Four years may not seem like a lot, but when we’re talking about four years run at the pace of Jean-Claude Biver, a lot can happen. Technically, Biver was involved a little longer with TAG Heuer, as from early 2014 he succeeded Francesco Trapani as the head of LVMH’s watch division, with includes oversight of TAG Heuer. But the action really began when Biver slid into the CEO chair in December 2014 and began to implement his strategy and style of working.
And this November, that chapter comes to an end, when he moved to a new position: Chairman of LVMH Watchmaking Division. Biver will hand over the day-to-day roles heading up both LVMH Watchmaking and TAG Heuer to Stéphane Bianchi, formerly a senior executive with Yves Rocher.
And while this is not the end of JC Biver’s involvement with TAG Heuer, it does mark a passing of the baton and felt like the right time to look back over the last four years, as well as casting one eye towards what we can expect in 2019.
Calibre 11: Your involvement with TAG Heuer began in early 2014 when you were appointed as Head of LVMH’s watch business. What were your ingoing views of TAG Heuer as a brand?
Jean-Claude Biver: I knew the company because in 1993 when I was at Omega we were competing with TAG Heuer. TAG Heuer was not a totally unknown company for me. It was a competitor that we always respected. They were always very innovative. They were creative. They were even sometimes disruptive.
My first impression was a lot of respect. For ten years TAG Heuer was always on the map, as a competitor, which we respected, and which gave us a lot of work to compete. It was a difficult competitor because they were innovative, aggressive, quite modern, avant garde.
So when I joined finally in 2014, I didn’t come to a new company. It was not that I had to discover who is TAG Heuer; I had to discover the people. The people that were in those days at the head of the company, the industrial boss, the sales boss, and the CEO, I started to get some differences in the strategy for the future between these people and myself and my team.
We changed the marketing director, we changed the sales director, we changed the industrial director. We changed the CEO. Those were the major steps we had to take during the year of 2014. These steps we had to take not because the people were not good, but the people were not aligned with my strategy.
My strategy was to bring, number one, the industrial side of the brand to bring it back to more professionals, to bring specialists in the head of every industrial department, which we didn’t necessarily have. I also tried to rationalise. You remember I said we should not produce two chronograph movements. We should concentrate on one.
On sales, I had a concept which is very classical, although not always the most common. In 2014, TAG Heuer was still focused on Sell-in [“Sell-in” is when TAG Heuer sells a watch to a dealer; “Sell-out” is when that retailer sells the watch to a customer- C11], but I don’t care about sell-in. Sell-in give us maybe turnover but might bring up troubles later if the watches don’t sell from the jeweller. If the watches don’t sell from the jeweller, we have to buy them back.
I have to develop a system where I can trace 100% of the sell-out. We needed a system which we didn’t have. That was one of the differences I had with the CEO and eventually the sales director, because I was pushing “sell-out, sell-out, sell-out”- which they were refusing to analyse. The sell-out was king for me.
C11: Another major change was the price positioning of TAG Heuer. I guess with the benefit of hindsight, that looks to be where the market has gone, with several brands now focusing on bringing retail prices down
JCB: Of course. That was also a strategic move where again not everybody internally was aligned. I said we have to stop this system where systematically you increase prices. It was a tendency in the Swatch industry, by the way, not only at TAG Heuer. It was a general tendency. People felt very comfortable. People thought success if forever, and they had no problem increasing prices 3-5% every year.
I stopped this. I said finished; we have to be more competitive and we have to bring back a very high perceived value. Perceived value comes from the price and comes from the quality. We must create a new relationship between price and quality. We must increase this difference between what is the price and what is the quality. So we have to increase quality and we have to reduce prices. Then we have a higher perceived value. That was also one major step in my policy.
Last but not least, I also changed the whole marketing approach. Before I came, marketing was not headed by the headquarters, but every country was more or less free to do its own marketing. We had for instance eight or nine internet sites because every country had its own internet page and internet site.
I said we need one internet page. We need one marketing strategy that must come from the headquarters and give instructions that there must be one advertising campaign. There must be ambassadors for certain countries, but in general, we need ambassadors that can cover the planet.
I also said we have to come back to a very strong headline, which marked the past, which is “Don’t Crack Under Pressure.” So I did changes in nearly every department. Every department was touched by the new team, by the new people. And of course, some of the existing people couldn’t agree, and they left. I found myself in 2016 more or less with a new team. It’s with this new team that we have been running through ’15, ’16, ’17 and lastly ’18.
C11: On the product side, the first major product launch under your leadership was the Carrera Heuer 01. I remember meeting you about a month before that watch was launched, and you said you wanted to make it very obvious when the watch used the in-house movements, and it wasn’t confused for similar models. The Heuer 01 was quite a radical watch for TAG Heuer. Was that something at the time that was a difficult decision to move into that direction, of a skeleton dial with a large 45 mm case?
JCB: No. For me, it was not a hard decision. It was an unusual decision for many of the traditional TAG Heuer staff, who had resistance. I said no, it will have our in-house movement. This in-house movement needs a special individualised case, and we must also show the movement.
If we put this in-house movement in the same case, in the same dial as we have in the Carrera with the Calibre 16 movement, it’s insane. The in-house movement just be treated differently, must have another case. Of course, always inspired by Carrera. But it needs another case. We need a bigger size. Last but not least, we also must try to avoid a traditional dial so that people can see that it’s an in-house movement. That was a radical decision. And Heuer 01 became the best seller, by the way.
And as well as this, it inspired the Connected watch. The Connected watch looks in the end like a Carrera Heuer 01. Today we have the Connected watch and the Carrera Heuer 01 both in a similar case, similar shape, and both are the best sellers.
C11: Speaking of the Connected watch, talk of a TAG Heuer smartwatch began in 2013, but was something that you were determined to bring to market…
JCB: …I think it was a great decision. When in your own brand name you have “Techniques d’Avant Garde” [TAG- C11], then there is no doubt that you have to also fulfil this mission to be Techniques d’Avant Garde. Techniques d’Avant Garde in 2015 was certainly the Connected watch. And we said if there is one brand that should really be jumping to it, it’s the Techniques d’Avant Garde brand, which means is the TAG Heuer brand.
I had no doubt, and I gave the mandate to Guy, and he, in order to catch up time, he decided to work with Google and Intel who were very keen to help us. That enabled us to be more or less the second lead brand after Apple to present a Connected watch. It gave an enormous boost to TAG Heuer. It brought an incredible new customer base. In those days, 70% of the people buying a TAG Heuer Connected watch had never had a TAG Heuer before.
We could reach a new client and we could give a more modern and technological image to our brand. That is also what we wanted to do. In the marketing department and product department we tried to connect much more to the millennials than ever before because the millennials were growing, and the millennials are now 20-years old. We said we have to invest in the future, and the future of our clientele are the millennials. You cannot invest in the millennials if you don’t reach them. To reach them, you just speak their own language. You must be in the places they go. You must be connected to them.
C11: OK, so that covers the modern designs, but at the same time you also brought back the Monza and the Autavia. Collectors and journalists love these heritage watches, but are they still important from a sales point of view relative to making another Carrera Heuer 01 or Heuer 02?
JCB: It’s less important than Heuer 01, because Heuer 01 is our best seller. But Autavia and Monaco and Monza are important for the history. One should never forget their history. They’re also important to fulfil a trend which is the trend of nostalgia. Today there is a trend for nostalgia and nostalgic pieces.
By bringing back Autavia and Monza we were catching this trend, which is nostalgia. And we were also promoting our heritage. Heritage is important. If you want to connect to the future, you also need to be connected to the past. I always say “no tradition, no future”. And I also say “no innovation, no future”. You need both. The heritage that we brought from Monza and even Monaco we started again to be active was a very important move for our history because we have to bring back who we are.
C11: Speaking of the Autavia, that watch was also the chance for you to re-introduce the Heuer 02 movement. During the last few years you also experimented with the Heuer 03-XT (X-Time) movement, which was developed by TAG Heuer but ended up in the Zenith Defy Lab. Will we see an in-house 3-hand movement in a TAG Heuer?
JCB: Yes, the strategy is clear. We are going to develop a three-hand movement. And we will also concentrate much more in the future on the X-Time and the new escapement. So I think that is an enormous development because the new escapement, the new system called X-Time, is extremely important. They will really put TAG Heuer on the map and put TAG Heuer in the history. I think our movement department is in better shape and is more important than it has ever been.
C11: The three-hand movement you mentioned, is that a mainstream movement, or more of a showcase movement with the X-Time escapement?
JCB: No, no, it’s mainstream. We are looking to have our own escapement and we want more or less a TAG Heuer to be a TAG Heuer and to be different on the movement side.
C11: You have talked a bit publicly about your new role at LVMH. Can you describe what your role will be going forward directly in relation to TAG Heuer? Will you still look over product, for example, or more at group-wide strategy for LVMH?
JCB: To sum up my mission, in one word: transmission. Transmission is my mission. If I have 45 years of experience and I keep this experience for me and retire, these 45 years are just lost. They have served me. They have helped me, but leaving after 45 years, just leaving, that is a waste. You waste 45 years of experience for which I could have given back to other people.
So my mission is clearly called transmission. Transmission is my new role. The new role transmission does not exist in reality. In most of the companies the transmission role is not defined. It’s not managed. It’s just by time some people talk to others, blah, blah. Here I want to really have it as a central role of my daily activities, which means I will go probably to the three brands, not only TAG Heuer, and I will help and advice and motivate and instruct wherever I am needed or wherever I think I should do it.
So it’s not a very clear, clear daily table time, but it is called Biver you have to transmit. That’s my role. My role is called transmission.
C11: Speaking of the future, given that the majority of the 2019 collection is well advanced, what are some of the things that people can look forward to in 2019? It’s obviously the 50th anniversary of the Monaco. Is there anything else you can share about next year?
JCB: Yeah, there’s the Monaco, of course, as you mentioned, the 50th anniversary. There is also the Autavia. The Autavia will have an additional development. We will have an enlarged Autavia collection.
C11: This is around the Calibre 5 and Calibre 7 watches that we saw at Baselworld this year?
C11: So that’s what we have for 2019, but when you look back over the last four years, what is the watch that you are the most proud of?
JCB: I think it was the launch and presentation of the first Swiss-made Connected watch. This I will remember for all my life. It was huge. The buzz we created when we launched the connected watch in New York was just enormous. We had millions of hits and interest. We have never seen it. And it was very unusual for a Swiss watch 0:24:17.1 to have such a huge buzz So that is a very strong highlight, and certainly at TAG Heuer probably one of the best.
The second one is when we were able to produce a Tourbillon chronograph at the very accessible price with fully the highest quality ever. Even today, there has not been one watch competing with ours because we are still the only chronograph Chronometer Tourbillon on the market. That is quite enormous.
On the one hand, we have the technology like the Connected watch, where we were the first Swiss watch brand. And on the other hand, you have the Tourbillon, which is the most traditional watchmaking art, and we have both. So we have the two extremes. That is phenomenal. I am so proud that we could present nearly at the same time the two extremes. The eternity with the Tourbillon and the technology with the Connected watch.
C11: I think that’s a great note to finish up on. On behalf of all Heuer and TAG Heuer collectors, thank you very much for the last four years at what is always our favourite brand. I think the energy you’ve brought to the business and just how much you give back to collectors is something very special, and something that will be very hard to replace.
JCB: Thank you. Of course, I will still support and help Stéphane [Bianchi] and Frederic [Arnault] and help to animate more and more the history of TAG. That’s what collectors are looking for, but also normal customers. For a normal customer, the more you have history, the more he will feel confident. History is a very, very important aspect. And I have focused on the history.
Look at the auction, the prices of our watches have nearly tripled or even five times. And for that I’m also very proud. We are all constantly pushing history and then we are also pushing technology. That’s one of the specialties of TAG, to have both sides, the history and the technology.