A Conversation With Tag Heuer and Hublot CEO Jean Claude Biver
Jean Claude Biver has been instrumental in the revitilization of the Swiss Watch industry over the last 30 years. He’s single handledly developed technologies and marketing strategies that have made Swiss Watches into the dominant sponsors of so much of the sport and motorsport that we love to watch here at Petrolicious. He found time in his busy schedule recently at the Montreal Grand Prix to talk to us about how he does what he does, what’s in his garage, and why he’s so desperately in love with the idea of being the official timekeeper of Formula 1.
TG: Mr. Biver, what is the first car that you ever drove?
J-C B: Volkswagen Beetle. It was quite old.
TG: But so are you.
J-C B: It was cheap, and it worked incredibly well.
TG: What year was this?
J-C B: 1967, and the car was from 1957; it was 10 years old.
TG: Did you come from a car family?
J-C B: Yes.
TG: What kind of car did your father drive?
J-C B: Chevrolet. My grandfather, he was crazy about American cars.
TG: Why is that?
J-C B: I don’t know, because America was the symbol of freedom which was the symbol of the car in those days. They had real leadership. American car industry was booming in the ’60s. I remember this, he had a Chevrolet Impala, and he changed every two or three years: he had a new one. It was very strange to be driving a Chevrolet Impala in Switzerland at the time, but I thought it was very cool.
TG: Driving must have been a part of your life growing up.
J-C B: Yes, and we used to drive a lot because our grandparents were living about 250 miles from home and so every month the kids had to drive 250 miles to go to the grandparents and 250 miles to come back. Which is nothing for American standards, but on our roads it was 5 hour or 6 hours seated in the car.
TG: Walk me through the cars that meant something to you over your life.
J-C B: The GT40 Ford meant a lot, that’s why I bought one. It was just after the victory at Le Mans and we were all amazed that Ford suddenly was beating Ferrari. I bought also a Ferrari 275 GTB/4 which was an incredible car racing in the GT category. I had a Jaguar Type E Type 3.2 liter, because it was an incredible car in those days. I bought also a Dino GTS in the ’70s. All my collection has been established with cars that meant something to me when I was young. This means a little bit that I realized some dreams that I had, because when I was young I was dreaming of a Type E Jaguar.
TG: You could look at a photo or a poster… but you couldn’t buy it or drive it.
J-C B: Exactly. And suddenly one day, you can afford it. It gives you great satisfaction.
TG: When did you start to make the connection between performance automobiles and watch making?
J-C B: In the ’70s, when a friend of mine told me that the first gearbox of a car was inspired by the gearbox of a chronograph split second. [In a] chronograph split second, you have two second hands and they work together, then you push, and boom—one stops, the other one goes on, you can measure and read how long it was at the time in between the two events. Push a second time and you release it, and it with catch up and synchronize again.
To do this function, to disconnect and reconnect, you need a gear. The first cars that came out in the beginning of the 20th century, around 1915-1920, had gearboxes that were inspired by the movement of the split second chronograph. It amazed me. Then I realized that the engine for the road or the engine for the wrist have had originally the same thinking, and the same mechanics rules. Today it’s a little bit different but nevertheless, that I realized in the ’70s.
TG: What watches in history do you identify as having the closest bond to motorsport? There are obviously some iconic ones like Rolex Daytona, watches that are labeled as driving watches, or the Siffert Autavia. To you what stands out as the most notable driving watches?
J-C B: I think you mentioned: it’s Autavia and Daytona. Daytona has the name. Autavia has not the name like Monaco or Monza, but Autavia and Daytona are from the same period more or less. With the exception that in those days Heuer was more active and was more a reference for motor racing then Rolex. Rolex was more a general, and Heuer was specifically concentrated on motor racing. Heuer was the first sponsor of motor racing in the ’60s.
In those days, Heuer was alone. There was nobody, he had every door was open to him, and he was the guy known to every racer, he was friends with Enzo Ferrari, he was sponsor of the Ferrari cars…he was an incredible guy. I would say exactly what you said; Daytona and Heuer Autavia are the two watches that are related to motor racing from the past.
TG: What was Tag Heuer’s relationship with motor racing when you joined?
J-C B: Because it was an ending process, Tag Heuer dropped out of Audi, dropped out of Porsche, dropped out of Le Mans, nearly dropped out of Formula One. I re-elevated and I took Tag Heuer back to the race track.
TG: Did you use a lot of your experience with Hublot as becoming the official timekeeper of a lot of different events to kind of re-inspire the brand?
J-C B: Yes, of course, I used my experience, I used lots of the knowledge that I had in my relationship in different fields. We took it back to motor racing to what was left, because in the meantime Rolex had taken Formula One timekeeping, it was gone for us. We were in the beginning when I took over, I made the decision to go with Red Bull because I believed that Red Bull was more appealing to our marketing strategy, we have more similarities in our attitude as we are both very disruptive. McLaren is a great car is a great brand but is more traditional.
I’m doing my best to come back to motor racing and it’s a never ending process. We will be back and back and back until we are number one again.
TG: Does Tag involve itself in design or engineering process of an engine or is it purely marketing?
J-C B: No this is marketing. It would be very arrogant for us to say that we are contributing to the performance of the Renault engine. I am ready to say many things but never a full lie [Laughs]. I can say 10% of a lie, or 20% but a full lie I would never dare. [Laughs heartily]
TG: Stick to the small engines for your wrist, right?
J-C B: Chris Horner, the boss of Red Bull, he said I read it on yahoo.com; he said we have to thank Tag Heuer to their contribution to our engine but he said it in kind of a joke.
TG: Beautiful stickers, though! What would you change about Tag Heuer’s current relationship with the racing community? If you could change anything, if you can push a button right now.
J-C B: I would want to have 24 hours of Le Mans as a timekeeper and I would like to have Formula One.
TG: How does the negotiation process work around something like that? Is there an annual contract renewal or a fee process or how does it work?
J-C B: No, there are long-term contracts, Hublot has a 10-year contract with Ferrari. Nobody can push us out. Rolex has probably has a 5 or 7 year contract with Formula One. We don’t try, but if I would have a dream, I would say those are two races I would like to have. I don’t make myself any illusions and I will not kick, I mean who are we—we would never kick out anybody. It’s just: if one day there is an opportunity, we would not let the opportunity pass.
TG: What is your favorite event to go to as a spectator?
J-C B: I must say, it’s strange I like Abu Dhabi Formula One race but because it’s the last one, but I like the atmosphere and like the circuit, I like the hotel which is very close, very convenient…and then I like the opposite which is Monaco. Monaco is not so convenient, it’s difficult—it’s exactly the opposite. I like both. I usually go to both.
TG: Where do you stay in Monaco?
J-C B: I stay at my home.
TG: You have a home in Monaco?
J-C B: No, but a little bit further.
TG: Like all Bond villains.
J-C B: I have a home near Monaco, not in Monaco, in France I have a home.
TG: The broad question is what’s next for you at Tag Heuer?
J-C B: What’s next? Next year is next. Listen, we are on track, we are on the beginning of the renaissance, if I say renaissance it’s maybe exaggerated because we are the second biggest brand in the States, so to talk about the renaissance when you’re number two is a little bit exaggerated. Nevertheless, we are on track to become a very successful and very aggressive…and a very innovative brand.
That’s our aim to be the leader in innovation, leader in disruption, leader in avant-garde and leader in the accessible luxury Swiss watch industry. We will never forget that we have to be the accessible luxury watch brand. The day we forget this the day we get into the inaccessible luxury we will run out of our DNA. Tag Heuer must be avant garde, accessible luxury and must have a perceived value that is double the price.
TG: Are you surprised at all by the success of digital watchmaking?
J-C B: The connected watch, you mean? No, I’m not surprised by the connected watch’s success, it’s normal—if you are young, why would you wear a watch that tells you what time it is and that’s it? If you are a watch collector it’s different. If you are just a young kid, why should you buy a watch that tells you what time when you can have the same but tells you what’s up in the world? I understand why these young people are interested in connected watches, and I believe the connected watches are still in the stone age, there have been so many developments to the connected watch. I’m very proud and I’m very happy that we entered the connected watch space so early.
Now that we are in it, we will open in September a 500 square meter office in Santa Clara in the Intel campus. Intel is providing us a space in their own campus for our engineers, which means we are now really getting involved more and in the connected watches. It’s something I really believe strongly in it and we are going to innovate and do very important projects in the connected watch.
TG: What watch do you wear every day?
J-C B: I wear the connected watch every day. Not every night, but every day, it’s my day watch.
Special thanks to Jean-Claude Biver for taking the time to chat with us during the Montreal Grand Prix.