BaselWorld came as a source of relief to most watchmakers this year. With better attendance and more interest from buyers, 2010 is poised to be a year of revival, a welcome change for much of the industry. Except, that is, for Jean-Claude Biver and Hublot. Biver, the chief executive of the 30-year-old luxury watch company that is now part of the LVMH group, told Mint how the brand had not only turned in record sales, but had also persisted through difficult times without having to fire a single employee. “In fact, we were hiring people. When other watchmakers were busy getting rid of people, we were quietly picking good people up,” Biver said. “2009 was a fantastic year for us. I am so sad it is over.”
Hublot’s recent success has come on the back of new product launches and aggressive marketing, including association with high-profile sporting events such as Formula One. But most of all, the brand has been able to continuously interpret the idea of “Art of Fusion” in the form of new products. The Big Bang line, unveiled in 2005, has played a strong role in bringing Hublot’s revenues up to $176 million in 2009. This is from a low base of $24 million in 2004, which is when Biver took over the company.
Honesty, said Biver, is the secret of this impetus. “You have to be honest with your retailer, honest with your customer and honest with your watchmakers. Cheating people will probably help you do well for one year. Cheating customers and making bad products will give you good numbers for just one year. But after that you are dead.”
People person: Jean-Claude Biver works closely with his watchmakers and watch marketeers. Photograph courtesy Hublot
Over the years, and especially since taking over Hublot, Biver has developed into a larger-than-life figure, perhaps even becoming an ambassador for the brand. Biver’s turnaround of Hublot has now even become a business school case study. But the 30-year veteran of the watch industry—Biver’s first job was in sales with the Audemars Piguet brand—is loath to take credit. “Without my people I am nothing. Without their loyalty I am nothing,” explained Biver.
“Six days of the week we work together, everybody, for 15 or 16 hours. On Sunday, because I am a Catholic, we take rest and work only four or five hours. Not more than that.”
The brand has so much demand, Biver explains, that he is perhaps the only watchmaker who doesn’t shut shop between Christmas and the New Year. “I can’t afford to. I have to catch up with demand. So we work till evening on the 24th. And then start on the morning of the 26th. Right up till 5pm on the 31st. My workers are devoted.”
But why would they do this for him?
“What do we need? We need love. If you reward them, if you treat them well, if you trust them...they will do all this and more.”
The next challenge then, for Biver, was to bring out lines of products that would stand apart and, therefore, find buyers.
Substance in his products and good marketing is what Hublot owes its success to. “You need make watches that people find good value in. They should see the benefit in buying these watches. And then you need good marketing. Without good marketing no one will know about your products. If your products have no substance then people will say that there is nothing of value in the brand,” explained Biver. “When both come together, bam! You have an explosion.”
In terms of products, Hublot continues to focus on the concept of fusion. Combining a variety of materials around a high-quality mechanical movement has been the brand’s raison d’etre for some time. At BaselWorld 2010, Hublot also unveiled the UNICO HUB1240 movement, part of the first generation of in-house movements from the brand. What is most striking about the movement is its rich black colour, the by-product of a galvanic surface treatment.
Biver, however, continues to focus on the technological challenges of innovating the fusion concept. One of the materials his engineers are working with currently is magnesium, one of the lightest materials on earth, but also a notoriously difficult material to work with.
“We decided we would do a watch, which had a movement made of magnesium. We did it! But we faced lots of problems. First, if you tried drilling magnesium, it would produce produce burning chips. So you can’t use it with the oil-cooled machines we currently have in the factory. We have to change everything. Not an adaptation. You have to buy another machine. So we did.”
Second, Biver said, magnesium has very little flexibility. “Unlike gold, you can’t just drill a hole and set a diamond in it. And in a movement you have over 100 such holes. So you had working had to be much more accurate.”
And finally, magnesium is highly prone to oxidizing. “So we found a way to deposit a coating on magnesium that would prevent this problem. But I want to avoid this coating.”
Biver’s engineers continue to work on the problem. Biver also touched upon some of the other “fusion” projects the company was working. “We are trying to figure out how to prevent gold from scratching. A university is working on the project. Some projects give you results. Many don’t. But we must do this.” Hublot, Biver said, spends around 3-5% of its revenue on research and development projects carried out outside the company.
“That is a lot of money to spend on speculative projects.”
But for Hublot and Biver, the experiments are working very well indeed.