In 1983, the Brooklyn Bridge which connects the New York City Boroughs of Brooklyn and Manhattan to eachother was undergoing some major renovation. The old wood that the bridge was originally built with was being replaced with a metal frame and so the wood was being discarded as waste. Paul Hartunian, just a regular guy who had tried and failed at various marketing endeavours, was watching a news interview where a man was talking about the renovations being carried out. The Brooklyn Bridge trash wood was piled up right behind him next to a truck with his telephone number printed on it, right there on the screen for all to see. Paul Hartunian wasted no time. Carpe Diem! He called the man to say that he could take the wood off his hands and save him the disposal costs. He even had the wood delivered! What he did next surely wrote itself into the New York history books as one of the master strokes of the Century. He quickly cut the wood into small blocks and designed and printed certificates authenticating the blocks of wood as original pieces of the famous landmark, with a little history about the bridge written on each certificate. He then set about letting every newspaper in town know what he was selling, with the story heading, “Man sells Brooklyn Bridge for $14.95!” The rest, as they say, is history.
Business opportunities like the one described are more common than most would think but it takes a certain type of visionary, a certain character, to see them and most importantly, to take action. The CEO of Hublot, Jean-Claude Biver is one such visionary and there are few like him in what is now a multi-billion pound industry. What Mr Biver did was quite special. Not only did he add value where there was previously none (he completely revived the watch brand Blancpain) but in so doing, he single-handedly revived the entire Swiss Luxury Watch industry. Allow me to explain.
In 1980, even the largest and most well known Swiss Watch brands had "a proportion of 70% more or less quartz movements in their collection", as Mr Biver himself has been quoted as saying. Quartz movements in Swiss Watches is like adding MSG to organic vegetables, so in 1981 Jean-Claude Biver and Jacques Piguet bought the rights to the watch company ‘Blanpain’, which had been out of business since the 1970s due to the growth of the quartz watch. What they did was see the opportunity to make the fact that Blancpain watches would not use quartz, into a strength.In fact, Blancpain’s revival was defined by this premise. Biver and Piguet rebuilt the brand on the slogan: "Since 1735 there has never been a quartz Blancpain watch. And there never will be." Blancpain quickly became one of the most revered traditional watch brands, with a turnover of 50 million Swiss Francs. In 1992, the brand was sold to SSIH Group, which is now known as Swatch Group, for 60 million Swiss Francs (USD 43m), having been initially purchased for 22 thousand Swiss Francs. Biver remained CEO of Blancpain until 2003.
Now whichever way you look at it, that’s good business, but the magic of this success was the effect it had on the Swiss Watch industry as a whole. Automatic Swiss luxury watches became “cool” and sought-after once again, and Quartz watches lost their initial appeal and were now seen as “cheap” and “lower class”. Biver’s next assignment was to turn around the fortunes of Swatch-Group-owned Omega, which, by the 1980s, had become something of a joke as far as watch brands were concerned. In his 10 years at Omega, sales at the company practically tripled and the non-quartz, automatic movement Swiss Luxury Watch was thriving and in demand. He had completely put the perception of “luxury” back into the luxury watch.
Today, the watch industry is as strong as it has ever been with exports in 2011 reaching nearly 20 Billion Swiss Francs. Can we accredit this success to Mr Biver? Perhaps that’s a huge claim but I don’t believe it is an overstated one.
Mr Biver put the “luxury” back into luxury watches.