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Jean-Claude Biver: no time for succession

Hublot CEO Jean-Claude Biver has bought and sold some of the world's most famous watch brands, but says he has no plans to put his time and effort into succession planning, writes Margie Goldsmith.

The death last week of family-controlled Swatch Group founder Nicolas G Hayek saddened Biver, who knew him from his time as a board member of Swatch from 1992 to 2003.

But while Hayek's daughter Nayla has taken up the reins of the Switzerland-based watchmaker, Biver (pictured) himself has no plans to create a dynasty of his own three children, two of whom work with him at Hublot. Daughter Delphine, 28, works in the firm's marketing department while 30-year-old son Loic is in charge of the watchmakers Hong Kong business.

"I am not making plans for my children because it's no longer my company," says Biver, who sold Hublot to the Arnault family-controlled LVMH Group for 480 million Swiss francs in 2008.

"Eventually, they will do what they want with this heritage. If they continue in the watch business, I will of course be more than happy to help and to make their business successful. But what I mainly want is to transmit my love and my passion to my children."

Born in 1949 in Luxembourg, Biver's father brought up his two sons to develop an independent and entrepreneurial spirit and above all, do what they really wanted to do. His first job was in a watch factory. "The watch is a time machine," Biver says. "I first saw the watch as a toy for adults – it was a transformation from the toy cars and model trains little boys play with, so I consider myself lucky that I had the opportunity to work in my toy factory."

In 1981, just 32 years old, Biver bought watch brand Blancpain for $18,000, which had been out of business for nearly 20 years. At this time the entire industry was transforming to quartz, but Biver went in the opposite direction, predicting the return of mechanical watch making. 

"High-quality watches cannot come from an industrial process – that process will soon be obsolete. But a mechanical watch is made by hand and can be repaired 1,000 years from now by hand."

Biver considered the watch to be art, insisting it had heritage, culture and tradition, and when buying a watch, customers should buy a piece of art, not a quartz watch. No one in the watch industry took him seriously. "Thanks to that we could develop in total peace," Biver says. "Once we had the market shares, everyone followed us."

When he sold Blancpain to Swatch in 1992 for 60 million Swiss Francs, Biver stayed on to work with the Swatch Group. "Money cannot buy passion," he says. "I wanted to remain there and take care of the people I had hired, so I stayed, even though the company was no longer mine. It was still my passion and my design."

Biver became marketing director and product development director for Swatch's Omega brand, determined to bring it back as a top worldwide brand. To help him do this, he created a highly successful marketing campaign with Pierce Brosnan (as James Bond) and Cindy Crawford as Omega ambassadors.

In 2004, Biver bought into Hublot and repackaged the mechanical watch as fusion. "You fuse two elements together that should never be together – you connect the past and the future. This is what I wanted to do at Hublot. I said, we cannot just repeat the past. We must try to connect the last 400 years of Swiss tradition to the future by using new materials and new tools. We must respect the past, but we must also introduce new elements."

After turning Hublot into the "Cinderella story of the new millennium", Biver sold Hublot in 2008, but remains at the firm as CEO, while also pursuing his other passions for cheese and wine. 

Biver, now 61, is credited with single-handedly saving the watch industry from the quartz movement by promoting tradition when others were abandoning it, understanding that the way to be innovative is to be timeless. Whatever he does he lives by his three rules: be the first, be different and be unique.

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