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Bernard Arnault: France’s ‘wolf-in-cashmere’ billionaire

LVMH Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Bernard Arnault presents the group's annual results at the LVMH headquarters in Paris, January 29, 2019.
LVMH Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Bernard Arnault presents the group's annual results at the LVMH headquarters in Paris, January 29, 2019. AFP - ERIC PIERMONT

On Friday, French luxury goods magnate Bernard Arnault briefly toppled Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to become the richest person in the world. Now relegated back to second wealthiest in the world, Arnault remains the richest person in Europe.

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Arnault lasted just a couple of days at the top before Bezos recovered his regular position. But this was the second time in recent months that Arnault has borrowed the crown.

2019 was a good year for Arnault. The CEO of the LVMH group (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy) earned an estimated profit of €35.1 billion over the course of the year. This breaks down as €4,020,307 every hour, or €66,700 a minute. He is one of only three people ever to make it into the exclusive centi-billionaires club, along with Bezos and Bill Gates.

Arnault first dethroned Bezos on December 16, 2019. This triumph lasted even shorter, less than five hours, before Bezos returned to the top. It occurred after LVMH acquired luxury jewelry company Tiffany, causing their stocks to rise.

‘Fascination for Dior’

Arnault’s story is not exactly rags-to-riches, but it does reveal a man driven by ambition who built his own empire.

He was born Bernard Jean Étienne Arnault on March 5, 1949 in the French city of Roubaix, near the Belgian border. 

His father Jean Léon Arnault was a manufacturer and the owner of the civil engineering company, Ferret-Savinel.

His mother Marie Josèphe Savinel made two major contributions to her son’s future. She made him take piano lessons and she had a “fascination for Dior”, according to her son in an interview with the Financial Times, who said she wore its Diorissimo scent. She could not have known that her son would eventually own Dior.

Arnault still plays the piano, which remains one of his major hobbies, along with tennis. Indeed, the piano played a central role in his second marriage. He is said to have wooed Canadian concert pianist Hélène Mercier with his own performance of etudes by composer Chopin.

He graduated in 1971 from the École Polytechnique, France’s most prestigious engineering school whose alumni include three Nobel laureates, Carlos Ghosn and former president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. Having qualified as an engineer, he joined his father's company.

He married his first wife Anne Dewavrin in 1973 and they had two children, a daughter Delphine and a son Antoine. Delphine is widely considered to be her father’s natural successor and is currently executive vice president of Louis Vuitton.

Arnault proved his business acumen in 1976 when he persuaded his father to sell off the construction side of the business and focus instead on real estate. Arnault succeeded his father as president of this new company called Ferinel, specialising in holiday accommodation.

He moved his young family to America in 1981, in an open reaction to the rise of the French Socialists and their determination to tax the rich. He spent three years in the United States, growing his family’s property business.

‘The wolf in cashmere’

Upon his return to France in 1983, he made a crucial business move. He identified a golden opportunity to expand into the textile industry when the landmark firm Boussac went bankrupt.

The French government, under then president Mitterand, was looking for someone to rescue Boussac, an empire that comprised a number of floundering businesses, including Dior.

Arnault’s eye was firmly fixed on this couture prize. He wanted Dior. He proceeded to sell off much of the other operations under the Boussac name, keeping only a few including Dior. He now owns 96.5 percent of Dior.

By this time, top-end luxury goods brands Moet Hennessy and Louis Vuitton had merged to form LVMH. Arnault started investing in this golden egg in 1987. He soon became its biggest shareholder.

Then began one of the fiercest battles in French fashion as Arnault fought to oust first the former chairman Henry Racamier and then many of the top executives. He gained a reputation then for ruthlessness, along with the nickname ‘the wolf in cashmere’.

Having mercilessly filleted the company of many of its loyal servants – and acquiring many newly unemployed enemies in the north of France - Arnault proceeded to make a series of brilliant business decisions. He wanted to expand, but only with the best. He set about bringing some of the top labels in the world into the LVMH fold.

The company’s portfolio now features 75 brands, including fashion houses Christian Lacroix, Celine, Givenchy, Fendi, Marc Jacobs and Dior. It also involves wines and spirits, including champagne brand Dom Pérignon, cognac makers Hennessy, Glenmorangie Scottish whisky and New Zealand winemakers Cloudy Bay.

There is jewelry with Bulgari and watches with Tag Heuer, along with beauty chainstore Sephora.

The group extends to the famous Hotel Cipriani in Venice, a range of top hotels with Michelin starred restaurants called Cheval Blanc in Courchevel in the French Alps and the historic Paris department store Le Bon Marche.

Arnault himself own properties across the world and a private island in the Bahamas.

No sign of slowing down

With all this, 70-year old Arnault and his LVMH domain show no signs of slowing down. Their latest major acquisition was last November, when they agreed to buy luxury jeweler Tiffany for approximately €14.7 billion. 

Forbes has described Arnault as ‘one of the world’s ultimate tastemakers’.

Arnault has not always been an entirely loyal servant to France. He controversially tried – and failed – to get Belgian nationality when France’s 2012 budget looked set to severely tax the wealthy.

The French government had changed hands, Nicholas Sarkozy was out and François Hollande was in. This resounded deeply as Arnault was part of Sarkozy’s inner circle; he had even been a witness at Sarkozy’s wedding in 1996.  Arnault’s attempt to become Belgian did, however, serve to undermine his famously patriotic approach to business.

Along with being an incredibly successful businessman and investor, Arnault is also a passionate and savvy art collector. His first purchase at an art auction was an early 20th-century depiction of Charing Cross Bridge by Claude Monet. He now owns work by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Damien Hirst, Maurizio Cattelan, Andy Warhol and Pablo Picasso.

Arnault is also the visionary behind the Louis Vuitton Foundation. Designed by American architect Frank Gehry, this iconic contemporary art museum was described as a “cloud of glass” when it opened in 2014. It soon found a place in the elite global art landscape as one of the most important galleries in Europe.

The key to his business method is timing. As he said himself, “I think in business, you have to learn to be patient. Maybe I’m not very patient myself. But I think that I’ve learned the most is be able to wait for something and get it when it’s the right time.”

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