The man with the Midas touch who became the world’s richest person
When Bernard Arnault toppled Jeff Bezos as the world’s richest man last year, I was reminded of something the LVMH boss had said to me when we last met, seven years ago: “What I love is to win. What I love is being number one.”
The head of the world’s leading luxury group is too refined to be the air-punching type, but I imagined him enjoying a moment’s quiet satisfaction – perhaps even a sneaky glass of the Dom Perignon champagne that has helped make his fortune. Yet when I ask him what that moment meant to him now, the 73-year-old says: “It didn’t mean anything for me. It’s just a number.”
Bernard Arnault, with wife Helene Mercier-Arnault, was for a brief time in 2021, the world’s richest person.Credit:AP
$US186.3 billion ($265 billion) is quite a number, to be fair. “But remember that these numbers don’t mean much: this is not money in my pocket but value in LVMH that thousands of stakeholders and pension funds share.” He shrugs.
“So yes, because of our work the value of the company has increased, but honestly, I never look at such things as personal milestones.”
When you consider how often these positions fluctuate, this is perhaps understandable. As I write Elon Musk has the top spot, with Arnault in second place and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos close behind. But for months, those three have dominated the top spots.
Today we are not meeting at the LVMH headquarters in Paris, but London’s Saatchi Gallery, where I’m being granted a preview of the dazzling New Tiffany & Co “Vision and Virtuosity” Exhibition that his son Alexandre – a 30-year-old senior executive of Tiffany and one of five billionaire siblings who all work at the family firm – has been overseeing for the past 18 months.
LVMH acquired the brand synonymous with old world New York city glamour in 2020 for just under $US16 billion, and by the time I get there these two have already spent hours touring the largest-scale Tiffany’s exhibition in almost a century: one that features 400 treasured objects, including over 150 historical artefacts that are on view to the public for the first time. They include the (minuscule) Givenchy dress Audrey Hepburn wore in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and one of the world’s rarest and most exquisite yellow diamonds: the 128.54-carat Tiffany Diamond.
Keeping it in the family
Because I’ve interviewed Arnault before, I know that the head of a 75-brand strong empire that includes Christian Dior, Dom Perignon, Bulgari, Louis Vuitton, Céline, Givenchy, Fendi, Loro Piana, Sephora and Tiffany & Co is a man of refined tastes and tempered pleasures. Who is passionate about his work, rarely dines out, drinks very little and is happiest either playing the piano in a Paris home dotted with art by the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Damien Hirst, Maurizio Cattelan, Andy Warhol and Pablo Picasso – or indulging his other passion: tennis.
During that interview, Arnault told me about the surprise his children had laid on for him weeks earlier, when he had turned up for a “family game” only to find Roger Federer there, ready for “a little knock-up.” And I got a strong sense both of how much Arnault’s family means to him, and of how tight-knit his five children (from two marriages) are.
Aside from Alexandre, there is Delphine, 46, who is vice president of Louis Vuitton; Antoine, 44, who is head of communications and image at LVMH; Frédéric, 27, chief executive at TAG Heuer; and 23-year-old Jean, who is director of marketing and development for Louis Vuitton watches.
Alexandre has joined us at the Saatchi Gallery today, and it’s amusing to see how normal their father and son interactions are. Throughout our conversation, Arnault will defer to Alexandre on matters of popular culture. It was his son’s idea to sign up tennis player Emma Raducanu, as well as Beyoncé and Jay-Z – personal friends who attended his Venice wedding to the founder of accessories brand D’Estrëe, Géraldine Guyot, last year – as Tiffany ambassadors. And Alexandre enjoys the same gentle ribbing as every child when it comes to his father’s cautious approach to technology.
Back in 2015, the head of a global business with 175,647 employees had confessed to me that although he had a phone “I would never text – just call”, and that he wasn’t on email. “But I’ve made progress!” Arnault assures me today, slim and dapper in his trademark Christian Dior navy suit and handmade Berluti loafers, a burgundy cashmere scarf wrapped around his neck. “I’m now on email. I look at Instagram and TikTok. Thanks to Alexandre and his brothers, I am much more au courant.”
Given how deeply private Arnault has always been, it’s surprising to hear him open up on the subject of family. “I was brought up in the north of France where there were the descendants of these big family textile empires,” he tells me, his voice a little hoarse from “talking too much yesterday – don’t worry, it’s not Covid”. For a while these heirs “rested on their laurels”, he explains, “and then in the end they gave up working completely and their companies went down. So with my kids it was really important that we gave them a strong work ethic from the start. That they got their degrees and into the habit of working from when they were young. We raised them to be grafters,” he says. “And they are.”
Predictably, there has been much intrigue over who might succeed him as head of LVMH, which Arnault is not about to discuss with me today. So I ask what would happen if one of his children had wanted to pull out of the family firm, just as Prince Harry did with our Royal Family.
“I wouldn’t judge a situation I know nothing about, and I like and respect his father.” He pauses, grins. “But I will say that I was very happy to see Meghan dressed in Dior at the Jubilee. She was very chic – magnifique.” He’s a fan? “I am. You’ll remember that she wore Givenchy at her wedding, too, which is also one of our brands.
“No,” he shakes his head returning to the subject of his own family. “With my kids it was always a case of ‘if you want to work with me, then you need to have good training’. But above all you need to want to. If they had preferred to do something else, that would have been absolutely fine. There’s nothing worse than working out of obligation, but they all do it out of genuine desire. And I’ll tell you something,” he leans forward, “if I’m still working now, it’s because every single morning when I sit down to work, I’m enjoying myself. That is the secret to success.”
When I ask him what it was like to meet the Queen – which he has done on several occasions over the years – his face lights up. “Oh she’s formidable. And you know that she speaks French like you, fluently? She really is magnificent.” Being knighted in 2013 was also an important moment for him. “I was extremely proud of it,” he says, adding jokingly: “You know that if I was British, I would be called Sir Bernard.”
Arnault’s forensic attention to detail must also have played a large part in his success. After all, this is a man who believes in visiting his factories and boutiques across the world, meeting his staff and touching his products. And occasionally the magnate still likes to serve people, incognito, in his shops. “I do!” He chuckles. “In France it’s tricky because people recognise me.”
The Midas touch
Unlike so many businessmen and women who enjoyed being grounded during the pandemic, Arnault – the owner of a superyacht, homes in Paris, London and Saint-Tropez and a chateau in Bordeaux – hated not being able to travel. He has particularly missed coming to the UK, he says, which he has always seen as a hub of creativity, having employed British talents such as Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and Phoebe Philo in the past. And of course as the joint owner of Stella McCartney today, Arnault continues to work closely with the designer, who advises him on sustainability. “Things are getting so much easier now, thank goodness, and a few months ago we started going back to Japan and China,” he says.
Arnault’s son Alexandre, pictured with wife Geraldine Guyot. is a 30-year-old senior executive of Tiffany and one of five billionaire siblings who all work at the family firm.Credit:Getty Images
The secret Arnault’s competitors would most like divulged is how he knows precisely when to snap up ailing brands and use his Midas touch to breathe new life into them. His face fills with an almost comical degree of horror as he tells me about the moment in 2019, as he pondered the acquisition of Tiffany. “I once saw a Tiffany window display in which a cleaner had accidentally left window cleaner beside the jewellery they were selling. Window cleaner!” He looks to Alexandre for confirmation of this affront to luxury. “We knew then that there was a great deal of focus and experience that we could bring to bear on the brand. Tiffany is a dream brand. In a way it had been a kind of sleeping beauty for years, but now Alexandre and our wonderful team are recreating the desirability it had always had.”
Yet the last time we met he spoke warily of instinct. “You have to be just as mistrustful of straightforward rationality in business as you do of a uniquely gut approach,” he told me, stressing that: “a combination of “instinct and concrete facts” was key.
From the start, the Roubaix-born son of a civil engineer has used both to propel himself to his current stratosphere. Having graduated from France’s most prestigious engineering school, the École Polytechnique, he joined his father’s civil engineering company, later persuading him to sell off the construction side and focus on property. After growing the business in the US, he returned to France where he expanded into the textile industry through the rescue of Boussac, an empire that comprised a number of floundering businesses, including Dior – which became LVMH’s star brand.
Dior had a particular appeal for Arnault: his mother, who always wore Diorissimo perfume as he was growing up, had a fascination for the designer. And I wonder whether, if not instinct, personal sentiment doesn’t play a greater part in Arnault’s success than even he is aware of. Behind his formal, reticent exterior it’s clear that he’s a sensualist who is drawn to real, physical beauty and creativity.
After separating from his first wife, Anne Dewavrin, in 1990, Arnault’s musical heart led him into a second marriage the following year with Canadian concert pianist Hélène Mercier, whom he is said to have wooed with his own performance of Chopin’s Études. Their mutual love of art prompted him to found a museum, The Louis Vuitton Foundation, in Paris in 2014, and aside from a few internet investments in the early Noughties he has always adopted a considered approach to the online world.
Indeed, in an interview in January the LVMH boss declared that he had no interest “in selling virtual sneakers for 10 euros. We’re not into that.” Arnault has also cautioned against faddish “bubbles”, conceding only that things like the metaverse and NFTs “might have a future” for certain brands.
With that in mind I’m curious to know what he thinks of Elon Musk? “I met him,” he says brightly, nodding at his son. “We met him together. We were there at the launch of SpaceX in LA, and he put me in the driving seat of one of his latest driverless cars. He told me I could take my feet off the pedals and my hands off the steering wheel, and it would take me back to the office.” Amused and enthused, Arnault claps his hands: “And it did!”
“You need to avoid looking at the quarterly results because during a crisis they don’t mean anything. And you need to carry on investing. Always. Remember that when people have been through particularly hard times, they want to move on and ahead. They want to feel optimistic.”
Was he scared? “I was a little tense,” he says with a grimace. “But Elon was great. I did make a bit of a faux pas though. You see when he told me ‘I’m going to colonise Mars’, I burst out laughing. Because I’ve never heard of such a thing, and I thought he was joking. But he was serious, and I don’t think he was best pleased. Anyway, he really is a genius.”
It’s hard to think of two more different people sitting so close together on every rich list. Whereas Arnault is all about tangible talents and reinvigorating past creativity, Musk has his eyes on a fantastical future where nothing is impossible. So with the risk of global downturn rising, financial inequality and the cost of living high on the agenda, and the war in Ukraine – is the luxury brand world in greater peril than most?
“Luxury can have these pejorative connotations to those who associate the word with frivolity and showing off,” says Arnault with a frown, “but I prefer to use the term ‘products of high quality’. Because when people have the means they want to buy things of great quality, and that will never change. Quality is not frivolous at all. Certainly, it’s worth infinitely more than the recognisability factor. Quality can sustain much longer than a lifetime.”
People also often seem to forget “how many jobs and how much work” companies like his provide, he points out. Indeed, a recent social impact study in France revealed that for every one of 35,000 direct LVMH employees there, six times that number were economically dependent on the group’s success. Certainly the philanthropist’s country has not forgotten either his pledge to donate €200 million ($299 million) to the restoration of fire-ravaged Nôtre Dame cathedral, nor how much LVMH was able to support the country at the start of the pandemic, when Arnault was able to manufacture tonnes of sanitiser in his factories, as well as procuring and donating millions of surgical masks, PPE and 261 ventilators to French hospitals. “We were all so proud to be able to do that,” he says.
Arnault has shown to have a knack for breathing new life into luxury brands.Credit:Bloomberg
As someone who has survived many financial crises, what would his advice to business owners be now?
“You have to stay confident in the mid-term,” he says with aplomb. “You need to avoid looking at the quarterly results because during a crisis they don’t mean anything. And you need to carry on investing. Always. Remember that when people have been through particularly hard times, they want to move on and ahead. They want to feel optimistic.”
As for the war in Ukraine, although Arnault has “temporarily” ceased all LVMH operations in Russia, he believes “the French president is right to keep talking to the Russian president because even in periods like this you have got to keep talking.” He is adamant, too, that the art world should not be made to suffer, and believes it is right that two Russian masterpieces included in his recent Morozov exhibition at the Fondation have just been returned to the Pushkin Museum and the Hermitage.
“We are not thieves. Those paintings belonged to Russian museums with whom we have always had excellent relationships, and museums shouldn’t be any more involved in the geopolitical situation than we should be. So although it was very difficult, we managed to get the authorisation from the French president to send them back.”
During our last interview, Arnault told me he had no plans to retire, and I see that LVMH has just voted to extend its retirement age. Will he stay on for another 10 years?
“Minimum! As long as I can play tennis with my friend Roger Federer, I will continue to work,” he exclaims. They’ve played again since that surprise game? “We played last year, and I won one point, but this year I hope to hit two.”
It’s important to have aspirations. Arnault’s grey-blue eyes twinkle: “Exactly.”
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