Bernard Arnault speaking at Conférence à l'Ecole polytechnique
France’s richest man, Bernard Arnault, did not gain the nickname “wolf in the cashmere coat” for nothing. The luxury retail owner’s cutthroat business acumen had him butting heads with owners of Hermès, a rival Parisian handbag and silk scarf maker, after it was revealed he was slowly buying up stocks for a possible takeover. After negotiations, Arnault agreed not to buy any more Hermès stock until at least 2020.
Arnault’s luxury retail conglomerate, LVMH, is the largest luxury retailer in the world, with 70 brands and 4,000 stores catering to the rich, including Dom Perignon, Bulgari, Fendi and Louis Vuitton. LVMH also owns one of the stars of mainstream retail, Sephora.
Arnault always seemed to have an eye for business, but he began far from high-end accessories. Born in France in 1949, he started his career in the 1960s at his father’s manufacturing company. After five years, he convinced his father to liquidate the construction division and invest in real estate. The new company, Férinel, was formed in 1974 and built specialty holiday accommodations. Arnault served in several key positions including chief executive and president.
His luxury retail empire began in 1984 when he bought Financiére Agache with the help of Antoine Bernheim. He became chief executive and took control over Boussac, a struggling textile company that owned Christian Dior, department store Le Bon Marche and other high-end assets. His voracious appetite for luxury brands continued with the acquisition of Givenchy, Guerlain, Marc Jacobs, Emilio Pucci, Loro Pinan and more during the 1990s and 2000s. In April, he took full control over the Christian Dior Couture brand for €6.5B ($7.8B), including debt.
While other retail brands are filing for bankruptcy and closing stores by the hundreds, LVMH posted record sales of $40B for fiscal year 2016.
Arnault also has billions of dollars in stock in LVMH and stock in supermarket chain Carrefour, one of Europe’s biggest grocers. He has even had a stint in the newspaper business with La Tribune, a French economic newspaper he later sold, and Les Echos.
When he is not trying on new luxury brands, Arnault is an avid fan of the arts and was instrumental in the $135M Frank Gehry-designed Fondation Louis Vuitton museum in Paris, which opened in 2014. — Julie Littman
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