Looking back over the 45 year career of Jean-Claude Biver is a reminder of how quickly things can change in life and business. I interviewed Mr Biver twice in the past 18 months, and it is clear he feels the transformation of the market is more dramatic and more rapid right now than at any time since the 1970s when he joined it. And it is hard to overstate how chaotic the business was for his first 20 years.
This is a man who started in the luxury watch industry at the height of the quartz crisis, when he was able to buy Blancpain, a watchmaker that started life in 1735, for the equivalent of $30,000 in 1981.
Within a decade, with mechanical watches regaining favor, Mr Biver sold the company to SMH (later morphing to become Swatch Group) for almost $90 million.
He went on to transform the fortunes of Hublot, then TAG Heuer and was starting to make his mark on Zenith when he announced he was handing over operational control at LVMH’s watchmaking division.
The biggest changes are happening right now, he reminds us. Distribution and sales of luxury watches used to be tightly controlled from headquarters in Switzerland, who anointed authorized dealers around the world with tightly protected territorial monopolies. The internet has put this model under incredible strain, and TAG Heuer has been one of the quickest firms to adapt under Mr Biver’s stewardship.
His view is simple. People will buy watches they way they want to buy watches, not in the way watchmakers tell them to. While some brands think that selling over the internet cannot deliver the luxury experience required for a $5000 or $10,000 purchase, customers are demonstrating otherwise.
Luxury to today’s customer means relaxing on their sofa at home, sipping a glass of Californian Pinot Noir, while browsing, researching and ultimately buying watches from anywhere in the world. That might be direct from a watchmaker’s website, an authorized dealer or a secondary market site.
This is a challenge and opportunity to every luxury watchmaker, and many have been looking to Mr Biver to take a lead. Thankfully, his wisdom is still available to LVMH in his new non-exec role, and there has never been a time when that far-sighted vision has been more valuable.