It’s the end of an era for the in­dus­try’s most colour­ful fig­ure

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Af­ter a 45 year ca­reer at the top of the Swiss watch­mak­ing in­dus­try, Jean-Claude Biver, in con­junc­tion with LVMH’s top brass, has de­cided to hand over day-to-day op­er­a­tional con­trol of TAG Heuer and the LVMH watch­mak­ing divi­sion. His role will be taken over by Stéphane Bianch, the for­mer CEO of the cos­met­ics firm Yves Rocher, who has been ap­pointed CEO of the watch­mak­ing divi­sion, with ef­fect from Novem­ber 1. Like Mr Biver, he will also di­rectly lead TAG Heuer, with the CEOs of Hublot and Zenith re­port­ing to him. Frédéric Ar­nault, the 23 year-old son of LVMH chair­man and CEO Bernard Ar­nault, has been ap­pointed strat­egy and dig­i­tal di­rec­tor of TAG Heuer. Mr Biver is keen to stress that he will not be en­tirely with­draw­ing from the in­dus­try, de­spite turn­ing 69 this year and hav­ing faced a num­ber of health is­sues in re­cent times. “Af­ter 45 years in the watch in­dus­try, I would like to fo­cus more specif­i­cally on ad­vis­ing and shar­ing my ex­pe­ri­ence,” he says. “I am grate­ful to the LVMH Group for ac­cord­ing me this hon­our. Stéphane and Frédéric have my full sup­port for the fu­ture. Thank you to all those who have shared my pas­sion and many suc­cesses, with­out whom I could never have achieved so much,” he adds. Mr Biver has cer­tainly en­joyed a charmed and colour­ful ca­reer. A tribute for Bri­tish GQ mag­a­zine by Nick Foulkes, one of the UK’s most re­spected watch writ­ers, gives a per­sonal in­sight into the life and times of the great man that he knew for many decades. “Jean-Claude Biver is more than a suc­cess­ful Swiss watch boss, he is fa­mous be­yond the world of watches as an in­spi­ra­tional leader, a gen­uine star, a celebrity in a coun­try that does not do celebrity. Biver’s bois­ter­ous con­fi­dence, his en­thu­si­asm and his en­ergy make him seem like a nat­u­ral phe­nom­e­non,” he writes, adding: “In an in­dus­try that is in­creas­ingly a ca­reer choice rather than the vo­ca­tion it once was, Biver is a Pharos of in­di­vid­u­al­ity, a tri­umph of char­ac­ter over the tyranny of the fo­cus group, a pas­sion­ate per­sonal com­mu­ni­ca­tor in the age of Pow­er­point. It is im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine the watch in­dus­try over the last decade with­out his com­mand­ing phys­i­cal and emo­tional pres­ence.”

Road to the top

Mr Biver’s 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 this year. 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; founded in 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, ac­cord­ing to Mr Foulkes, 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.

Light­ning strikes twice

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 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.

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