Bernard Arnault, who with his family now heads Elon Musk’s fortune, gradually built LVMH into a global luxury empire by buying iconic brands, sealing his reputation as a formidable and insatiable businessman.
With $184 billion on Thursday, the 73-year-old Frenchman and his family moved to the top spot on Forbes’ billionaires list, knocking off Tesla, SpaceX and Twitter from the top spot.
LVMH – the world’s leading luxury group – has more than 75 brands, acquired over time.
They include some of the most recognizable names in fashion and prestige goods, from Louis Vuitton and Kenzo to Moet Hennessy and Tiffany.
“An essential quality of our family is patience,” Arnault acknowledged in a 2012 television profile.
A decade later, when LVMH’s annual sales had more than doubled to 64 billion euros ($68 billion), he told France’s Radio Classique: “We can keep moving forward, but let’s be patient.
“No rush,” he said.
The businessman has also invested in French media, a move he described during a hearing in the Senate in January 2022 as “more on the side of patronage”.
During a hearing in the French Senate earlier this year, Arnault said he had intervened to stop LVMH advertising in the newspaper Liberation, after it had upset him with a front-page article.
“Invest in something promising”
Arnault was born in the northern French city of Roubaix on March 5, 1949 and joined his father’s public works construction company at the age of 22.
He had just left the elite Ecole Polytechnique and convinced his father to transform the construction business into real estate development.
In 1981, after the socialist François Mitterrand was elected president, Arnault left France for the United States.
On his return three years later, he bought the indebted textile company Boussac, beating out several serious competitors with the promise of saving jobs.
However, he embarked on a drastic reorganization of the firm, retaining only some of its businesses, including the Christian Dior fashion house.
Arnault was 35 at the time.
“My father was surprised when I went to see him, saying: ‘We’re going to reconstitute the family group and try to invest in something more promising, Christian Dior,'” the entrepreneur recently recalled to Radio Classique.
It would be the first stone of his luxury empire.
LVMH was born from the merger in 1987 of the trunk manufacturer Louis Vuitton and the wine and spirits group Moet Hennessy.
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The rivalry between the families that own the two companies helped Arnault’s rise and he took control of the group in 1989 after no less than 17 legal proceedings.
“He is a tough but unmatched negotiator, a visionary who knows how to surround himself with good people and who in the end always gets his way one way or another,” Arnaud Cadart, portfolio manager of the financial services firm Flornoy.
Arnault’s rise, however, has not been without some failures.
He lost Italian fashion and leather goods house Gucci to French rival Francois Pinault, head of PPR Group, in 1999.
Arnault also unsuccessfully tried to take over Hermes, known for its silk scarves and leather bags, secretly accumulating a stake in the company.
He rarely speaks publicly and does not like the limelight.
When celebrities’ use of private jets was tracked on social media earlier this year, Arnault sold the LVMH plane.
“The result now is that no one else can know where I’m going because I rent planes,” he told Radio Classique.
“It is the luck of the French businessman to embody – sometimes in a completely unjustified way – the criticism of the day, since the mentality has been for some years a little anti-business,” he lamented to France 2 in 2016.
That same year he was featured in a satirical documentary titled “Merci Patron!” (Thanks Boss!) From filmmaker and now politician Francois Ruffin, who often has Arnault in the spotlight.
Obama, Putin, Trump, Macron…
Last year, LVMH paid a fine of 10 million euros to settle a case as part of an espionage investigation.
Arnault abandoned his bid for Belgian citizenship in 2013 by issuing a mea culpa after it sparked a months-long storm of controversy amid public debate over tax deals for the wealthy.
In 2011 he was received at the White House by President Barack Obama; Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed him to Moscow five years later; Former French President Francois Hollande cut the ribbon on his Louis Vuitton Foundation, while Donald Trump did the same for a Vuitton workshop in Texas.
And when the historic Samaritaine department store, owned by LVMH, reopened last year, French President Emmanuel Macron was invited to the opening.
In Japan, China and the Middle East, the luxury tycoon has access to top leaders.
Arnault has five children, all of whom work for LVMH, but he shows little sign of slowing down or handing over the reins.
Every week he takes care of visiting all the companies of the group based in Paris.
At his last general meeting, the age limit for his position as CEO of LVMH was extended to 80, ensuring that the luxury conglomerate remains in family hands.
Married to a pianist and art lover, Arnault also created the Louis Vuitton Foundation, one of the most prestigious contemporary art exhibition locations in Paris.
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