back to top

Jean-Claude Biver Applauds Courage In Watch Industry, Pledges Self To Education

Jean-Claude Biver Applauds Courage In Watch Industry, Pledges Self To Education ABTW Interviews

I caught up with timepiece industry legend Jean-Claude Biver in Dubai, where he came to speak at Dubai Watch Week for a day en route to Hong Kong. In a few months, Jean-Claude Biver’s contract at LVMH — where we has worked since the mega French luxury group purchased “his” brand Hublot — will be up. It marks the 71-year-old’s formal departure from the watch industry, though he quickly points out he is not abandoning his “passion” (which is watches).

If anything can be said about the marketing genius, it is that he is always able to deliver a positive spin on most situations — including the current rough state of the larger watch industry. Jean-Claude Biver does not hesitate to admit that the watch industry has some core (and immediate) problems, but his outlook for the long-term future health of the watch industry remains positive. What Mr. Biver and I consistently agree on is that the core appeal of mechanical watches will endure despite the management problems at any given brand in today’s world. There is simply too much condensed emotional appeal possible in a timepiece for one or more dysfunctional groups to ruin it in the long term. He also happens to have some very pointed advice for the watch industry of today.

Jean-Claude Biver Applauds Courage In Watch Industry, Pledges Self To Education ABTW Interviews

Now twilighting out of his formal roles in the watch industry, Biver has been less shy about calling out the watch industry for much of its foolish behavior — including the fact that a corporate financially minded operating structure is probably antithetical to what a healthy watch brand needs to thrive. He blames “analysts” and “technocrats” who drudge through mere numbers and then make decisions based on reportable data, as being those responsible for the root causes of many of the problems facing the watch industry today. He also points out that, until such ways of thinking (and management) are eroded away, many brands will have little chance of rebounding in today’s markets. He laments the lack of courage he sees in most managerial roles across the timepiece industry space. I certainly agree, but what does he mean by this?

Mr. Biver points out that risk and creativity are what built this industry because timepieces are pieces of art formed by instinct — not number crunching. No art can be created by either committee or predictability. It must be organic, human and, to a degree, spontaneous. He blames a culture of always trying to account for ROI and future result predication as putting a stranglehold on the types of decisions and spending a modern luxury watch brand should be engaging in. He mocks managers who refuse to spend money on marketing because they cannot predict the direct return on investment before spending the first dollar. He told me a story about how an LVMH analyst asked him to report on the return on investment derived from Hublot’s spending marketing dollars on professional soccer. Mr. Biver simply responded to the analyst, “I have no idea! It isn’t measurable. What I know is that before we did the marketing, sales were lower, and now they are higher, enough so to pay off the marketing expenses and then some).”

Jean-Claude Biver Applauds Courage In Watch Industry, Pledges Self To Education ABTW Interviews

It took courage for Mr. Biver to spend huge sums of money on marketing without asking what the return will be. Courage like that is what he claims is currently missing in the watch industry where risk is to be avoided and following established history is the norm. Biver is of the belief that if a watch brand’s strategy is to follow that of someone else, then it has already failed. In a broad sense, where brands today thrive on their distinctiveness, he is absolutely correct. He also points out the foolishness of believing that you can predict future performance based on past success. “No two situations are the same!” he aggressively reminds no one in particular while earnestly trying to defeat the misguided belief among watch brand managers that they can find profit tomorrow by copying yesterday’s success that was enjoyed by someone else.

Advertisement

Biver also believes the watch industry has no choice but to further contract in size. A smaller watch industry appears to be the inevitable future. The industry produces too many watches, and with too little marketing to create demand for those watches. Mr. Biver further laments the lack of educational initiatives by both brands and retailers, designed to nurture watch novices to becoming full-blown collectors. The watch world of tomorrow — according to Biver — will be smaller before it ever gets bigger.

Jean-Claude Biver Applauds Courage In Watch Industry, Pledges Self To Education ABTW Interviews

Does that mean fewer customers or sales? Not necessarily. It does probably mean fewer brands and watches being produced. Jean-Claude Biver specifically warns about “dilution,” or the practices of watering down the appeal of really good purchase choices by producing too many not-so-good purchase choices. “Less is more” (according to Biver) is a virtue when it comes to a brand’s plans to come out with new models as well the volume of watches produced. In an industry still utterly saturated with too many watches, it will not be an easy road for brands to shift their strategy to focus on “sell-through” (watches sold to end-consumers) versus “sell-on” (watches sold at wholesale to retailers that need to later be sold to consumers).

Where Biver and I disagree somewhat is on the responsibilities of retailers. His legacy was, in part, formed by alliances with some of the world’s strongest retailers in major economic cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Singapore, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Paris, and London. Strong outlets to sell watches were the cornerstone of satisfying the demand for products created by the genius marketer. Yet, when I pressed on the industry’s responsibility to further empower watch retailers in the United States, he scoffed at the notion that retailers should be fully responsible for growing their markets. As a manager who has always advocated for working both very hard and thinking outside of the box, this makes sense to me, though I’m not sure how practical it is.

Jean-Claude Biver Applauds Courage In Watch Industry, Pledges Self To Education ABTW Interviews

The United States, for example, is now the largest importer of luxury Swiss watches in the world, as Hong Kong and China have booth seen considerable slowdowns. The United States is also one of the least developed major luxury watch markets in the world, having only a handful of good watch retailers despite the large size of the country and the many wealthy metropolitan zones. Most major watch brands in America likewise have skeleton crews of often only a few people to “manage” the entire market. The lack of serious retailer presence in the United States is not, in my opinion, related to poor retail culture but rather a lack of proper incentives. I don’t think that asking retailers to work hard to grow markets in uncertain times is going to see rapid results. Instead, I believe brands and retailers now more than ever need to enjoy a new era of cooperation (the strategy will vary from brand to brand of course) as opposed to allowing today’s high-level of distrust between the two parties from preventing growth in markets such as the United States. As someone who preaches the wise virtues of “love” and subsequent friendship, I don’t think Mr. Biver would disagree with this deeper assessment of the watch retailer problem.

Jean-Claude Biver Applauds Courage In Watch Industry, Pledges Self To Education ABTW Interviews

On many people’s minds is what Biver will do with his time after his contract with LVMH soon expires? Jean-Claude himself is leaving his options opens, admitting that he receives a fair number of offers. The savant who built the modern Omega into what it is, who created Blancpain as we know it, and who turned the money-losing Hublot into a mainstream luxury staple has outright rejected he start his own brand. “Is my ego not big enough?” responds Biver playfully when asked about the notion that he start his own watch brand.

Instead, Biver is dedicated to education and “giving back” to young people. Sprightly and energetic after some years of battling for better health, Biver is now on a serious speaking circuit. His favorite venues are university halls around the world. Just before meeting with me in Dubai, he was at Harvard speaking to a room of more than 1,000 students. As a popular speaker, he orates on far more than wristwatches — he also talks about business, management, innovation, humility, self-respect, and of course… love.

Jean-Claude Biver Applauds Courage In Watch Industry, Pledges Self To Education ABTW Interviews

For my part, I hope that Jean-Claude Biver will complete his educational journey by focusing again on the watch industry. Watch brand management as an educational field is only sparingly developed and barely formalized even in Switzerland. I see real need and opportunity for someone such as Biver to spearhead an educational effort to create tomorrow’s generation of watch brand managers through his personal teachings, as well as the creation of a curriculum.

For now, though, Jean-Claude Biver gets to enjoy life. His fans fawn, his friends openly host, and smiles greet him at all corners. It’s good to be Mr. Biver today, and I recommend that anyone take the chance to hear him speak in person given his characteristic charisma and charm. What I can guarantee is that Jean-Claude Biver’s authentic passion for timepieces and the art of collecting them will keep him close to the industry that needs him more than he needs it.

Read more about

Explore

Comments

Disqus Debug thread_id: 7734062475

  • SuperStrapper

    Legend

  • Jared

    I feel like Biver’s timing was just lucky and what he is pushing simply won’t work in this day and age

    when he came up his only competition was other big brands and it was all about getting retail presence. So as long as a brand could sign a retailer, they were golden.

    and the competition landscape was small, because the customer just had to pick from what was available in the AD they visited

    But today watch brands have the internet to compete with, where you have thousands of brands from all over the world fighting for customer attention. Fire up Instagram and its non-stop ads for all kinds of watch brands. Hell even on ABTW, in a month they cover what 100 new brands? When you have that many choices, the customers simply can’t narrow down their choices to actually pull a trigger

    • SuperStrapper

      Look at the guy’s resume. Tell me about someone who’s done more in this industry.
      To shrug it off as simply good timing is ridiculous: he’s been winning non-stop since the early 80s!

      • Berndt Norten

        He’s been winning so much, he got tired.
        He left at the top
        Wasn’t fired

        He certainly deserves more credit than any other individual for keeping interest in mechanical watches alive.

    • I totally disagree with your oversimplification and assessment of Mr.JCB and attributing everything to luck and chance. Have you met Mr. JCB by any chance? I have.

      Go online and Google “The Life and Times of Jean-Claude Biver, a Swiss Watch Legend” by Bloomberg or the scores of articles about him, if you’re interested.Otherwise Let’s Agree to Disagree.

  • Lingua Franca

    Biver is to Carlo Crocco like Ray Kroc is to the McDonald brothers.

    • Yeah, except to his credit JCB does not litter his stores with “Founder” brass plaques.

  • Mark B

    I’ve had the occasion to speak with Mssr. Biver a couple times over the years. His personality certainly fills the room. I wish him the best in his future endeavors.

  • I have not seen JCB in the flesh since BaselWorld 2016 or so. He certainly has aged and looks thinner. Seeing the photos here, I was pretty worried about his health until reading near the end of the post that his health and energy are good.

    While I often found his statements to be bombastic (can you find the letters B and S in bombast?), he is certainly charismatic and successful with multiple brands – as Ariel said, he is a marketing genius despite (or perhaps because of) his loose association with the absolute truth. I wish him well and hope he continues to mentor the watch industry.

    And his cheese is delicious too.

    • Berndt Norten

      Leave it to Biver
      To go out in style
      He’s ahead of his peers
      By a country mile

      • Ulysses31

        In his customised go-kart
        Its wheels made of cheese
        He passes them by
        (It’s “fabriqué en Suisse”)

  • Raymond Wilkie
  • Timestandsstill

    But he has been succeeding in today’s market….. if anything he is retiring at the peak of his career

  • Raymond Wilkie

    Did you watch all of this Berndt?
    It was interesting enough but what it has to do with the subject of the conversation is lost on me.
    Did you mean he was long winded or something?
    Your comment was ridiculous. ( IMO )
    Is it a bit ironic that you post a video about sentence contruction when your comment is badly contructed.
    ( Did i use ironic in it’s proper context, I’ve never sure? )

    • Berndt Norten

      I had already seen the video, Raymond. Yes, all of it. Pinker is brilliant. What he has to do with this particular post is lost on me, but I don’t mind.

    • Esteban

      My comment is badly constructed on purpose, should’ve ended with /s.

  • Berndt Norten

    I love Steven Pinker. What a great public intellectual. Admittedly, he sometimes writes a dud, but there is more wisdom in “How the Mind Works” and “The Blank Slate” than most of us will conjure up in our entire careers.

    • Esteban

      Yes, great books both of them! There are several like Pinker: there’s Sean Carroll, Jim Al-Hkalili, Enrique Dussel, Alfredo Jalife, Anil Seth, David Tong, Irving Finkel… each in his field of course.

  • Berndt Norten

    He’s the Steve Winwood of the industry.

    • egznyc

      Did he do that song too? I thought it was Santana.

      He had a dream
      But it required a team
      What we thought was luck
      That must have been pluck
      When I looked at Breden’s wrist
      It looked like Chaykin’s Joker
      But it was the Clown
      Fate must have woke her
      Because lady luck she was
      Waiting outside the door
      He’s winning …

      • Berndt Norten

        I believe Winwood’s song is called “I’m winning” and Santana’s is simply “Winning.”

    • SuperStrapper

      No one ever says Blind Faith when the supergroup conversation comes up.

  • Dan F

    Which ones? Besides Hublot, He has worked on so many brands with completely different styles….

    • Esteban

      I blame all modern unreadable skeletons on him.

  • Dan F

    For an old guy with health issues, he sure acts younger and has more energy than a dozen millennials! How is that possible? Probably a lot of it has to do with his positive outlook. Sorry to see him retiring, but I’m sure he’ll still keep busy. I think he is right about supply and demand, and the shrinking luxury watch market. Certainly his advice to create and innovate is good. It’s nice to have choices, but I think vintage the trend will also continue. Some top brands like Patek will always stay in that comfort zone. AP on the other hand….

  • Wow – interesting. I didn’t know his medical history was that public. This getting old thing sucks…

  • Bon Vivant

    Having worked with the top brands of both Swatch Group and Richemont I will say that the key to growing their presence in the USA is to stop putting Europeans in the top US executive positions and start hiring Americans. And stop, for gods sake, micromanaging from Switzerland.

  • Red Barn Blankets

    Trying to develop an interest in horology, maybe as a part time hobby or to keep me busy as I grow older, but, as mentioned, it is difficult, resources are scarce or outdated .. yes their are some universities with dedicated courses but being semi-retired and with a family they are basically inaccessible. It would be nice to be more informed. For me, as silly as it may sound, the industry and work as a whole came to my attention through a tv series by the name of “Grimm” where one of the characters repairs watches as his profession.

    – Karlton

    • Tyron Vogt

      Hi Red Barn Blankets,

      You should check out the FHH Academy (a part of the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie). They give courses to non-watch professionals and have outlets all over the world. They have 3 levels, from beginner to expert.

      https://fhhacademy.hautehorlogerie.org/

  • Drop files here or
    Accepted file types: jpg, png.