An interview with Jean-Claude Biver

Interviews • 23 Jun 2017

An interview with Jean-Claude Biver

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Jean-Claude Biver can take a breather, now that he’s stepped down as Zenith’s interim CEO after appointing Julien Tornare as its new chief executive. Yet, the man still triple hats within LVMH, as head of the group’s watch division, CEO of TAG Heuer, and chairman of the board at Hublot. It’s a good thing he relishes these challenges and has the energy to stay on top of things despite being 68 this year – the man flew into Singapore and barely stayed for 20 hours, before jetting off to Hong Kong to meet his son for an afternoon and heading back to Singapore for his return leg to Switzerland. Despite his intense schedule, he made an effort to sit and chat with us about the changes that are afoot with TAG Heuer and Zenith.

Jean-Claude Biver
Jean-Claude Biver

When we last spoke in November, you mentioned that since taking over as CEO at TAG Heuer, you had done 85% of what you set out to do, although only 35% had manifested. How far along are you now?

Baselworld 2017 revealed only another 10%. We still have another 40% that’s done, and waiting to be shown in the next few years. There is still a lot to come.

Do you see yourself reaching an “end game” at TAG Heuer? When will you hand over its management to a successor, like what you did with Hublot?

Handing over the role of CEO is a must. My job is to become unnecessary, and retire, because you are only successful when you leave, and business continues going up without you. I must bring the brand and its people to such a level that when I’m no longer around, things go on. I want to do this in seven years, because I will be 75 by then, and you can’t foresee how you’ll be at that age. If I feel as well then as I do now, then maybe I will go on for another five, 10 years. After that, who knows?

What is it about TAG Heuer that keeps you going?

My energy comes from my passion, and passion doesn’t diminish. You may lose your health and memory, but you don’t lose your passion, whatever your age. What I’m particularly passionate about at TAG Heuer are the history of the brand, which I’m responsible for as CEO, and the product development and innovation that’s taking place, which I love.

Indeed, TAG Heuer has a rich heritage that it can draw inspiration from, like the Autavia that was re-released this year. What are your thoughts on reissues?

I don’t like to remake vintage watches, because when you do so, you make no contribution to the future –  you are only copying the past. Do you think this is a good way to conduct business? I don’t think so. This business of nostalgia, of making watches that look like the old ones, is not my passion. My passion is innovation; I want to contribute to the development of the future, not copy from the past. Of course, we won’t stop making these watches completely, but we will limit them to just a few pieces. We did the Autavia specially because of Jack Heuer, who will be 85 later this year. He was the man behind the watch, so we decided to celebrate his birthday with a special edition, to honour him and thank him for his contributions to the brand. If we didn’t have this emotional reason, we wouldn’t have re-released the Autavia.

TAG Heuer Autavia reissue leather strap
The reissued TAG Heuer Autavia

Even though it was a re-issue of sorts, the new Autavia wasn’t developed in the traditional manner. You had a process of online voting for fans to pick their favourite reference.

Yes, that was important to us. In this age, we thought that we should ask our customers and collectors, and give a voice to them. If we should release a re-edition, they should have an input to select which one. So, we gave the community a few choices, 50,000 people voted, and we made the most popular one.

Jack Heuer portrait
Jack Heuer

What are your thoughts about this new way of engaging with customers, both potential and actual ones? Omega, for example, did Speedy Tuesday.

I think it’s the future. We should use these communication channels, because the more you engage collectors, the more you make them interested in your brand and products. Just a few years ago, this would not have been possible. We should take advantage of this ability to communicate with anybody today – you don’t even need to know their names or addresses to reach them! Like you said, Omega did #SpeedyTuesday. We have #MondayMonday, on the first Monday of every month, where we sell limited numbers of a special item, with the profits going to the Make-A-Wish foundation. It’s a good way to do small, limited runs of an item. I think the next one, on the first Monday of July, is going to be 500 jerseys from Manchester United, which have been signed by the entire team.

Communications and distribution channels aside, as head of LVMH’s watch division you’ve also pushed for new products. At Baselworld this year, for example, we saw Zenith’s Defy 21, with a new hairspring made of a new carbon-matrix carbon nanotube composite. At TAG Heuer’s booth, Guy Semon [general manager of TAG Heuer] then showed us a new escapement design made using this material. Are you able to share more about this new technology?

Yes. It will be launched on 14 September this year, under Zenith.

Zenith Defy El Primero 21
Zenith Defy El Primero 21

But the prototype was a TAG Heuer watch.

The prototype movement was put inside a TAG Heuer case, but the final product will be a Zenith watch. This new regulator uses the same material as the Defy 21’s hairspring, and the movement’s rate will not vary with temperature changes, or magnetism. Its stability is its biggest advantage.

What kind of accuracy are we looking at?

It can be as little as one to two seconds a day, and this is for a movement that will be in serial production. We can more or less guarantee one second per day, in any position, and at whatever power reserve level. No variation.

Why did you choose to release the new escapement exclusively in a Zenith watch?

Within the group, Zenith is the specialist in chronometric certification. It has won 2,332 chronometry prizes, more than anyone else, so this new technology is more suited for Zenith’s DNA. We will probably sell it to the others, but Zenith will have it exclusively for a few years, before we let TAG Heuer or other brands have it.

Was this an LVMH level effort as well, just like the carbon-matrix carbon nanotube composite hairspring?

Yes, yes it was. In fact, it was the same team that was responsible, and the ideas developed in tandem. We will continue with our research in these areas, of course, and even reinforce the team with new members.

Guy Semon also shared that the development was partially a business decision: this new technology was supposed to help LVMH wean off its reliance on externally sourced hairsprings.

Yes, because why not? That went together with our other goals. We thought that if this innovation were to become successful, it would give us more autonomy from suppliers. It was not the major purpose of innovation, but it is a consequence of it.

The other exciting development at Zenith was your appointment of Julien Tornare as its new CEO. This may seem counterintuitive – a casual observer may think that it’s better for you to pass TAG Heuer’s management onto somebody else, since it’s already stable, and concentrate on Zenith yourself.

It’s good that you say that TAG Heuer is stable. For me, however, there is still a lot to do at TAG Heuer, because I’ve only been here for two years, and I need more time. You cannot be at Zenith if you are not 100% involved due to its size –  the smaller a brand is, the less people it has, so the more functions the boss must fill. You cannot be CEO of Zenith if you don’t work 20 hours a day there. But, you can be the chairman of Hublot just by working there one day a week.

Julien Tornare, Zenith new CEO
Julien Tornare, Zenith’s new CEO

And is this because Hublot is already big enough, and has a sufficiently large team?

Exactly. When I took over Hublot in 2004, I could not be there just one day a week, and I had to do everything myself. But the more it grew, the more people we could recruit. The same goes for Zenith: it is still small, so we needed a CEO that can work 20 hours a day there as soon as possible. I could do 20 hours a day at Zenith, but I will need to give up all the other functions I’m performing now, so the top priority was to find a CEO for Zenith.

From your past interviews you’ve given the impression that Zenith is sometimes a bit of a problem child within the LVMH family…

…no, it is not that. Because Zenith is so small, you tend not to take sufficient care of it. Even if you devote a lot of time to Zenith, and reap enormous profits percentage-wise, in absolute terms the earnings are still next to nothing on the group level. Because of this, people didn’t really care, since Zenith didn’t make much of a difference whether it made money or not.

The overlooked child, then.

Yes, it’s the overlooked child, not the problem child, and we will look after it properly now.

What made you pick Mr Tornare over the other candidates?

I thought he was the right guy, because his attitude and his experience are right. He’s an entrepreneur, and he’s ready to be a one-man show. When I got in touch with him I told him that he would have to come to Switzerland to meet me. He said, “I will come whenever you want, no problem at all. I will fly in to meet you, and fly out on the same day.” He was still based in Hong Kong at that time, mind you, so I thought to myself, “Wow, flying in and out like this, just like me. He is probably the right guy.” Normally, other people will go, “Ah, my agenda this, my wife that, blah blah blah.” Not him – he was very flexible.

How will this overlooked child fit into the LVMH portfolio and grow then?

Every brand has its own DNA, and its own message. It’s like having three restaurants: a pizzeria, a fish restaurant, and a hamburger shop. It’s all food, but the three are all very specific, so you can run them all, and serve different consumers. And some consumers may choose to eat pizza one day, and fish the next. This is what makes the LVMH watch division strong – each brand has its own DNA, products, and consumer. If you have Piaget, Vacheron Constantin, and A. Lange & Söhne, then it’s troublesome, because these three will eventually talk to the same customer. However, if you have Swatch, Rado, and Breguet, there is no conflict.

Thank you Mr Biver.

(Interview and words: Jamie Tan)


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