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Straight-line thinking shows you the way to go

He’s a man with a mission. In an industry that is not exactly known for dramatic change, Jean-Claude Biver is like the ticking of the second hand, unrelenting in his search for new things. Biver was successful in rejuvenating the Blancpain brand and was responsible for the growth of Hublot and TAG Heuer.

Interview: Michael Köckritz Photo: Matthias Mederer 01.02.2019 8 min

A black glass office block not far from Lake Geneva. A heavy gate slowly opens, a guard meticulously checks everyone entering the building. Here, situated somewhat inconspicuously right off the motorway, are the headquarters of Swiss watchmaker Hublot. Jean-Claude Biver awaits us in a conference room. During the interview, the 69-year-old Biver is at times loud and assertive, he laughs, gesticulates, and even thumps his fist on the table every now and again. But he also listens, pauses to choose his words. That has a lot to do with respect, as he says. Respect for what others do. A central theme for Biver: “My greatest success is Ricardo Guadalupe.” Guadalupe is the current CEO of Hublot. “He started with me 25 years ago. We worked together for years, I challenged and encouraged him, and when he succeeded me as CEO in 2011, nobody noticed that it wasn’t me controlling the company anymore, but him. This man succeeded in continuing to manage the company in such a way that nobody noticed the change. That’s fantastic! That is a real success – because for me success is what you leave behind. If you don’t leave anything behind except maybe money, then you haven’t lived for anybody. You measure your success by the amount that you leave behind, the amount of knowledge that you pass on, the amount of love that you were able to give, and so on. That is the real purpose of life.”

We take a seat.

Mr. Biver, you often mention curiosity as one of your most important qualities. When was the last time you were really surprised by something?

I’m surprised of myself every day, of the fact that I’m alive, that I can smell, taste. But I suppose we’re not talking about those sorts of surprises. Okay, so when was the last time I was surprised professionally? Hmmm... when I saw the Porsche 911 GT3 Touring. That surprised me. I thought: that, in concentrated form, is a summary of what a Porsche 911 is all about today. Anyone who wants to have the essence of a 911 needs to buy this car.

You’re just saying that because we’re a car magazine.

No, I’m serious. When it comes to the whole history of the 911, this car gets to the heart of the matter conceptually. That surprised me because I find that to be very interesting. And only Porsche can do something like that because only Porsche has this unique form. Ferrari can’t really come up with a summary like that because Ferrari creates a new form and pursues a different concept with every model. This enormous industrial consistency, that is my most recent industry surprise.

And apart from the auto industry, what has surprised you?

Jeff Bezos surprised me with his idea to build a clock that is supposed to run forever, which will continue to tell time and show the position of the moon ten thousand years from now. And that he is willing to put up 45 million dollars for its development.

Why does that surprise you?

Because Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world and a leader in the digital here-and-now, is suddenly interested in eternity. I have to admit I would understand that from anyone else – if, for example, the Vatican had financed a project like this, then I would have understood it, that’s part of their philosophy – but Jeff Bezos? That really surprised me.

Do you think curiosity comes naturally?

No, unfortunately not. I think it is natural when you’re young. Children are curious by nature. A child is unintentionally curious. People are born curious, it helps us to grow up. The greatest challenge is to remain curious as an adult because knowledge comes from curiosity and suddenly you know things and you stop being curious. That’s a real shame. We should be giving adults lessons in curiosity. You have to constantly practice something to keep in shape. You need regular repetition, just like muscle training. Curiosity is natural from birth, but later it gets lost and we have to work deliberately at maintaining it. It’s the same way with learning. Children learn a language without anyone having to explain it to them, through curiosity and imitation. And so I send my son to China when he’s 20 years old and tell him: “You’re now going to learn Chinese.” And he looks at me and gets a headache just thinking about it and asks me: “Why?” So I explain to him that 1.5 billion people speak Chinese and they all learned the language without getting a headache. Curiosity and learning are part of being human. The problem is just that we stop being curious and we stop learning. But that’s when we start to get old.

That means you exercise your curiosity every day, like an athlete?

Basically, yes. Some people get up in the morning and do 100 push-ups. That’s normal for them. But that wouldn’t be normal for me, I’d rather go jogging. But I exercise my curiosity, in part to be aware of the fact that I’m alive. Often, we’re not really aware of that, we take it for granted. Only when we fall ill do we truly realise what it means to be healthy and alive. And that’s just how it is with curiosity. I have to constantly remind myself to be curious.

Jean-Claude Biver takes the watch off his wrist and passes it over to us. This is the first watch for which Hublot made the movement itself, out of titanium, with a magnesium case.

It means a lot to me. At the time, it was the lightest chronograph in the world. And I love cars, although they are completely unnecessary. Like the Porsche.

Now, a Porsche, like an expensive watch, is an established status symbol. Does the classic status symbol run the risk of being replaced? And what does that mean for the brands?

This could be a problem. Let me again try to demonstrate that with an example: A while ago, Cristal champagne by Louis Roederer suddenly became very popular with American rappers. They drank the stuff as if it were Coca-Cola and sprayed around with it at clubs and parties. They had a good time with it, that’s their culture. Treating expensive champagne as if it was some cheap sparkling wine was just part of it all. One day, in an interview, Louis Roderer said it pained him to see how people were treating his luxurious product. I think it was Jay-Z himself who then gave the order not to drink Cristal champagne anymore. His reasoning: if Mr. Roederer thinks he can tell us what to do with his champagne, he’s mistaken. We buy the stuff, so we can do with it what we want. So the boys stopped drinking Cristal. Much to Mr. Roederer’s dismay. Of course, you could argue about the rapper’s sense of value, but from the point of view of a businessman who sells a luxury product, I should never complain about my customers.

Is there anything that bores you?

Yes. Repetition. That bores me. I can’t even stand to do repetition. As an example, I don’t prepare my lectures. I give maybe 30 lectures a year, including at the World Economic Forum in Davos, but I don’t prepare anything. I sit down ten or fifteen minutes beforehand and go through a couple of ideas, but I don’t prepare anything because if I prepare something and then just repeat what I have prepared, then I ignore the audience, I don’t allow any room for things to develop. But it is important for me that something develops, and that depends on the audience. I then decide during the lecture: “Go this way or that.”

You don’t read a book twice or watch your favourite film more than once?

No. Repetition is my greatest weakness, I hate it. Always have. Already did back at school. .

Why do you see it as a weakness?

Because it is sometimes better to read something twice. (laughs) Or to just put it aside. My boss at Omega, where I started, told me: “When someone puts a new product on your desk, show no emotion, just let it lie there. For ten days. Then look at the product again and you’ll see that your emotion has changed.”

Are you able to that now?

A little.

How often did you look at the Porsche GT3 Touring before you bought it?

Not once.

VITA

Jean-Claude Biver was born in Luxembourg in 1949. Upon graduation with a degree in business, he discovered his passion for mechanical watches while completing a year’s training at Swiss watchmaker Audemars Piguet. Together with Frédéric Piguet, he revived the venerable Blancpain brand, which he later sold to the Swatch Group. He helped make Omega the Bond watch of choice and the most successful brand in the group before leaving the company in 2003 to take on a new adventure at Hublot. Today Biver is president of the watchmaking division of luxury group LVMH, which owns the brands Hublot, TAG Heuer and Zenith. The five-time father, who also runs a farm in the Swiss Alps, has been interim-CEO of TAG Heuer for the past three years and CEO of Zenith since January 2017.