Written by Kevin Doyle
It seems altogether appropriate that the French “hublot” translates to the English “porthole” since a conversation with Hublot SA Chairman Jean-Claude (JC) Biver provides a clear view of the passion that drives him and makes one of the world’s renowned manufacturers of luxury watches tick.
A symbol of that passion and his boyhood dreams, a working scale-model of a steam engine that Biver built as a child and that his parents recently found and restored, occupies a place of prominence on his desk.
“My passion [for watch making] and the passion of my people are contagious. If you’re close to someone with passion, he will give you also part of his passion,” reasons Biver, 63, who assumed Hublot’s CEO duties in 2004. “Then everyone starts to get passionate. We’ve always said we have to be different. On every project, we say are we first, are we unique and are we different?”
With locations in Geneva, Paris, Berlin, Warsaw and Prague as well as Mauritius, Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong and New York, Hublot targets an uber-upscale clientele, crafting approximately 25,000 pieces annually at its manufacturing centre in Nyon. During March’s Baselworld 2012 Show the company unveiled the most expensive watch ever made– a $5 million white gold dazzler laden with 1,282 diamonds sold to The Hour Glass boutiques in Singapore.
Hublot is the official watch for Ferrari; the official timekeeper for the FIFA World Cup (2010, 2014) and the Union of European Football Federations (UEFA) Euro 2012 competitions; and is aligned with Formula One racing, Manchester United of the English Premier League, the National Basketball Association’s Miami Heat, the Swiss sailing group Alinghi, the Yacht Club de Monaco and the World Boxing Council.
Among global ambassadors are Prince Albert II of Monaco, Formula One President and CEO Bernie Ecclestone, the family of deceased Formula One legend Ayrton Senna, Olympic and World Champion sprinter Usain Bolt, Dwayne Wade of the Miami Heat, FIFA President Sepp Blatter, Manchester United coach Sir Alex Ferguson, Czech super model Veronica Verakova, Chinese actor Jet Li and Argentine football legend Diego Maradona, who has a penchant for wearing watches on both wrists.
“Formula One is an engine. It’s an engine for speed, an engine for emotion, an engine for dreams and an engine for success. A watch is also an engine, an engine for the wrist, an engine for success,” Biver says of the partnership with Formula One. “Basically we are two in the same business. Our engines, like Formula One, are made from new materials, both engines are fantastically performing and both are giving dreams.”
Reinvigorating a brand that had grown stagnant since being founded in 1980 and transforming it into the chic, highly-visible global player of today was no easy task.
Biver, though, has a history of meeting and conquering challenges. With Jacques Piguet, he bought and re-launched the Blancpain name in 1982 before selling it 10 years later to what would become The Swatch Group (formerly SMH Group). While with Swatch, Biver oversaw the revival of the Omega brand.
So, when Hublot Geneva’s founder Carlo Crocco sought him out in 2004, Biver jumped back into the fray less than a year into a planned sabbatical. In short order he had finalized the “Art of Fusion” concept – melding classic materials with original and, in some cases, rare metals to yield something altogether different – and within a year Hublot launched the iconic Big Bang chronograph that remains its signature piece with 35 models accounting for approximately 70 percent of its annual sales.
Then and Now
“We were in 2005 like a start-up and we just had the DNA, a watch with the shape of a portal. So, we had a very clear idea and the DNA. Besides that we had nothing – we had to build the company from A to Zed,” recalls Biver, likening the original watch to the Porsche in which 1950s matinee idol James Dean died.
“So if you build a Porsche like the one in which James Dean died, you would sell it as a classic. But, if it was a modern car, no one would like it because it’s out of shape. So we looked at the product of 1980 and we face-lifted the product. We looked at the product and said what would have been the evolution. We made a simulation and we came out with this result,” Biver says, smiling broadly while pointing to the Big Bang enveloping his left wrist.
Biver scrapped everything Hublot was doing, removed quartz batteries from the equation and returned to the time-honored tradition of fine Swiss watch-making.
“We had to employ people with the knowledge of the craft; we had to buy the materials. We said let’s ask every person to work like five and we’ll pay them like two. Today everybody works like three and is paid like two. We have devoted people working like this is a religion,” Biver says.
Given the choice, Biver comes down on the side of research and development over marketing every time.
“It is very simple – no innovation, no future,” Biver says, accentuating the point with a sweeping wave of his right hand. “In whatever business you are in, innovation is the most important part. If I have to choose to spend $10 million in research and development and $10 million in a new marketing strategy I will always take the $10 million in research and development because that gives us our future and that gives us deep, profound and solid substance.”
With substance in place, product marketing becomes exponentially easier.
“Formula One and Ferrari are like cousins and we have the same consumer, we talk to the same people. It’s always better if we are two people to make an effort to talk to the consumer than just one alone,” Biver reasons.
As part of the company’s succession plan, Ricardo Guadalupe became Hublot’s CEO in January of this year. But Biver isn’t planning on retiring any time soon and remains the force driving the company.
“Passion, passion, passion – if you have passion for your work, then you never had the impression that you’re working. You only have the impression you’re working when your passion is what you’re doing in your free time. When you’re passionate about your work, you never say ‘I have to go back to work on Monday,’” he concludes.