The myth of Jean-Claude Biver is as much a man, as the man himself. While many people wouldn’t necessarily consider the CEO of a watch brand a celebrity or an icon; to watch lovers and people working in the industry, few people have the level of respect and close to attention that Mr. Biver enjoys. And enjoy it he does. The prize for the man’s calculated efforts is a sense of pride and a pat-on-the-back attitude that comes naturally. Bright-faced and wide-eyed, Jean-Claude Biver (JCB) often has the enthusiasm of a teenager. Nevertheless, Jean-Claude prefers the simple joys in life, and is approachable in a way that can’t be said for most men at the helm of high profile brands. Aside from his deeds as a watch maker, Biver is amusingly known second best for his famous cheese making — a true Swiss, he does not disappoint.
I had a rare opportunity to spend time with Mr. Biver on what I can only describe as a “bring your journalist to work day.” I fly to Switzerland, and travel to the Hublot headquarters outside of Geneva in Nyon. This is where the magic happens, and where so many watch industry eyes are permanently focused.
If Hublot is loved by watch consumers, JCB is loved by watch industry people. My lifestyle involves participating in conversations with people from many watch brands. Few times does a name come up more often than Biver — even more so than Mr. Hayek of the Swatch Group. There is an almost universal sense of respect and awe aimed at JCB and what he has done with Hublot. It also makes employees of his competitors want his watches — which most of the time they simply aren’t able to do without upsetting their boss.
The story of Hublot is really only as interesting as Jean-Claude Biver’s (JCB) contribution to the Swiss watch brand. In 2004 the well-known captain of horology took charge of the failing brand. JCB saw Hublot as a challenge. Something with potential, but potential that only had a limited lifespan before it needed to be saved. Hublot was dying. Suffering annual losses at the time JCB stepped in, something seemingly so far in the past given what Hublot is today. Prior to Hublot, JBC led Blancpain, and also put it on the map. Before that, Omega. JCB is a lifetime watch industry man. He has been in the watch world since the 1970s. While other watch brands clamor to find talent from outside industries, Biver gives good fuel to the argument that to have success in the watch industry you really need to know the watch industry.
If JCB has one talent, it is how to make watches that people want to buy. The Big Bang should proof enough of that. He isn’t a watch maker, nor does he pretend to be. He is brand maker though. He knows how to connect with what I will refer to as “desirable auras.” You might see Hublot being advertised all over the place, but it isn’t exactly simply advertising. JCB is of the school of thought that when your name is connected to something, your name gets a part of that media, event, person, etc…, like osmosis. When JCB chooses to sponsor an event or select an Hublot brand ambassador, it is with the utmost of intent. If that person or thing is widely-known, respected, and gets people excited, it just might be a winner. For me, some of Hublot’s biggest successes have been to connect with Formula One and the FIFA World Cup. Imagine for a moment what an immensely big deal it was for Hublot to solidify a deal as the official timekeeper of the World Cup. Almost no one other than JCB could likely have swung such a deal. In addition to the incredible new level of brand notoriety, the awareness of the brand has sky rocketed. I got to see the website stats for Hublot.com during the month of June while the World Cup was going on. We are talking a traffic spike that looks like Mount Everest.
It is the morning in Switzerland during the summer. Whatever you may say about Switzerland, you can’t claim it isn’t a beautiful place. I am sitting next to Mr. Biver on the way to the office. Two of his boys are in the back seat of the Porsche. No worries, it is the sedan. JCB is bringing them to work as well. It is the summer, and as school is out, they are bringing skateboards and hanging out at Hublot. JCB describes Hublot as a family and explains his managements style. He wants a close level of connection between his employees and the perception that everyone is their own boss. He moves his hand in straight line to explain that there isn’t a hierarchy at the brand. People all have different roles, and the only boss is himself. He doesn’t say it, but I have feeling his personal management style doesn’t involve micro managing. He simply sets expectations from people, and for the most part, gives them the freedom to produce as they see fit. “We are a start-up,” JCB declares about Hublot. While the brand isn’t new, its success is. It has had about 5 years of boom, and as far as JCB seems to be concerned, the brand’s life before him doesn’t count.
I know start-ups. I live in San Francisco and have visited my share of them. Based on JCB’s management style, the loose arrangement of job titles and duties, and the quick decision making, Hublot doesn’t fall-outside of the term. Whether it is a start-up or not, it has the feeling of one. A highly profitable, widely know, and individual product start-up. The thought crosses my head that Hublot is the eBay of watch companies. Hublot has a good system for keeping interesting and sales high. The tough part for any CEO is maintaining that. Like a proud CEO, JCB spits out a few important selling points about his company. Profits that would make most watch brands this size red in the face and shamed at their performance comparatively, no debt, no loans, no leases, no liabilities, no BS. It is un-believe how easy this man makes it all seem, running and growing Hublot. He has in incredible talent for persuasively communicating a plan or an idea. He has the type of charisma that would make mowing a lawn or sitting in traffic sounds like the best way to spend an afternoon. He has used this talent to sell the idea of Hublot to the world, as much as the products themselves. JCB’s reputation is built on his ability to be a good business person in an industry notorious for not having the best business people. But at the same time, his rock-star status is built on how he goes about it.
Unless you know Jean-Claude, it might not occur to you that he is a good listener. Perhaps surprisingly he is, even humble in many ways. He is remarkably receptive to ideas and advice — at least when it comes to listening them. JCB likes to mention that he makes quick decisions doesn’t engage in the typical long and drawn out Swiss process of deciding how to do things. As Swiss as his cheese making is, JCB isn’t a typical Swiss manager. His thought process is much more cerebral than it is committee based.
The Mr. Biver that many people know is one that announces decisions with an urgency and spontaneity so bold, you’ll feel like you are listening a prophet is speaking immediately after receiving word from a higher power. Even if it seems as though he comes up with an idea or decision on the spot, JCB leaves you feeling unequivocally convinced that his decisions are correct, because you get the impression that he is so convinced.
The spontaneity may be a bit for show. JCB is Swiss after all, and spontaneity isn’t exactly in their DNA. JCB is rather a man with a plan, who carefully considers his delivery thereof. A ‘plan’ being the operative word. JCB if anything, is a careful planner by my observations. Years of experience has taught him not only hard and fast rules, but how motivate people. I doubt JCB’s mind is ever neglectful of considering his next big move. This dual talent is important. Not only can he effectively make decisions on his own, but he has learned how to convey his plans and ideas to others. Getting a Jean-Claude “presentation” is an honor. You’ll never be happier to be convinced of anything in your life.
It is this reason that Hublot is such a success, not the only reason, but an essential ingredient. There are plenty of other brands with good designs, but no vocal souls. JCB is the face and voice of the entire brand’s image. There is a little Biver sensation in each Hublot watch, a fact that makes me want one so badly. JCB will never let you forget about Hublot either. Regardless of whether or not you feel as though the volume of limited edition models coming from the brand is humorous, you are continuously left thinking about the brand. Not only that, but so are other people. So if you are a lucky owner of an Hublot watch, you can be sure enough on looking envious people recognize your wrist prize because JCB has made sure they too are thinking about the brand.
Hublot’s building is quite literally the shape of a box. Square and black, it feels like a suitable, complimentary look to house the brand’s activity. The Hublot’s black box is surrounded by green. There is very little industrial about farmland. Forget that most of Switzerland feels like farmland. I am reminded by the Robin William’s movie, Toys. If you recall the movie, you’ll know what I mean.
JCB grabs his soft briefcase from car and we walk in Hublot. You see “Biverian” phrases on the windows where terms like “passion” and “fusion” pop out at you. He is really proud of the lobby. “Fusion” for Biver Is mantra, not just a marketing gimmick. At the Hublot headquarters fusion takes the form of combing the old and the new, as well as the classic and the modern. Half of the lobby is decorated in some type of Louis XIV revival style, while the other half is modern. Hublot branded items are seen in various places, as well as gifts to the brand. A Big Bang coffee table in wood that was so popular on the internet for a while is sitting there. Someone made it specially for JCB, and he loves to show the thing off, it is rather cool looking. The building is decorated with Hublot memorabilia as well as gifts to the brand. There are reminders everywhere of who the brand is associated with, and their appreciation to Mr. Biver. Notable for me is a signed guitar from Depeche Mode (Hublot created a one of a kind limited edition set of Big Bang watches with Depeche Mode album covers on it that were auctioned off for charity), as well as a massive (and I mean massive) Manchester United football (soccer) team book. That book was probably over 2 feet by 2 feet and weight over 50 pounds.
JCB is greeted by the Hublot brand staff. They treat him with the reverence a boss deserves, as well as a slight level of intimidation. Not out of fear, but more that JCB has a very assertive and direct personality, which is in contrast to the more tranquil and reserved Swiss personality many people are familiar with. In fact, one of JCB’s most notable characteristics is his habit of “passionate annunciation” as I will call it. The volume of his thoughts is quite well equal his conviction — and manifests itself as a friendly reminder of why JCB often welcomes you with a flushed face.
Today is special because Jean-Claude gets to show me the new factory space. He does it himself of course. He does most things himself. JCB is a very hands-on boss, a quality I highly respect. The man is dedicated to his work, the brand, and the people who are there to work with him. Hublot is undergoing a lot of exciting changes, and it tells. That “start-up” company excitement is apparent in a build the brand hasn’t quite grown into. At least not yet. In the fall Hublot will announce officially its manufacture and the full scale production of the UNICO movement to replace the Valjoux 7750 in most of their watches. The UNICO is an in-house movement, and actually better than a 7750. Due diligence forced me to seriously grill the movement designer who invented the UNICO. I got more than I bargained for in response to my questions. A lot of technical data and computer simulations later, I am proud to say that the UNICO is not merely an in-house movement for the sake of having an in-house movement, but an improvement on the very hard to improve upon 7750. Though I’ll save a discussion about the UNICO for another time.
JCB illustrates to me with his hands rooms that are to be filled with machinery and watch maker benches. He couldn’t be more excited about the expansion. Even today, there are workers in the building slowly making arrangements and preparing for everything to be installed. Don’t be confused though, Hublot is already a manufacture, it just doesn’t produce as much as it soon will. Hublot already makes and assembles many of its complex tourbillion watches in-house from scratch (just like mom used to make), and assembles, finishes, and tests their entire collection here. Hublot has the budget to buy some of the best machines, and it is exciting to see Hublot watches in various states of assembly. Despite the myth of the brand and its contemporary demeanor, Hublot timepieces share much with other high-end timepieces in how they are produced, finished, and assembled.
Like a teenager, JCB loves his iPhone and Facebook. He spends a good deal of his day on his computer answering e-mails and is never apart from his phone. He honestly makes his job look easy and relaxed — sitting in a relatively unpretentious office with his wheat-field view smiling at the computer. While his job isn’t easy, he has it down to a system. He’s polished the art of running a watch brand, and the business as a whole. JCB makes sure Hublot isn’t a bloated company with lots of wastes space, time, and people. Carefully, Jean-Claude adds roles and employees when they are honestly needed, Hublot is a lean company which helps it be so agile, with highly active employees. No wonder boss Biver doesn’t need to babysit.
A character in the new Hublot closet is Mathias Buttet, formerly of BNB Concept. If you don’t know, BNB Concept was a very high-end watch movement maker that recently dissolved after filing for bankruptcy. Hublot was one of BNB Concept’s customers, buying from them complex, custom made tourbillion movements. BNB Concept died because it couldn’t collect money from a number of insolvent customers, all victims of the poor economy. Hublot was one of the only regularly paying customers of BNB Concept (but there were others as well). Almost immediately after I announced that BNB Concept was sadly closed, I reported that they were partially saved. While BNB concept no longer exists, Buttet, part of his team, and the Confrerie Horlogere were bought by Hublot. JCB bought much of the assets in a concerted decision to keep the theme of BNB Concept alive. While at Hublot I was excited to see the new Confrerie. Under Hublot, it will still make highly limited, expensive, complex watches Mathias is free to do what he likes best. He is actually much happier now. He remarks his joy for the ability to exercise his passion and get a steady paycheck. An artist through and though, he is also a walking contradiction. Buttet personally speaks his disinterest in wearing watches, but when you see him handle a mechanical wonder that he created, his face lights up in a different way and you see a totally different side of him. Buttet doesn’t even pay attention to watch media or what else is out there. He prefers that is work not be at all influenced by what others are doing. I can’t say that I would do the same, but I highly respect his desire for creative purity, and the isolation needed to temper his craft. Likely in another post on aBlogtoRead.com, I will share some more of the interesting items that Buttet shared with me. The Confrerie Horlogere will operate totally separately from Hublot design and production – even having their own machines. There is a distinct “home brew” feel in Buttet’s quadrant. Things get a bit more modern and industrial on the Hublot side, until you get to the work benches that is.
All watch manufactures are split up into two main areas: production and assembly/finishing. Production is where the parts are actually made. This is where the mega bucks machines live and doing their work quietly. Amazing inventions, an assortment of modern wonders are programmed to produce the tiny plates, pinions, and gears (etc…) that go into each watch. Here engineers work, in calm, slightly chemically smelling chambers which are well lit and remarkably peaceful. Go to the other side of things and you’ll find watchmakers in white robes sitting at high desks which operate similar to those from hundreds of years ago. A white environment is kept extremely clean. JCB points out how clean the manufacture is – clean enough to eat off of. It probably is. Watch manufactures are quite operations, and the workers peacefully go about the delicate process of making watches. I stroll by with camera in hand. Some appreciate the opportunity to be immortalized in watch related media with a loupe over their eye. Others shy away from the ordeal – as though they chose watch making to be introverted. The characters at Hublot (like most modern manufactures) are young and upbeat. Despite the slowness of making little machines, there is an energetic feeling in the halls.
A likely reaction to the fact that Hublot is growing. As I said, the manufacture will be larger by the winter of 2010, and Hublot will be making thousands of movements a year. I wonder what Hublot will be like a few years from now. Mature with their in-house movements, new models, and a legion of new fans and owners. Hublot is poised to be a new phenomenon in luxury sport watches. The gold standard in marketing, design, and image. Image being the most important part of it.
Wearing an Hublot watch will be more than just about the design and the movement – but will also have a little bit of each event or activity the JCB has aligned the brand with. I mention this concept to him and he smiles. The connection being obvious to him as it was his intention all along. Hublot is a lifestyle, not just a watch. Hublot owners want to life the Hublot ideal. To be like its ambassadors, to think of the events it partners with each time they look at the watch. Is there a little bit of World Cup in each glance at your Big Bang? To many there may be. JCB is strangely quiet about the topic of endorsements and further brand connections. Though he does smirk at my questions. I can tell he has a lot more planned up his sleeve for the future.
It was terribly sad news when I learned that Swatch Group founder and chairman Nicolas Hayek passed away in late June 2010. JCB himself being a Swatch Group graduate worked and learned under Hayek. He was sad to see his old mentor depart, but perhaps now has large shoes to fill. As loud and forward minded as Hayek (though in a different way), JCB is of the only people the watch industry can look to now for guidance. He has thrust himself in a position of trust and respect. Now he has a responsibility not only to Hublot, but the industry as a whole. It is true that JCB is not the next in line to Hayek’s paternal spot, but I have a feeling he will see the sting of eager eyes looking to him to help steer the massive, slow turning ship of horology that once was just something for him to comment on.
I mentioned that Jean-Claude wasn’t a watch maker. This is true, but he is a watch lover. He is living his passion. From large brands to small brands, he has dedicated his professional life to the Swiss watch industry. JCB is also an avid watch collector. The bank holds his treasures, but treasures he has. I was amazed to learn that JCB is one of the new people who bid on those massively expensive Patek Philippe watch auctions. In fact, aside from Hublot, Patek Philippe is his other love. JCB does not wear Patek Philippe watches – he merely collects them. They are precious items, not to be worn. I understand him actually. This is the hallmark of a true collector. Never ruin the corpus of your collection with risky handling. Especially when some of these watches are easily in the million dollar plus range.
JCB is a smart collector as well. He watches most of the major watch auctions but knows his stuff. Never bidding on items that simply recirculate through the hands of collectors looking to make a quick buck. JCB looks for the unique and the rare. Items either never before in auction, or having seen long absences from the public world. It is a joy to listen to him talk of the intricacies of watch collecting and Patek Philippe. His reverence for Thierry Stern, the CEO of Patek Philippe is sincere. He does see the brand as a shining jewel in the watch industry. Though again, when it comes to wearing watches, he is partial to Hublot. Of which he has many. Making it clear to me that each Hublot watch he wears, he purchases himself. His house is an Hublot household. His wife and children are all dedicated Hublot lovers. Each faithful to father with an Hublot on their wrists.
It isn’t that much different back at Hublot Headquarters – most people you see are representing the brand proudly. Jean-Claude is modern in style when it comes to days at the office. iPhone in hand, he strolls around texting and answering e-mails with regularity. Back at his desk, JCB spend much of the day intently looking at his large computer screen managing his life on Facebook, and responding to e-mails. He is noted in the watch industry as being a man who is uniquely reachable. If you send Jean-Claude an e-mail, chances are he will read it and get back to you if it isn’t too much trouble. The lack of artificial barrier between the leadership of the brand and the world is an important part I believe in Hublot’s organizational flexibility, and JCB’s awareness of the brand’s salient issues and opportunities. It flies in the face of the stereotypical ignorant, outdated executive that most people picture sitting in ivory towers atop the corporate world.
Hublot and JCB are intrinsically connected now, and in the future, Hublot will be part of Mr. Biver’s legacy. People have speculated whether or not Hublot will retain JCB, or whether he will find new problem brands to fix. JCB states no such intent. Hublot is fun, and he loves where it is going. With the new movements, new models, and new connections the brand will make, he has years left of work to do. JCB also seems to like his life right now. Not far from his home, the manufacture is a calm drive through the country side and he enjoys his calm estate with its manicured lawn, dairy cows, and lovely view of Lake Geneva. JCB boasts that a few hours at home are like a single day’s worth of vacation. A state of lifestyle tranquility that most people would (and do) work a lifetime to achieve.
Left with many questions answered about just what the legendary Mr. Biver is like, I have more respect for him, having a better understanding of his ideas and his accomplishments. His business sense and charismatic pontification are a needed counter to the quiet and careful ways of the watch world. His fervor is passion, and in the end, he does what he loves.