Earlier this month we had the genuine pleasure to welcome Mr Jean-Claude Biver to Brussels for an interview with us. What a pleasure, what a privilege. He is as much a man as he is a force of nature, seemingly unstoppable, relentless, or even restless.
About twelve months ago he stepped down as President of LVMH’s Watch Division. Anyone other than Mr. Biver would likely enjoy a nice and calm retirement at that point. But of course, not Mr. Biver. We discussed a variety of topics, on and off-camera and time simply flew by. The video interview has been split up in two parts. This first part is focusing on the man himself, and what he might be planning next.
In PART I of this unscripted interview Jean-Claude Biver talks about how he got where he is today, his passion for watches and the potential brand he could imagine launching in the future.
Jean-Claude Biver has a remarkable track record and has had a big impact on today’s watch industry. There is as far as I’m concerned no equal. His work at Omega is still visible today, the incredible resurrection of Blancpain, the stellar rise of Hublot. As a result, he has been called a titan, a living legend, a marketing genius and even an institution! Looking back at his career, we ask him how he actually sees himself.
One of the most recognizable faces and names in the industry. A man and a brand that stands for innovation, fearlessness, success and a love and passion for watches. We ask him, why not use the next 20 years to train and mentor a team, transmit knowledge like he has stated, give back, by creating his very own watch brand? His answer, might surprise you.
Gifted with what seems to be an endless reserve of enthusiasm, we also talk about setbacks and tough situations. In Mr Biver’s schedule, it seems there is no time for negativity.
I hope you enjoy this interview as much as we did. A most memorable day and conversation, with an exceptional person.
TRANSCRIPT OF THE VIDEO BELOW:
Jan: We had the absolute pleasure to welcome Jean-Claude Biver in Brussels. He flew in to talk to us about how he’s doing, what he’s doing and to share his unique perspectives. The man is simply unequaled in today’s watch industry so please enjoy this fantastic interview with mr. Biver.
Jean-Claude Biver: Yeah this is a Patek Phillipe reference 5070 in white white gold. That I love it, you can see the bracelet there’s a lot of traces because I wear it quite often. And here I’ve got a Rolex Daytona rainbow. And my wife tells me this is not for you… I said yes I understand it’s not for me but I like it and it’s not for me but as I like it I wear it. Because I love, yes I wear watches with my heart. But which what do you wear the most mr. Biver.
I don’t wear always two watches, usually one and number two I love this Patek but I also love the watch that helped me the most. It’s the Bigger Band all black from Hublot. This watch I have started to wear it in 2005 and honestly I think till I became ill I have been wearing this watch 90% of the time and this watch is my lucky one. This watch has brought me so much fun so much happiness so much success that I will never be able not to have it close to me. It’s like my bag, I have a bag that I have since 1982 and this bag has done all my career. This bag one day I love to give to one of my children to say voila put your files in this bag.
Jan: How do you see yourself?
Jean-Claude: I see myself as somebody who has understood that to be strong, to be successful I need around myself a lot of help. I believe that I need help, I also have understood that help should come from people that are better than me. I have people around myself, the oldest person has been with me since 49 the latest person has joined me at Omega in 96 and all these people have been with me since 79. And they have given me extraordinary help. When you get a lot of help there is suddenly a momentum that starts and this momentum is like an avalanche. It gets bigger and bigger and bigger.
Can you imagine that I have worked on five brands and the person from 79 has joined me, has followed me in these five brands? Some have followed me only in three because somebody started in 96… Nevertheless this tip – and that is what I say to the students – never forget if you want to become strong be surrounded by stronger people than yourself! Because if you are the best and you are the strongest, how can they help? Very few people dare being surrounded by better people than themselves because they want to be the boss, they want to say ‘I know‘, they want to give instructions and orders. So that is an enormous difference between me being an entrepreneur and many many others and I teach students never forget to be surrounded by better people than you.
“Yes but then how can I be the boss” – hey! Careful… if I am a conductor, conducting an Orchestra and I have the best piano player the best violin player… it doesn’t mean because they all play better than me that I cannot conduct these people. So I have played the role of a conductor. I have also helped my people. You know when I see the CEO of Hublot today when I gave him the position in 2012, he had started with me in 1986 as a logistic junior. Taking the car and going to collect dials or hands and slowly slowly he has grown up. But he has grown up because we have helped him he has also grown up because of his own capacities of course.
When you think that the CEO of Rolex is even today one of my three best friends and yes for the 12 years with me I was his mentor. And this is also a role that I have played. I’m the mentor of people. Then that’s probably around half of my success for say 60%…
And then the other 40% of me says it is luck. Because luck is something that you meet when you move. Luck is like a hair that is hanging from the ceiling, so there are many hairs that you cannot see, hanging down. Invisible layers that you cannot see. So now, if you don’t move you cannot touch them. If you move, suddenly because you don’t see you touch them. You move again. Boom! So luck is the consequence of activity, of moving. Luck is also the consequence of behavior. Boom boom boom, and then luck comes and the rest is hard work.
So you see I believe in the club, I believe in people and together we are stronger than alone and together we don’t feel being alone. I’m not a lonely guy, I am a man of a community. I have lived when I was a hippie during four years in a commune and I have never lost this mentality. And in the commune you share. In a commune you respect and even in a commune you forgive mistakes so if in business if with your team if you share.. what do you share? We share success but we share mistakes as well. We share visions we share experience we share knowledge we share thoughts. If you share, on the larger scale you make people confident. You give security. “The boss has shared his mistakes!” Sharing is an important element.
Then if you respect people, you respect that not everybody is like you. it’s not because I get up at 3 o’clock in the morning that I want everybody to get up. For example also, how did we respect women at Hublot for instance? When we built a new factory, we have built a kindergarten and we had not one child from Hublot in the beginning. All the kids that were in the kindergarten came from somewhere in the village. But I said it doesn’t matter, we’re gonna build five hundred square meters kindergarten and if this kindergarten is empty for a few years who cares. One day it will be full so this it means I respect women. It’s not that I give the same salary to men and women for the same job – that’s normal. But I respect women because I understand that they have obligations because of the children that are not similar to man. The respect given also puts everybody at ease.
The mistake makes you rich. Rich in experience, rich in knowledge. It doesn’t make you rich if you repeat the mistake then it makes you poor and stupid. So imagine a community that is driven by this mentality which I just mentioned. Now Wow that can only end up in success. So that’s why my role is to be a leader, my role is to be a mentor, my role is to be an example, my role is to be a motivator, my role is to be a visionary and my role is to share. That’s what I am.
You know I wanted to work till I am 18 and when I was 69, 68 and a few months, yeah nearly 69, I got ill. The first time I got it in my life. I had to take 18 months cortisone and some chemotherapy, it helped me to get wise or wiser. And in that moment and when I was in hospital I said to the doctor you know: “Thanks God I’m sick” – I said. “Thank God” – I’m saying God is helping me, he’s putting me in the hospital because he has a message to tell me. And the message is your body needs respect. You cannot use your body anymore as you used it until now. You know I was telling my body at three o’clock in the morning or 2:30 get up. And body said “I have to get up?“. Yes! You get up! And then the body will say ok what do I do now. Go to the kitchen, make coffee please. The coffee’s done, what do I do? Go to the office, put the computer on. The body is there, he is just doing what I want.
Going to Tokyo, working 10 hours, same flight back. Going to LA. You know I go Tokyo, LA, Hong Kong, New York, and never sleep in the hotel! Boom, boom. But I work 12 hours non-stop till midnight or 2 o’clock in the morning. And then at 6 back to the airport. All this has been possible because the body was just following and I had strong body. Now suddenly God said we must talk to Biver. Let’s inject him some illness. And I reacted, I reacted by learning that the body needs respect. But I also learned that when you are close to 70 you are entering the last 20 years of your life. The last 20 years must be different. And how different must they be. They must be different because the last 20 years you must give back. Because if you continue to do just for yourself and you don’t give back, your life, your life will be a negative life. And it will help nobody. So you should devote the last 20 years in giving back. But you cannot give back when you are the pilot. You must sit on another seat of the car, but not on the driver seat. And that was my decision. Okay I’m doing it now, I wanted to start when I was 80.
Jan: How is it to no longer be the Pilot, to be the co-pilot instead?
Jean-Claude Biver: I think it’s very motivating because there is a huge pleasure in giving back. And now I have a son, well I have three, I have five kids but I have a son who is the youngest who is now 19 years old and he’s extremely obsessed – eaten – by his passion for whatches. Mainly vintage watches and he is telling me we should make a brand together. It’s time and I want to do that with you. If he wants to do it with me, maybe I will do so. Why? Because I want to teach him. I want to help him.
Okay why didn’t do that why didn’t you do with the other two? Because 20 years ago I was still doing, I was not thinking to give back. You cannot give back before you have done. You must first do so that you can give back. You must first have experience before you give back. Because what can you give back if you have no experience, nothing.
So it might be possible that one day we are doing a brand that we can call whatever, or even call it Biver & Son. This brand, the motivation would be to finish my career with some dreams and some desires and some visions which I still have. And to bring my family, my kids and to help them, to develop something. but we see.
Jan: Within the industry, you have become a brand already. The brand already exists. This is you, and you stand for certain things so the only thing that is missing is the watch on our wrist with your name on the dial..
Jean-Claude Biver: Do you really think I am a brand? My name is a brand? That is the first time I hear that. Wow!
Jan: Why not ‘give back’ by building up a brand? And if you were to do so, where would you actually position your brand?
Jean-Claude Biver: Yes I would position it at the top of the top! At the end you know, it must be a no excuse brand.
But no excuse means everything must be perfect. Nobody can give remarks that we haven’t done all the screws perfectly for example. And if you do no excuse and you master the invisible visibility, you master what people cannot see, because that’s the real art – the art is not to master what people can see, that is obvious, but it’s to master where people cannot see.
Like in the past in the past under the dial the entire movement had extraordinary finish and engraving of a beauty that isn’t anymore today. In the past watchmakers were decorating under the dial for many reasons. Number one it belongs there, but the second reason was also as every watch had the name of the watchmaker on it that made it. So these watchmakers they said if I don’t decorate my movement under the dial, and one day in 20 years the watchmaker has to repair and he takes the dial off and he sees no decoration… So for that only reason in the past they were decorating. This is what I call the invisible visibility. If you master, there is no limit, then you are at the top. Then you are at the top of Mount Everest.
So many people went to a the top of Mount Everest. But nobody went alone, nobody went on the North Face and in wintertime. And if I will go now to the Everest people and I want to be the best, that is what I will have to do.
And if you aim for the top of the top in watchmaking, you are expensive. Because it costs money. If every screw cost 50 Swiss francs to finish, to do the right angle and the right polishing and you have 77 screws that’s 3,500 Swiss Francs! Just for screws, so you see the price of the extreme can be extremely expensive. And that would be my destiny, to finish at the top.
Jan: Are you actively thinking about launching your brand?
Jean-Claude Biver: I’m thinking about it because you are asking the question. You know I have a relation with LVMH and with mr. Arnauld and I’m still working. I’m working full-time so I have not much time to think about it. But you know from time to time, as now during the interview you ask questions and I give answers. And this slow slowly is building up.
As I said maybe I will do, it maybe not. If I do – I will go to the top.