jean-Claude Biver: I hope. What do I know I can only have hopes. I can only try to educate him in that direction and not to put much pressure on him. And not to put him too much in my shadow.

The father has a responsibility on how to educate kids, and how we must let his own kids become themselves. They have to become their own personalities.

If he goes and becomes an architect or doctor, he will be better than me as I have no clue about architecture or doctor.

If he comes into the watch business, of course I have been 37 years in the business, at the beginning I will be better than him. You must judge him in 37 years when he has the experience.

Three quick questions

Jerome: I don’t think I will be around to do that. There are three questions I like to ask as the show draws to a close. Quick questions.

If you were not in the watch business what would you be doing?

Jean-Claude Biver: I would do cheese.

Jerome: Not wine?

Jean-Claude Biver: Wine I would drink.

Jerome: We did not get a chance to talk about you Chateau wine collection.

Jean-Claude Biver: It is not my collection, it is for my kids they drink it the day I die.

Jerome: Who is the most important person in my life?

Jean-Claude Biver: The most important person in my life is my wife.

Jerome: What is the most important time of the day?

Jean-Claude Biver: That’s interesting. It depends on the day.

On most days it 7.30pm, when I have dinner in my home, with the family. And I sit and we all have dinner together, dinner means for us we are together and talk. We are happy to be together. I drink half a bottle of Bordeaux with my wife. That is a fantastic moment, it is a family moment. Its a moment where we gather its a moment of love and its a moment of we here we get the new energy.

For other days it can be excitement where I do something fantastic with Hublot. Like yesterday to go to the amfAR. It various but if I have to give one constant day, it is clear the 7.30 dinner.

Jerome: I will be thinking about your dinner tonight. Even-though you are in a different timezone. Thank you for talking. I wish you a safe trip back to Switzerland.

Jean-Claude Biver: Thank you.

Jerome Pineau | Website

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