Jean-Claude Biver will be guest of honour at this year’s WatchPro Awards.
The watchmaking legend will share advice and anecdotes with an audience of 350 industry leaders based on his 45 year career working at the top of the Swiss watch industry.
Mr Biver stepped back from day-to-day operational control of TAG Heuer and the LVMH watchmaking division in September last year, but remains involved in the business as non-executive chairman.
“After 45 years in the watch industry, I would like to focus more specifically on advising and sharing my experience,” Mr Biver says.
Mr Biver has certainly enjoyed a charmed and colourful career.
His first job in the watch industry was a sales role at Audemars Piguet in 1974, a traditional independent watchmaker that was yet to enjoy the explosive success of the Royal Oak that has put it on a trajectory to top $1 billion in sales in 2018. He worked his way up to become European sales manager within four years, and also learned the business from the workshop upwards.
He moved to Omega in 1979 and became the youngest deputy director the company had ever had, but he spent only two years with the brand before making the decision to strike out on his own.
The quartz revolution had decimated the traditional Swiss watch industry, laying waste to brands that could trace their ancestry back to the 19th century.
Blancpain was a prime example. It was a huge player in the Swiss industry and could trace its history back to 1735, yet Mr Biver was able to buy the business for just CHF 22,000. Selling mechanical watches was like pushing water uphill at the time, but Mr Biver counter-intuitively turned Blancpain’s vulnerability into its strength. “Since 1735 there has never been a quartz Blancpain watch. And there never will be,” his message to the market asserted.
The audacity of Mr Biver’s marketing concealed the precariousness of Blancpain at the time. The company was making fewer than 100 watches per year in the early 1980s. The business might have become another casualty of the quartz crisis were it not for the assistance of British watch business supremo Marcus Margulies who admired what the watchmaker was doing, and perhaps the chutzpah of Mr Biver.
He asked to buy 50 Blancpains in gold in 1983 — requiring a doubling of the brand’s production — and there was another problem. Blancpain didn’t have enough money to buy the gold for the cases. When Mr Margulies agreed to pay an advance for the watches, Blancpain was able to manufacture them and took a great leap forward.
Within a decade, Blancpain was sold to SMH, which later became the Swatch Group, for CHF 60 million. The newly minted millionaire Mr Biver’s reputation was sealed.
Rather than put his feet up, the 44-year old asked SMH’s owner Nicolas Hayek for a job, and was given the top job at Omega in 1993, another brand that had not emerged in great health from the quartz crisis.
Mr Biver had a gift for doing three things well at the same time. He energised the workforce, rationalised a bloated range of products, many of which were unloved by customers and within the company, while at the same time staging a series of marketing stunts that grabbed headlines in watch publications and, importantly, mainstream lifestyle media. By the turn of the millennium, sales at Omega had trebled.
Mr Biver then took a sabbatical from the industry before reappearing in 2004 at Hublot, which he joined as chief executive. The brand was sold to LVMH in 2008 and Mr Biver became CEO of stablemate TAG Heuer in 2014 and later head of the watchmaking division that houses TAG Heuer, Hublot and Zenith.
For a chance to meet the great man, save the date for the 2019 WatchPro Awards, which take place on November 5 at 8 Northumberland, a venue built around one of the most spectacular Victorian ballrooms in London.