By  on January 3, 2011

Hublot chief executive officer Jean-Claude Biver is practiced in the art of the grand gesture.

Leaving a Manhattan restaurant after lunch recently, Biver spotted a diner wearing a Hublot watch and insisted on paying her tab — a strategy guaranteed to produce a loyal customer and one that he has employed with some frequency.

Biver, 61, joined Hublot in 2004 and launched the Big Bang collection, which is promoted by celebrity faces such as skier Bode Miller, track star Usain Bolt and actor Jet Li. He has pushed the brand’s technical innovation, including the use of different metal alloys. In 2007, Biver opened Hublot’s first store in Paris, and the brand now operates 26 units worldwide.

One of Biver’s major goals was to penetrate the U.S. market, which he feels is underserved by the luxury watch industry. Hublot has stores in Bal Harbour and Boca Raton in Florida, a boutique in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and plans to open shops next year in New York and Beverly Hills.

The Luxembourg-born Biver began his career in 1975 as an apprentice at Audemars Piguet, where he rose to sales manager. Five years later he joined Omega as the brand’s gold product manager. In 1982, Biver purchased and relaunched the Blancpain watch brand with Jacques Piguet, and 10 years later they sold the company to Swatch Group for $65 million. As part of the transaction, Biver joined the Swatch Group’s executive committee and was charged with turning around a lackluster-performing Omega. By the time he departed, in 2002, sales had tripled.

Here, Biver talks with WWD about the luxury market, social media, aspirational advertising and the Asian and U.S. markets.

WWD: As far as luxury is concerned, many have claimed the U.S. is an emerging market. Would you agree?
Jean-Claude Biver: It’s an emerging market for watches.…Compared to markets in Singapore, Switzerland, France, Germany, we are quite emerging.…In Asia they use the watch to communicate personality. They tell you who you are. Are you elegant? Are you discreet? Are you low-profile? Are you powerful? Are you arrogant? All these things can be communicated through the watch…and the Asians have understood this. [For example,] out of 100 Asians who can afford a $100,000 watch, 99 will buy it…out of 100 Americans who can afford a $100,000 watch, 20 will buy it.

WWD: Does Hublot approach the American market in a different way?
J-C.B.: We have not enough creativity in our heads to think another way for Americans.

WWD: Now, and during the last few years of the recession, you’ve expanded considerably worldwide. How did you have the means to continue spending while others were downsizing?

J-C.B.: In the Chinese culture, they say, “You fight the disease when you are healthy.” More and more we will discover that problems have to be solved when you are in good health. We prepared ourselves for the crisis…we were 100 percent cash when the crisis came. We had no debts, no leasing, no bank relations, nothing. So when the crisis came, nobody told us what to do. If you owe nothing to the bank, you can say, ‘Go to hell. I do what I want.’

WWD: From FIFA to Manchester United, Hublot has been active in sports sponsorship and advertising. What is the philosophy behind this?
J-C.B.: The idea behind that is we want to be active for people who cannot buy our watches. If we go to a polo match, if we go to a golf [tournament] or yachting, we can only talk to the people who buy our watches, who can afford our watches. If we go into soccer, we talk to the people who cannot afford them — the young boys and girls that are four years old [through age] 30. They cannot afford [a Hublot watch] now. But one day they will be able to afford it. And then they will remember Hublot.

WWD: Is there any sport in which you’d like to have a presence, but don’t yet?

J-C.B.: Basketball. Basketball is the same [as soccer]. In basketball we have a lot of young people who watch basketball who cannot afford it now, but they might be able to afford it later. So we should go into basketball.

WWD: Any team or athlete you’d consider sponsoring?

J-C.B.: Dwyane Wade, of the Miami Heat.

WWD: Contrary to some luxury brands, Hublot has been fairly active in social media. What is your thinking on this new sphere?
J-C.B.: That we should do a lot of it because you reach the young generation. Every time you can talk to the young people, you should do it.…I’m not interested in talking to the past. We are not a museo. We want to talk to tomorrow.

WWD: Why do you think luxury companies tend to be reluctant to engage in social media?

J-C.B.: Many luxury brands are connected to yesterday because they believe the tradition is where they should be. But if you repeat tradition, there is no future.…Many people, once they know the past, they just repeat the past, so they have no risk. But that’s not what we want. We prefer to take risk.

WWD: This risk, however, doesn’t seem to extend to e-commerce, where you have no presence.

J-C.B.:: I think it’s difficult…because if you have a policy to give exclusivity or selectivity [to retailers], once you sell on the Internet, there’s no exclusivity anymore. If you have one retailer who has exclusivity in Chicago, and you sell on the Internet, and suddenly someone in Chicago buys on the Internet…the Chicago retailer can say, “Where’s my exclusivity? I was supposed to be the only one to sell in Chicago.”

WWD: You’ve been with the company for six years. Where do you see yourself in the next three years?

J-C.B.: We will be quite strong in China; the brand will be well established. In three years we will also be quite well established in America. The brand will have reconditioned…we’ll have major innovation that will really make us a part of history.

WWD:. Can you share any of these innovations?

J-C.B.: I could, but I don’t want to.

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