Bernard Arnault built a luxury empire on 'desirability.' Who will inherit it?

Arnault’s five children were taught in France’s best schools and raised to take leadership posts in the business, but his dream of keeping LVMH in the family may force him to elevate one above the rest.
Last Updated : 16 September 2023, 17:29 IST
Last Updated : 16 September 2023, 17:29 IST

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One afternoon in July, not long after being named the wealthiest man on the planet by Forbes, Bernard Arnault, the head of the LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton luxury goods empire, took his place on a stage with a view of the Eiffel Tower before a packed crowd of French dignitaries and reporters.

In the front row sat four of his five adult children — the fifth was watching from New York, where he is an executive at Tiffany & Co. Their father had raised all of them since they could walk to one day run the LVMH conglomerate.

The occasion was Arnault’s announcement that LVMH would provide 150 million euros (about $161 million) to sponsor the 2024 Paris Olympics. LVMH companies will play a starring role. Chaumet, a Paris jeweler whose clients once included Napoleon’s wife, Joséphine, will design the Olympic medals, and Moët Hennessy wines will flow in hospitality suites.

“The partnership will help promote France throughout the world,” Arnault declared. As television cameras zoomed in, his eldest son, Antoine, the head of communications and image for LVMH, uttered what could be a tagline for this huge company his father has built: “For a dream, there is no price.”

It was a moment of public triumph for Arnault, a sign of how embedded in the fabric of France LVMH has become. Over more than 30 years, he has forged LVMH into the world’s largest luxury group and the most valuable company in France, with a presence in 81 countries. His brands — 75 of them — are the stars of the luxury world, including Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, Tiffany and Dom Pérignon Champagne. It has given him entree to prime ministers and presidents, and allowed him to amass a museum-worthy art collection.

But his success has brought challenges. In France, Arnault has become a lightning rod for anger over growing economic inequality. In April, 10 days after Forbes put him atop its annual list of richest people, protesters stormed his office in Paris during nationwide strikes over raising the retirement age. His effigy was burned as a symbol of capitalist evil.

Arnault’s five children were taught in France’s best schools and raised to take leadership posts in the business, but his dream of keeping LVMH in the family may force him to elevate one above the rest.

And in recent months LVMH’s stock has taken a beating, down 19% since hitting a high in April. The company reported a dip in U.S. sales in the second quarter, and the Chinese economy, a big source of LVMH’s revenue, is faltering.

The falling shares mean that Arnault (now worth about $195 billion, Forbes says) dropped to the second-richest person in the world in June, eclipsed by Elon Musk. This month, LVMH was replaced as Europe’s most valuable company by Denmark’s Novo Nordisk, the maker of Ozempic and Wegovy, the hugely popular drugs being used for weight loss.

At 74, Arnault has been working to make sure his company — created by gobbling up many European luxury houses that had been weakened by bickering family owners — will stay firmly in his family’s hands, safe from corporate raiders like himself. Last year, he persuaded the board to raise the mandatory retirement age for the CEO and chair to 80, from 75, and created a corporate structure that ensures the family’s control of LVMH, locking in his children — each of whom has been named to highly visible positions within the company — as the chief decision-makers.

Arnault has broadened LVMH beyond extravagant playthings into the world of experiences, acquiring over 50 grand hotels and resorts. And with the Olympics deal, he has extended his tentacles more deeply into the world of sports.

Arnault’s changes mean he doesn’t have to retire next year as originally expected. That hasn’t stopped speculation about whether he can ensure that his heirs — who dress in almost identical Dior navy suits (save for Delphine, his one daughter, who often wears Dior skirts) — avoid a “Succession”-like drama.

The French media is full of headlines comparing the Arnaults with the Roys, the fictional family in the HBO series. There are TikTok videos explaining why the Arnaults are “the real ‘Succession’ family.” The family hates this talk, and takes pains to play down parallels to the show.

A Family Affair

The eldest sibling is Delphine, 48, chair and CEO of Christian Dior Couture and a member of the LVMH executive committee and its board. Antoine, 46, is not only in charge of the group’s image and sustainability efforts but CEO of its menswear brand Berluti, chair of the Italian luxury house Loro Piana, CEO of Christian Dior SE and a member of the LVMH board. Both are from Arnault’s first marriage, to Anne Dewavrin. The youngest three are from Arnault’s second marriage, to Hélène Mercier, a Canadian concert pianist: Alexandre, 31, is executive vice president of product and communications at Tiffany; Frédéric, 28, is CEO of Tag Heuer; and Jean, 24, is Louis Vuitton’s watch director.

In a rare interview in LVMH’s discreetly lavish headquarters in Paris — this article is the first for which Arnault and his children have agreed to talk on the record to an international newspaper — Arnault brushed off any comparison with television’s Roys with a wave of his hand.

“It’s not an obligation, nor inevitable, that a kid is my successor,” he said, leaning back in a buttery leather chair at a round table in his private conference room. On one wall was a Picasso; on two others, Warhols. His son Antoine, in his role as image gatekeeper, sat across the table.

Arnault was wearing a white shirt, a blue tie, a navy jacket and black slacks, although these days he’s usually without a tie, Antoine said, part of a more casual uniform that has accompanied new efforts to engage with the outside world. The children have been instrumental in pushing their father to be more open about the conglomerate.

“The best person inside the family or outside the family should be one day my successor,” Arnault continued. “But it’s not something that I hope is a duel for the near future.”

Still, legacy is clearly on Arnault’s mind. He grew up in Roubaix, once a booming textile center in northern France, and watched family industrial dynasties collapse as children or grandchildren took their eyes off the business or squandered inheritances.

“After one or two generations, it broke down because they had it too easy,” he said. It was a mistake he vowed not to make with his own children. “I didn’t want them to start going to big parties,” Arnault said. “I made them work.”

Business at the Dining Table

Every month, the five siblings meet with their father over lunch on the top floor of LVMH’s headquarters.

For an hour and a half, they discuss business, including finances, the curve of the bracelet on a new 50,000-euro Vuitton watch, upcoming product introductions and the social media payoff of over-the-top events. For example, a Vuitton menswear show by the brand’s new designer, Pharrell Williams, shut down Paris’ Pont Neuf and attracted such names as Kim Kardashian and LeBron James, resulting in over 16 million YouTube hits.

“Make no mistake,” Jean said. “We discuss things, but at the end, it’s he who decides.”

Amid the bonhomie, the siblings say, Arnault is gauging how each of his children is measuring up.

A graduate of France’s elite École Polytechnique, Arnault honed his children’s math skills nearly every night before dinnertime. Antoine recalled that getting anything less than a perfect grade on important exams “wasn’t acceptable.”

Jean jokes about having “24 years of experience, because every lunch and dinner was always about work.”

Ian Rogers, a former chief digital officer at LVMH, said Alexandre had told him, “My business education started when I was 9, at the breakfast table.”

By age 10, Delphine was accompanying her father to Dior stores. He has made weekend inspections of LVMH properties in Paris with his children a routine for more than three decades. Alexandre said: “I remember, age 7, thinking, ‘Why is he doing this, and why is he asking the same question to the same salesperson, every Saturday of the year?’”

The father paired each of his children with a mentor as they entered the business, to teach them the brands and monitor their performance. Delphine and Antoine started in novice positions (Delphine sold Dior perfume at age 17) before ascending to the C-suite. The three youngest moved more quickly into senior roles, “probably because he feels time is running out and he needs to speed up the process of learning,” said Pierre-Yves Roussel, a former chief of the LVMH fashion group and current CEO of Tory Burch.

All of them understand that the family itself is now as much a brand as the brands they own, and have wasted no time making their presence known.

In less than two years at Tiffany, Alexandre helped seal a deal with Beyoncé and Jay-Z, creating a social media sensation. (In 2016, Alexandre persuaded his father to acquire Rimowa, a German maker of aluminum suitcases, which was founded in 1898. He immediately set about making the utilitarian luggage company cool.) Delphine created the LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers, a high-profile talent competition. And Antoine has thrown wide the previously closed doors of many LVMH companies with a series of “open days” that invite the public inside factories and workshops.

Their father never forced them to join LVMH, the children said. Even so, Frédéric said, “he found a way to make me want to give my life to the family business like he did.” (Children from both marriages grew up vacationing together, and were raised to play tennis and piano — their father’s favorite pastimes.)

The clan has gotten bigger after two glamorous marriages: Antoine to model and philanthropist Natalia Vodianova, and Alexandre to Géraldine Guyot, who has an accessories brand, Destree, that is independent of LVMH. Delphine’s partner is a digital entrepreneur and billionaire, Xavier Niel.

When Alexandre wed Geraldine in Venice, Italy, in 2021, guests included Beyoncé, Jay-Z and Roger Federer (who frequently plays tennis with Arnault). His three brothers were groomsmen. They share a family group chat, in which they swap baby pictures.

“I know it’s disappointing for a lot of people,” Antoine said, “but we actually get on well.”

The iPhone vs. Dom Pérignon

Arnault was born into a construction company run by his father and founded by his grandfather, who took him to building sites when he was 7.

When Arnault was 28, his father handed him the keys to the business. He refocused it on real estate, and soon after moved to New Rochelle, New York, to expand in an environment friendlier to entrepreneurs than socialist France.

It was the era of the corporate raider, and Arnault soaked in the more aggressive approach to mergers and acquisitions. When he returned to Paris at 35, after a rather unsuccessful run developing condominiums in Palm Beach, Florida, he came back as a barbarian at the gate — and with a new idea: A New York cabdriver had told him that he didn’t know the name of France’s president, “but I know Dior!”

As it happened, the French government wanted to unload a bankrupt textile conglomerate that included Dior. Arnault bought it for 1 franc, fired 9,000 people and discarded everything except Dior, which he then used to help finance a brutal takeover of LVMH, a group recently formed from luggage maker Louis Vuitton and Moët Hennessy Champagne and cognac house.

The battle for LVMH made his reputation. Enlisted by Henry Racamier, one of LVMH’s founders, to buy shares and prevent another group from gaining control, Arnault did as he was asked, but didn’t stop. He ultimately turned the tables, seized control of LVMH and forced out Racamier, who said at the time, “We would like to find a modus vivendi, but it’s hard with a person like that.”

His style sent shock waves through the clubby world of French business, where he became known as “the Wolf in Cashmere.” It was the beginning of a three-decade spree of empire building. He pursued family-owned brands known for craftsmanship and style: Pucci, Fendi, Celine, Loro Piana. Some were happy to be bought out; some were not. Losses were rare: Gucci and Hermès slipped through his fingers after ugly public battles.

During Arnault’s takeover of Tiffany in 2020, as the pandemic hurt earnings, he was accused of enlisting the French government’s help to delay the deal’s closing, and in the end won a discount on the negotiated price. (At $16 billion, it remains the luxury sector’s biggest deal.)

He has expanded LVMH into luxury hospitality in recent years. LVMH’s holdings include the Cipriani hotel in Venice, the Orient Express train and the “21” Club in New York. There are restaurants in flagship stores for Tiffany and Dior, and a new four-story Moët cocktail bar in Paris.

Arnault’s bets have usually paid off. Luxury, in all its forms, has been one of the most resilient investments on Wall Street in the last decade.

“He was always saying, ‘The iPhone is great, but who knows if we will be using an iPhone in 10 years?’” said Rogers, the former chief digital officer. “‘Whereas I know people will continue to drink Dom Pérignon.’”

Arnault has steered clear of picking sides when dealing with polarizing world leaders, whether cutting the ribbon on a new Vuitton factory in Texas alongside Donald Trump, who was president at the time, or meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin to seal a loan of art to his museum in Paris, the Fondation Louis Vuitton.

“We are like Henry Kissinger,” Arnault said. “We are not there to agree or disagree on the political aspect of the country in which we are doing business.”

‘They Need to Find a Type of Enemy’

Arnault insisted repeatedly during the interview that his main goal was not profits. “It’s desirability,” he said, “and we must make sure that in 50 years we are still at the top.”

“Desirability,” said Roussel, the former LVMH executive, is the most popular word at the company. But it highlights a potential problem, he said: “A consumer waking up and saying, ‘You know, I’m buying this product, but there’s someone making so much money out of it.’

“Is it desirable that you’re buying a product from someone who is the richest man in the world?”

That sentiment was not evident this summer when Arnault visited China, one of LVMH’s most lucrative markets. The “richest man” headlines from months earlier earned him a rock star’s welcome. In Shanghai and Chengdu, crowds followed him and vied for selfies. Mothers asked him to bless their babies.

“Like the pope. Can you believe that?” he said. He was called, he said with a laugh, “the God of Fortune.”

But back home, where passion about social and financial inequality stretches back to the French Revolution, Arnault is a divisive figure: hailed by the business and political worlds for building France’s biggest corporate titan, and reviled by others for his almost unimaginable wealth.

For a family that tries to keep its fortune discreet, the “richest man” ranking this year still brings an unwelcome spotlight.

“The attention that you get when you’re on the top of that list,” Antoine said, “you can’t really prepare for that.”

In April, as France’s raucous nationwide protests gathered steam over President Emmanuel Macron’s bid to raise the retirement age two years to 64, demonstrators broke into the LVMH headquarters, lighting smoke bombs and denouncing Arnault as the embodiment of the ultrarich.

“He is a symbol of what is wrong in this society!” one shouted. Others carried signs showing Arnault as Mr. Monopoly in a top hat, with accusations that he evaded taxes, exploited workers and laid off thousands to build power and wealth.

This month, when Arnault announced that the Arnault family would donate 10 million euros to Restos du Coeur, a food bank, critics said it was a drop in the bucket.

“They need to find a type of enemy,” Arnault said. “France is not a country which is motivated by business success, unlike the United States.”

When his friend Warren Buffett walks around New York, Arnault added, “he’s like a Beatle.” But when Arnault visits his stores in France, “I have to be careful,” he said. “I don’t like this, but I need bodyguards.”

Antoine has advised his father to push back, and these days Arnault stresses the company’s economic contributions: hundreds of thousands of jobs created worldwide, 5.5 billion euros paid annually in French taxes, and vast sums for art and culture, energy sustainability, scientific research, sports and youths.

Who’s Next?

What no one debates is that Arnault understood, before almost anyone else, luxury’s potential as a generator of profit — that creating beautiful things is about aspiration and belonging.

The question now is who can keep desirability at the heart of LVMH in an age of protests and global economic uncertainty.

Last year, Arnault tinkered with the corporate structure of his empire, concentrating decision-making with his five children. Each has a 20% stake, and they cannot sell their shares for 30 years without unanimous board approval.

His heirs “have been schooled by the best player in the world: All of them know the business,” said Sidney Toledano, head of the LVMH fashion group and one of Arnault’s longest-serving executives. “Are they going to be the pilots? Maybe.”

If the next CEO is not named Arnault, the children say they are OK with that. After all, Alexandre said, “there’s the risk that none of us is able to run the business as well as he has.”

The siblings are beginning to discuss how they can raise their own children with the same sense of duty that was instilled in them, Delphine said. Arnault has begun taking her elementary school-age daughter on his weekend rounds of stores.

But Alexandre added: “By the time they reach ages where they can have responsibilities, my father will still probably be CEO of LVMH. He’ll be 110 years old.”

Published 16 September 2023, 17:29 IST

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