Friday, September 21, 2018

Biver Leave's the Party - Maybe this Time for Sure...

So you've read it everywhere else, the last emperor is perhaps now finally, really, actually leaving the party.  Well, this time seems more likely than previous retirements.  

Shamelessly borrowed from the world-wide info-web
But to quote that other great commentator on the watch industry, Lieutenant Columbo - 
"Something's still bothering me..."

So I'm going straight up on the "Columbo-tip", and ask a few questions that are, perhaps, not being asked elsewhere.

I held off putting anything out there yesterday because, frankly, I felt that there was more to this than an ill executive stepping aside to focus on his health. Moreover, it was the guy's birthday. A little respect was in order. But remember, we've been down this road before, when he announced that he was stepping down, and returned with an even broader mandate a few months later.

And the fact that there were two names being "mooted" as possible replacements was not accidental. And today's press release from LVMH HQ confirms what I suspected -

After an extraordinary career spanning over 40 years in watchmaking, Jean-Claude Biver, together with LVMH, has decided to relinquish his operational responsibilities and assume the role of non-executive Chairman of the LVMH watchmaking division.

Stéphane Bianchi has been appointed CEO of the Watchmaking Division, with effect from 1st November 2018. He will directly lead TAG Heuer, with the CEOs of Hublot and Zenith reporting to him.

Frédéric Arnault has been appointed Strategy and Digital Director of TAG Heuer.

Okay, let's consider this from LVMH's perspective - You've got a strong, dynamic leader in charge of 1 of your most important brands, and "overseeing" 2 others. But what you also have is a wee bit of a cult of personality. And I want to say something very clearly - that is not a dig at Mr. Biver, it actually underscores his charisma, popularity and ability to lead. But what also happens in this situation is that you then find yourself without a real contingency plan, and more than just a small power vacuum just waiting to happen.

Hublot, while having a CEO not named Biver, constantly finds Mr. Biver front and center at a LOT of its operations. Tag Heuer? Mr. Biver has been the defacto CEO for several years, and there still does not seem to be anyone lined up and ready to take the helm, even though he has said frequently that it would be a priority to develop a replacement. And Zenith? Sure, lots of interesting new models, but if the conversation I recently heard two US retailers having about sales is anything to go on? Not exactly punching their weight. Now I also want to clearly state that these points are merely anecdotal. But when taken as a whole, they are worth considering.

Mr. Biver admittedly has been having health troubles, but as one person who knows about these things confided, Mr. Biver has had, and worked through several rather serious health issues for the past several years and has still remained at the helm. Moreover, we are talking about a guy who LOVES what he does, and has worked through similar challenges. And the last point about the health concerns, he has stated in his brief comments that he is now starting to do better health-wise. If so, why leave now?

And more pertinent, if it was really about health, why would the replacement not be starting until November? My sense is that someone at LVMH who has a last name that might begin with the letter "A" has a case of the fidgets.

It bears considering the language used in the release:
Jean-Claude Biver, together with LVMH, has decided to relinquish his operational responsibilities and assume the role of non-executive Chairman of the LVMH watchmaking division.

So at least insofar as LVMH goes, this is the end of a truly dynamic career. And if I am being honest? I think that there will be some changes coming within the brands as well, because when there is someone with that much personal involvement, who commands the type of loyalty that Mr. Biver has? Let's just say that for some, there might be some uncomfortable questions that cannot be ignored any longer.

Another way to look at it is what a person inside the industry has referred to as the "Biververse" or "Biversphere". Meaning that at the center of it all, you have Jean-Claude Biver, and orbiting around him are the satellites, such as Ricardo Guadalupe. There have been others, who have seen their career trajectories greatly altered once they have been uncoupled from the mother ship. The rare exception to this perhaps being Jean-Frederic Dufour, who landed perhaps one of the safest and most secure gigs out there when he landed on the Green Planet, Rolex. Aldo Magada is laboring on an obscure and dark planet with Anonimo and Vulcain. Stéphane Linder who resigned unexpectedly from Tag Heuer (which led to Mr Biver taking over at Tag) stopped for a glass of Tang at Gucci (less than 2 years) a brief stint as a consultant, then off to Breitling-World where he is now piloting the LEM with Georges Kern, potentially arguing about who will be the first to walk on the moon. What has not happened in recent years, which had happened in previous Biver regimes was the development of new talent. Many people felt (and rightly so) that a stint at Biver U could help develop someone to lead a brand of their own one day. This explains the 2 appointments announced by LVMH today. I do not claim to be a great friend or confidant to Mr. Biver, but I feel confident is saying that I think he would have looked for someone with actual industry experience, and probably would not have looked to promote based on family connections.

I think to sum it up, in many ways, Mr. Biver was the patron of the watch making peloton, and while you couldn't really argue with the overall results, it eventually led to a set-up that was entirely too dependent upon him to oversee, and as such it was inevitable that it would end. Sooner or later time is called on all of us, we just don't always know when it will be, or how it will come about.

Now on to the two New-Jacks. Per the LVMH announcement -

Stéphane Bianchi has been appointed CEO of the Watchmaking Division, with effect from 1st November 2018. He will directly lead TAG Heuer, with the CEOs of Hublot and Zenith reporting to him.

This breaks the Biver model, because while Mr. Bianchi might have been a titan in the cosmetics/perfume industry? This is quite a different thing and goes contrary to what Mr. Biver has said in more than one interview, and I quote particularly from an interview he had with Wired, essentially? You have to learn the ropes before you try to take command of the ship. He often reflects back to his beginnings and his stint at Audemars Piguet where he was put through an internship at half-salary for one year to learn the inner workings of the business. Something tells me that Mr. Bianchi is not taking a similar path. You could argue that at his age that would be unreasonable, but then again we do need to consider the title that he has been given. Time will tell, but from an outside perspective, I suspect that this appointment was driven more by the LVMH folks and was probably not taking into account too much feedback from the folks who actually work in this particular sector within the group.

And as for Arnault the "even younger"? Firstly, age is not necessarily a requirement for ability. Having said that? Well, it is interesting that Arnault the "slightly older" was invested with a luggage company, and now another family member is being inserted into a fairly high level position within the group in a company that he has spent some time with, but in an industry that he has very little actual experience in. So again, we will see what develops and how things go, but it doesn't hurt that he shares the same last name as the owners.

But if anything is abundantly clear given today's announcement, it is that LVMH is making a fairly serious change in how the watch brands will be managed, and I suspect that while this is a very big shift, there are more to come. And in this instance, I do not think that we will see Atlas shrug.

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