A visionary leader, an innovative CEO, a marketing genius. Jean-Claude Biver has earned numerous accolades in his four decades in the Swiss watch industry. But far more important than that, throughout his career, Mr. Biver has shown that he is a leader who cares deeply about the people he’s worked with, and about society and the environment. Perhaps now more than ever, we need to listen to him.A visionary leader, an innovative CEO, a marketing genius. Jean-Claude Biver has earned numerous accolades in his four decades in the Swiss watch industry. But far more important than that, throughout his career, Mr. Biver has shown that he is a leader who cares deeply about the people he’s worked with, and about society and the environment. Perhaps now more than ever, we need to listen to him.

To me, the following conversation was something that was important to share with the entire watch community and beyond. When I first thought about it and when I saw the reprehensible way many human beings were acting up to, and during, the pandemic, Mr. Biver’s words reminded me of the harsh indictment of humanity made by Agent Smith to Morpheus in The Matrix, “[Human beings are] not actually mammals.

“Every mammal instinctively establishes an equilibrium with the surrounding environment. But you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease . . . You are a plague.”

But at the same time, I knew that Mr. Biver was an eternal optimist. He believed in the same courage, hope and empathy that was exhibited around the world by the extraordinary actions of healthcare workers, doctors, first responders and even cleaners and grocery clerks. And so I understood that he was addressing the problem that we are collectively facing, because the first step to fixing a problem is recognizing that it exists.

Projected waste generation, by region (millions of tonnes/year) (Source: datatopics.worldbank.org)
Projected waste generation, by region (millions of tonnes/year) (Source: datatopics.worldbank.org)

And we have a big problem, or more specifically, three major problems. These are greed, waste and hate. It may seem ironic that a luxury watch magazine would want to discuss these issues. But I think that coming out of this pandemic, everyone will want to assess the person they want to be and the values they want to represent.

How do we fix these problems? Greed needs to be addressed at the sociological level by shifting the parameters for how we judge success away from overt and vulgar representations of materialism and back towards intelligence, scholarliness, kindness and ethics. Waste needs to be addressed by changing the way we consume. Buying less but better or in a more considered way.

Buying only what we need or investing in things that are perennial and will endure forever. I believe mechanical watchmaking falls into this category, but as an industry it needs to disconnect from an endless pursuit of creating “novelties,” that comes from fashion. And hate? How do we address that? Well, that’s the biggest issue of all and I suppose we still don’t have the answer. Or perhaps Mr. Biver does.

Mr. Biver, what is the biggest problem we face today?

The biggest issue we face in the third millennium is that it is still being led by “old people” from the 20th century. And these “people” were raised and taught one principle. That they must maximize profits at all costs. If they are in a publicly listed company and they do not maximize the profits, their shareholders who come together once a year during the AGM will say, “You, Mister CEO. You are not doing your job. You are not maximizing profits. And you should step down.”

If you are in a privately-owned company or a family-owned company, the owners will ask you, “Mister CEO, why are you not earning us more money? You are not doing your job. Because you have not maximized our profits, we are not able to do the things we want this year. We cannot buy the things we want.”

Even the CEO himself when he looks at the results of the year and he thinks to himself, “I could have earned more. I should have reduced fixed costs. I should have paid people less. I could have moved these jobs to a call center. Or I could have manufactured this or that in another country where labor is cheaper. Or I could have disposed of my waste in a cheaper way. I am a bad CEO. I am a bad leader because I am not maximizing profits.”

So we have been taught and encouraged and rewarded to maximize profit at all costs. No matter what the effect on the human beings that work for us and no matter the effect on the environment around us. And what has been the result of that? Never has the world been richer. Never has more wealth been accumulated. Never have we had greater technological advancement. Never have we been more interconnected. And yet people are suffering in poverty. The planet is dying.

So I ask you: Have we been successful? When people are suffering and the planet is dying? The answer must be no. Whatever we have been doing has been wrong and so we must change.

2018 Global Multidimensional Poverty Index estimates, by region in millions as compiled by the Human Development Report Office of the United Nations Development Program (Source: hdr.undp.org/en/2018-MPI)
2018 Global Multidimensional Poverty Index estimates, by region in millions as compiled by the Human Development Report Office of the United Nations Development Program (Source: hdr.undp.org/en/2018-MPI)
We have talked before about ethical capitalism that years ago was dismissed as idealistic and unrealistic but now seems more relevant than ever. Do you think this will gain momentum after the pandemic?

Yes, I do. Because of young people. Because of Generation Z. Ten years ago when someone came to a job interview, he would ask about the profitability of the company. He would ask about the expense account. Today when a young person goes to visit a company, he or she will ask them, “What are your ethics? What do you represent?” I know this because I have a son, Pierre, who is in his early 20s and this is very important to him. He discusses it with his friends. And so you see, the parameters of what defines success for a company or an individual are changing. Once Generation Z is in charge, it will change even more.

I think that the future of capitalism is one in which companies create profit as they must, but at the same time they are improving the lives of their workers, and they are improving the environment around them. At each company I worked at, I always wanted my employees to feel happy and to work with dignity. But this was also a selfish motivation because I knew that they would work harder and with greater motivation if they looked forward each day to going to work. Freud said that human beings need two things. They need love and they need work. But work in the definition of something noble, something that gives them value.

1.1 Key Take-aways: Global Sustainable Competitiveness Index 2019

Scandinavia, Northern Europe on Top – Least developed Africa behind:

  • The top 5 spots are occupied by Scandinavia: Sweden is leading the Sustainable Competitiveness Index – followed by the other 4 the Scandinavian nations.
  • The top 20 are dominated by Northern European countries, including the Baltic states
  • Of the top twenty nations only two are not European – New Zealand on 12, and Canada on 19.
  • Germany ranks 15, the UK 17, and the World’s largest economy, the US, is ranked 34. The US ranks particularly low in resource efficiency, but also social capital – potentially undermining the global status of the US in the future
  • Of the large emerging economies (BRICs), China is ranked 37, Brazil 49, Russia 51, and India 130.
  • Some of the least developed nations have a considerable higher GSCI ranking than their GDP would suggest (e.g. Laos, Timor, Burma, Bhutan, Suriname…)
  • Asian nations (South Korea, Japan, Singapore, and China) lead the Intellectual Capital ranking. However, achieving sustained prosperity in these countries might be compromised by Natural Capital constraints and current high resource intensity/low resource efficiency
  • The Social Cohesion ranking is headed by Northern European (Scandinavian) countries, indicating that Social Cohesion is the result of economic growth combined with a country-wide social consensus

Extracted from The Global Sustainable Competitiveness Index 2019 report published by eco-business.com

One of the things that we have seen during this pandemic is that the people we have dismissed as being inconsequential, like the person cleaning the streets or the person at the grocery shop and supermarket, are in fact the most consequential people in the world. And we must thank them and treat them with the respect and dignity that they deserve.

Because they are enabling our society to function. I think that as a business owner there is a benefit to this as well. Because I think the best businesses are run with less people but better motivated and better rewarded people. For me, I always follow the rule that two great people can do a better job than three or even four mediocre or unmotivated people. How do you motivate them? By giving them purpose and dignity. And rewarding them well.

I always told my people, never skimp on your flight or your hotel, because when you rest, I want you to rest well and to feel that I am looking after you. And when they wake, they will want to outperform anyone else because they know I care about them. I remember taking everyone in 1987 at Blancpain, I mean every single person, to Capri for a one-week holiday with me. It cost a fortune. When they asked me why I was doing this, I said, “Because if times are tough and we might have to work on a Sunday or during a holiday, you will do it because you know it is necessary. And you know I genuinely care for you and am not trying to take advantage of you.”

Regarding the environment, of course, now every luxury business has a responsibility to be carbon neutral or even carbon positive if they can. In the end, luxury is about creating emotion and fulfilling dreams, but how can we as an industry do this if we are morally or ethically compromised?

During the pandemic we saw humanity become divided and an increase in polarization with many incidences of hate. How can the luxury industry combat hate?

Through the creation of beauty and through the creation of art that endures. The appreciation of watches, for example, transcends race, politics, religion and even language. My son works at Phillips and is a specialist in vintage watches and becoming a specialist in modern watches as well. One of the remarkable things is that watches with Arabian dials have become very sought after. But they are being purchased not only by people in the Middle East, but by people in Europe and in America and in Asia. Why? Because they are special and they are beautiful.

If you think about it, a mechanical watch is a miracle of engineering. In a tiny device that fits on your wrist with a movement that is driven by a spring and powering a tiny oscillator that is dividing time into fractions of the second at every moment, and yet its deviation per year might only be a few seconds. There is such great beauty in watchmaking and it reminds us of the beauty that human beings are capable of. When I go to a museum or even a church to see paintings by Rembrandt or Michelangelo or da Vinci, who do you see there? People who are only Dutch or only Italian? No, you see people from all around the world, from every race, every religion, speaking every language. And what are they doing? They are looking at the same painting, having the same reaction. Look at their faces and they are smiling because they are reminded of the beauty that human beings are capable of.