Herding Cows Helps Swiss Executives Ease Boardroom Pressure

Hublot Chief Executive Officer Jean-Claude Biver
Hublot chief executive officer Jean-Claude Biver, poses for a photograph with his herd of cattle. Photographer: Ines Garcia Baena via Bloomberg

Jean-Claude Biver skipped a work event this past weekend. Instead of herding watchbuyers in Monaco, the Hublot chief executive led Marguerite and the rest of his cows down to their winter quarters from Alpine meadows.

“I always give priority to my home, to where I come from,” Biver, 62, said in an interview at his farm near Montreux, Switzerland, where his heifers were adorned with a traditional costume of pine boughs, bells and flower bouquets. “From here I get the strength to do my job.”

CEOs with hobbies make better executives, according to Robert Stebbins, a professor emeritus at the University of Calgary who has written books on the value of maintaining a life outside the office. He coined the term “serious leisure” to describe the diverse pastimes used by executives to provide relief from workplace stress.

For seven years, Biver has carved out time to move his cows, which produce five tons of Gruyere-style cheese annually, about 16 kilometers (10 miles) down from the mountains where they graze to his farm.

Biver, who helped turn Blancpain, Omega and Hublot around during a 37-year watchmaking career, keeps cows while Heinrich Villiger, who owns the cigar maker Villiger Soehne AG, has hunted animals in adventurous locales for four decades.

They have their hobbies and Nestle SA Chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe has his: Brabeck flies a ski-equipped airplane that lands on glaciers in the Alps. Credit Suisse Group AG Chief Executive Officer Brady Dougan, 52, is a marathoner who says his passion for long-distance running energizes him for work. Marc Hayek, 40, the CEO of Blancpain, the maker of watches that sell for $100,000 or more, races a Lamborghini professionally.

‘Colorful Hobbies’

“It’s a wealthy place so people can afford colorful hobbies,” said Richard Laube, 55, former head of Nestle’s Nutrition unit and now CEO of Nobel Biocare Holding AG.

Biver’s barnyard and surrounding grounds were the scene on Sept. 17 for goat-drawn carts, locals playing long Alpine horns and herdsmen in traditional Swiss outfits. About 1,000 visitors were on hand with guests sampling this year’s cheese, which Biver described as tasting like wildflowers.

“The biggest problem of a successful CEO is that sometimes he doesn’t know anymore where he comes from,” Biver said. “This keeps my two feet on earth.”

In his day job, Biver runs Nyon-based Hublot, a unit of LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA that’s known for its Big Bang watches that combine materials such as gold, ceramic, magnesium and titanium.

Wealth Ranking

Switzerland ranks as the world’s fourth-wealthiest nation after Luxembourg, Norway and Qatar, according to International Monetary Fund data. One in 10 households in Switzerland is worth at least $1 million, the Boston Consulting Group says.

On a per capita basis, the country hosts about nine times more of the world’s 500 largest publicly traded companies than Germany, the region’s biggest economy, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Whether there’s something about the country that spurs CEOs toward unusual pastimes or it’s hard to keep hobbies private in a nation of 7.9 million people is an open question, said Laube of Nobel Biocare. He participates in Iron Man competitions and three years ago ran the Zurich marathon in 3 hours, 31 minutes.

Swiss cities, including Zurich, Geneva and Bern, the capital, consistently rank in the top 10 worldwide for quality of life. Switzerland’s fresh air makes it the second-cleanest country worldwide, according to Yale University.

America’s Cup

Biotech billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli, 46, who sold his family’s share of Serono SA to Merck KGaA five years ago, set up the Alinghi sailing team in Geneva that won two straight America’s Cup titles, the nation’s first ever.

Bertarelli is one of Switzerland’s 135 billionaires, according to the magazine Bilan. Nicolas Hayek, the late tycoon who saved the Swiss watch industry, once warned the nation to avoid the “disease of the hyper-rich” -- stagnation.

Hayek’s family heeded his message. Son Nick Hayek, 56, now CEO of Swatch, the largest maker of Swiss watches, flies a helicopter and has dabbled in filmmaking. Sister Nayla, chairwoman of the Biel, Switzerland-based company, judges Arabian horses, gaining contacts among the elite in the Middle East and expanding clientele for luxury brands that include Blancpain.

Stebbins’s books about leisure opened a field of research into hobbies where participants need to develop skills and persevere in the pastime until it becomes part of their personal identity. “As long as it’s challenging, mentally or physically or both, they get skills that help them become better chief executives,” he said.

‘Good Hunters’

Cigar maker Villiger has been an avid hunter since getting his license on his 37th birthday. In the past 44 years, he said he’s hunted boar and deer in Poland and Hungary, pigeon in Cuba, antelope in South Africa and zebras in Zimbabwe.

Hunting is “just like in our business life, where the manager must be better than his competitor to be successful,” he said. “Good managers are at the same time good hunters.”

Adecco SA CEO Patrick De Maeseneire, 53, collects modern Chinese art while Wenger CEO Peter Hug, 50, takes employees of the maker of Swiss army knives on annual outdoor events. This year was tree-climbing in the Jura mountains.

Connecting With Past

Elsewhere in the Swiss voralpen or pre-Alps, Biver brings Brunette, Marguerite and the rest of his 50 heifers down from the pastures to his hometown because “the first watchmakers were peasants and made cheese,” he said. “I decided to start making cheese to connect to the past.”

Brabeck, 66, said he learned a valuable business lesson five years ago climbing the Matterhorn when he decided to turn back 150 meters (500 feet) from the summit as a thunderstorm closed in.

At the time, Brabeck was both chairman and chief executive of Nestle, the world’s largest food company, and he worried he was putting too much at risk. That taught him to avoid risky and expensive acquisitions later in his career, even after spending time to pursue them, he said.

“If you overstretch yourself going to the top, you most probably will die coming down,” Brabeck said in an interview in Kenya during a July visit to the food company’s local factory. “That’s not a very successful mountain climber.”

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