PARIS — Jean-Claude Biver is taking Tag Heuer back to basics.
This story first appeared in the December 15, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The Swiss watchmaker famous for its sports watches and chronographs, worn by celebrities and sports figures ranging from Steve McQueen to Cameron Diaz and Leonardo DiCaprio, capped a bumpy year with the announcement last week that Stéphane Linder had resigned as president and chief executive officer.
Biver, president of the watch division at parent company LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, will temporarily take over his duties, the company said.
For industry watchers, the move did not come as a total surprise. Since taking over as LVMH’s watch supremo in March, Biver has overseen a shake-up at Tag Heuer that, by his own admission, has not always sat well with management.
In June, the brand said it was postponing the launch of its much-hyped new chronograph movement, the CH80, to focus on production of its existing model, the CH1887. In September, Tag said it was cutting 46 jobs and putting another 49 employees on temporary unemployment until the end of the year.
In an interview with WWD earlier this month, Biver — considered a legend in watch circles for his successful track record at firms including Blancpain, Omega and Hublot — did not mention the imminent changes at the helm of Tag Heuer, though it was clear that he has taken a hands-on approach at the brand.
In addition to streamlining manufacturing, Biver has spearheaded a drive to refocus its offer with introductions in the $1,000 to $3,000 segment; revived the old “Don’t Crack Under Pressure” advertising slogan and redirected research-and-development efforts from high-performance chronographs toward a planned smartwatch.
“I am in favor of focusing our efforts on our core business and not investing disproportionately outside that core business,” he explained.
Biver insisted the moves were already afoot, regardless of the general slowdown in Swiss watch exports this year. “I may be restructuring, but not because the market is soft. I am restructuring because my experience tells me it is the right thing to do for the brand,” he said.
His track record at Hublot provides a good example of this philosophy: Biver noted that it does practically all its business with a single model, the Big Bang.
He indicated that Tag Heuer was phasing out not only high-concept watches — such as the Mikrogirder chronograph, unveiled with great fanfare in 2012 — but also its Meridiist luxury phone. “The time has come to focus on more basic things,” Biver said.
The veteran executive sees a market for smartwatches priced up to 1,000 euros, or around $1,250 at current exchange. “I think there is a non-negligible market and high interest in connected watches. I have a hard time picturing them selling above that price,” he added.
The market is thick with rumors that Tag Heuer will team up with Intel on a smartwatch launch at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas next month.
Biver admitted the company is working “relentlessly” on developing a smartwatch but did not give a time frame for its launch. “I can’t tell you — because it’s not ready — nothing is finished, and as long as it’s not finished, you can’t count your chickens before they’re hatched,” he said. “We are taking our time. We are not in a race.”
He hinted that it would be a connected watch without mobile-phone or e-mail capabilities, noting that he himself wears a Swatch Access — which he uses as a ski pass at Verbier — or a Garmin, which provides him with interactive information on the golf course.
“It will have to be different, it will have to be in line with the DNA of Tag Heuer, and if possible, it will have to be unique or more or less unique — because if it is merely a poor copy of the Apple [smartwatch], then I don’t see the point,” he said.
Asked whether senior management at Tag Heuer endorsed his strategy, Biver prevaricated.
“The current management perhaps has a hard time sometimes adapting to this culture,” he said, comparing the upheaval to a change in government in politics. “I would say 90 percent are convinced that what we are doing is right. As far as I can tell, I have the full support of management.”