How can I stop feeding my ego
"You mean I'm a dictator trying to feed his ego?"
Jean-Claude Biver works 18 hours a day for his three watch brands - and against self-doubt.
Mr. Biver, you are known for your drive and enthusiasm. At 68, do you still get up at 3 a.m. and start work at 4 a.m.?
Yes, my passion for this profession has no limits. Getting up at 3 a.m. is not difficult for me, I don't need an alarm clock. Then I think of the competition that is still asleep. If I work two hours more each day than she does, that makes 600 hours or 15 weeks a year. It's like the competition doesn't start work until May. With six hours more per day, the lead is twelve months per year.
Nine years ago you told me in an interview that you no longer want to continue working like this for much longer, that your health has suffered from the 18-hour days. Is it so difficult to let go?
Today, at 68, I actually work more than ever before. But I see it as a privilege to stay so closely connected to my passion. Above all, the many journeys are exhausting. I travel 160 days a year, and last year I covered almost a million kilometers on a plane.
Why are you doing this to yourself?
I have to feel the pulse. The fight takes place in the market, not in the offices. Only those who know the customers well can satisfy their needs and move the market.
As head of the watch division of the luxury goods company LVMH, you no longer have to be at the front of everything yourself.
If I had three strong bosses under me who could develop the brands further with respect for their history and lead them to success, I would actually no longer have to do that. But unfortunately this is only the case with Hublot. I took over operational management at TAG Heuer at the end of 2014, and recently at Zenith.
Some entrepreneurs are looking for a successor for 20 years because nobody does it exactly like them. Do you even tolerate strong personalities next to you?
You mean I'm a dictator trying to feed his ego? That would be sad if I still needed it when I was 68. I've achieved more than I ever dreamed of. And I know that we all die naked, that we can't take anything with us. So it's about giving something back, promoting others. Whoever wants to keep everything to himself dies as a lonely egoist. You can see from the example of Hublot that I am serious. I took over the brand with sales of CHF 26 million and increased sales tenfold within four years. Ricardo Guadeloupe has been running the brand for 5 years, and very successfully. Today, Hublot has a turnover of 500 million francs.
I get up at three o'clock - I don't need an alarm clock.
How did you feel when you went to Baselworld, the world's largest watch and jewelry fair, this week?
I arrived from Hong Kong with great anticipation. With TAG Heuer we set an exclamation mark ten days ago by launching the first smartwatch made entirely in Switzerland. Thanks to its modularity, it can be transformed into a high-quality mechanical watch within seconds. There is also a limited edition of the Autavia watch for Jack Heuer's 85th birthday. With Hublot we are causing a stir at the fair, for example with cases made of white, red and blue sapphire. And we're launching three editions limited to 70 pieces for the 70th birthday of the Ferrari brand. The case was developed by Ferrari designers.
The marketing professional Biver speaks there. The question was meant more fundamentally: The Swiss watch industry had to give up recently, exports fell by 10 percent.
After almost 10 years of growth, we now have two weaker years behind us. This is mainly because of a decline in China, political unrest in the world, terrorism. It is not a structural weakness of our industry, but rather an economic problem. I now expect an improvement, if not in the first, then certainly in the second semester.
How badly has the damper hit the TAG Heuer, Hublot and Zenith brands, for which you are responsible?
In 2016, TAG Heuer and Hublot wrote the best sales in history. Zenith was in decline like all of industry. There is still a lot to do, which is why I took over operational management at Zenith at the beginning of the year.
Is there still potential for growth in the luxury watch segment?
That will be a major challenge for our industry. I am very confident about the next few years. But I'm not sure how people born around the turn of the millennium will behave. You might have a different relationship with luxury. It is quite possible that they are not only less interested in expensive cars, but also want other watches. We need all our creativity and innovative strength to attract these customers and to bind them emotionally to our brands. We cannot rest on record sales. For me, the Tibetan proverb applies: "When you have reached the top of the mountain, keep climbing."
Do you never ask yourself how long your body can go along with this?
I am privileged from birth. I have very robust health and have received a lot of love from my parents.
In your recently published autobiography, you write about how you were sent from Luxembourg to a boarding school on Lake Geneva when you were 10 because your parents separated.
It was then that I took on managerial responsibility for the first time, and did so twice: for myself and my brother, who was two years younger than me. I knew that no one would solve the problems for me, that I was on my own. It was difficult at the time, but in retrospect it was a great opportunity.
In grammar school it was difficult again when you had to repeat a class for disciplinary reasons.
Yes, I was ashamed when, at the age of 18, I suddenly sat next to boys who were eight inches shorter in class. My first reaction was: I'll show them! And this crisis had its good side too. After the relocation, everything was very easy for me, the Matura and also my studies.
And yet you have the feeling: you still want to show it to everyone.
I look for a challenge everywhere. At 95 kilos, I'm not a lightweight, but I cycle over passes and climb the mountain on the most direct route on touring skis. Sometimes I say to myself: "You are crazy!" But I want the Direttissima, I need this challenge.
Who do you want to prove something to?
(Loud and determined) I want to prove something to myself, only to myself. It's not about defeating the others - luckily the others don't work like me. But the fight against myself, that remains the most difficult. My philosophy is “First - Different - Unique” - this not only applies to the watches, but also to me and all employees. Whoever wants to be the first, whoever wants to be unique, must not be afraid of exertion and pain. Only the dead fish swims with the flow. I don't want to be a dead fish, I want to fight against the current to stay alive.
In your book you emphasize that thanks to your outstanding achievements you have built up more and more self-confidence. Do you also fight against self-doubt?
I often doubt and I have to overcome that doubt. It's a permanent sting in the flesh. A normal person would say: "I doubt whether this will work, so I'll leave it." When in doubt, I say: "It's good that you are here, I'll prove to you that you are wrong." I like to make bold decisions and I am not afraid of defeat. Many managers are technocrats, they all know mathematical models, but their instincts and hearts have fallen by the wayside.
The fight against myself - that remains the most difficult.
For you, your private life falls by the wayside.
No, that is not correct. Last week I celebrated my 18th wedding anniversary with my second wife over a nice meal. On the Sunday before that, I set off with my daughter-in-law at 5.15 a.m. at sunrise for a ski tour in Crans-Montana. At 8.30 a.m. we were back with the family. For me, such breaks are like a week's vacation.
You're not going on a real vacation?
Yes, but not a day goes by that I don't check my e-mails for six hours. It really never happens that I go to bed in the evening without looking through all the emails and answering them where necessary. For me this is as normal as brushing my teeth.
Why don't you delegate that?
Because I want to feel the temperature of the company. I also receive copies of all emails that come in to the info @ addresses of the three watch brands. I want to hear what customers are asking, and I want my employees to feel that I intervene if they don't answer. But yes, that means a lot of work. Therefore I do not accept concepts that are more than a quarter page A4. To be brief means to respect the addressee.
Are you popular with the staff?
I am respected because I go forward with full passion. And I have no executive doors. I often make my own coffee and bring the cup into the kitchen. I'm generally popular at Hublot, maybe 70 percent of the employees at TAG Heuer, and I'm just starting out at Zenith.
Is it true that you order flowers worth 10,000 francs to your company every Monday?
Yes it is. I want to bring color and optimism into the company and express my respect for their work to the employees. The more people like to come to work on Monday, the better the company is doing.
One of the brave decisions was to develop a smartwatch with TAG Heuer. As a lover of fine mechanical watches, why were you so brash?
Because I listened to the bosses at Google and Intel. They are convinced that our smartphones will soon be replaced by intelligent technology that we wear on our bodies; just as the pocket watch was replaced by the wristwatch. It was clear to me: We have to conquer the wrist, channel all information there. In 10 years there will probably be no more smartphones. We have now sold 56,000 copies of the first smartwatch, and we are aiming for 150,000 for the second version. But that's nothing. Apple wants to sell 20 million pieces of its smartwatch this year, the total market is estimated at 40 million. I guess we should aim higher.
Your contract with LVMH runs until your 70th birthday. What's next?
If I haven't found three strong brand bosses to whom I can hand over operational work by then, it would be the biggest defeat of my life. But I will not stop at 70. I will no longer lead operationally, but will continue to lead the watch division in the group for another 5 years. At 75, I'll step back and spend more time with my grandchildren.
Why only then? In the book you describe how, when you baptized your third child with the two adult children from your first marriage, you apologized for how little time you had for them both.
Yes, I was really not at home back then and in those moments I wanted the children to play in their rooms. At 51 you are a better father than at 31. But I have no regrets. Love is a great force, but nothing exclusive. My fire for work kept me alive. If I got a second life after death, I would do it exactly the same again.
And until that happens, do you keep fit with work?
You have to try never to get old. When I see my peers who have been retired for three years, I get frightened. They think and speak like old men. That's why I want to keep learning and shaping. Work forces me to stay young. I have never seen work as a duty that separates me from my free time, but as the core of my passion. I haven't worked since I was a student, just doing what I love.
Jean-Claude Biver (68), who was born in Luxembourg, entered the watch industry after studying business administration. In 1982 he bought Blancpain with Jacques Piguet and led the discontinued brand to success. He sold Blancpain to Swatch 10 years later and became director of Omega and an important confidante of Nicolas Hayek. In 2004 he took over the ailing Hublot brand and increased sales tenfold within four years. In 2008, Hublot was taken over by the luxury goods group LVMH. Since 2014, Biver has been responsible for the watch division (Hublot, TAG Heuer and Zenith). Biver is married for a second time and has three children. He lives on Lake Geneva above Tour-de-Peilz. His autobiography was recently published by Orell-Füssli-Verlag under the title “You can do anything, if you only want”. (mmw)
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