If you’ve ever sipped a glass of Hennessy or Dom Pérignon, coveted a Louis Vuitton bag or a pair of Berluti shoes, or strapped on a Hublot or TAG Heuer watch, you’ve felt the influence of Bernard Arnault, the billionaire French businessman who has quietly shaped the tastes of the entire world.
A man of exceptional vision who started out as an engineer in his family’s construction firm, in 1989 the Paris-based financier, investor and art collector became the majority shareholder, Chairman and CEO of LVMH, the world's leading luxury goods company, and has remained so ever since.
With a net worth of nearly $70 billion, he is now the fourth richest man in the world (as of press time) according to Forbes, which calculated his personal fortune increased by over $30 billion in one year alone, thanks to a 13% spike in LVMH’s revenue.
The unprecedented firm is made up of 70 different brands divided into six sectors: wines and spirits, luxury retailing, fashion and leather goods, watches and jewelry, perfume and cosmetics, and hospitality and other holdings including luxury yachts.
His phenomenal wealth, as Lloyd Blankfein, former Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs, points out to CNBC, “was accomplished in a single generation,” making it all the more remarkable.
Particularly as just a decade ago many derided the notion that a conglomeration of luxury goods houses—several of them competitors—was even a smart business move.
“In the ’90s [I] had the idea of a luxury group and at the time I was very much criticized for it,” Arnault remarked to CNBC. “I remember people telling me it doesn’t make sense to put together so many brands. And it was a success. [And then] for the last 10 years now, every competitor is trying to imitate, which is very rewarding for us. I think they are not successful but they try.”
Victory, he maintains, has not come as a result of relentless profit-seeking but is due to a “business model… based on creativity, innovation, and quality.”
In 11 years, the market value of LVMH—an acronym for Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy—multiplied by at least 15, while, simultaneously, sales and profit rose by 500 percent. The company had revenue of upwards of $50 billion in 2017. And much of it is attributable to acquisitions that were seriously called into question at the time.
“He was paying full prices for things that weren’t close to what other people would want,” Blankfein notes, “and other people scoffed that he would ever realize [their] value or earn anything from the prices he was paying.… It takes a certain amount of courage to stand against the tide knowing that you’re going to… outperform the experts and the founders that created those businesses.”
Arnault’s acquisitions include stakes in luxe luggage company Rimowa, Bulgari, Belvedere Vodka, and cosmetics giant Sephora, as well as Dior, Louis Vuitton, Veuve Clicquot, Fendi, and more.
“Typically, within a five-year span — which is very short — with hindsight every single purchase looks like genius,” as Michael Burke, Louis Vuitton Chairman and CEO, told the Financial Times.
The tycoon’s latest investment is the Belmond luxury hotel and travel group, whose holdings include the iconic Hotel Cipriani in Venice and the opulent Venice Simplon-Orient-Express train, for which LVMH is paying $3.2 billion; a move Arnault says is “entirely consistent with our continued investment in the field of experiential luxury.”
“He’s a dreamer,” as Burke explained to CNBC. “He dreams big dreams. And then he has the guts to go after those dreams. Sometimes I try to tell him that the dream is too big. But of course he’s always right.”
His oldest son Antoine Arnault, who overseas luxury fashion brands Loro Piana and Berluti and sits on LVMH’s board of directors, says his father would much rather be dreaming. "People" imagine him in his big tower with his huge Excel spreadsheets with numbers, he comments.
“It’s very far from reality. His real interest is his family. Of course, he’s a workaholic. He works a lot and he loves it, but… he also has fun with it. It’s not as serious as some might think up there…We absolutely take no decisions based on the share price, not for LVMH....What motivates the family is that Louis Vuitton, Loro Piana, Berluti, Dior is on top of their game.”
The latter part is especially important as Arnault runs LVMH like a family business. He has two other children who occupy prominent positions at the company.
“When you are in a family you have two major advantages,” Arnault notes. “One is you can think long term. I see too many companies in which you have changes all the time. And especially in the U.S., you have to be all the time looking at the next quarter’s numbers. What I always say to my team is I am not that much interested by the numbers [for] the next six months. What I am interested in is that the desire for the brand will be the same in 10 years as it is today.”
Steve Jobs, someone Arnault admired greatly, thought that the French tycoon had accomplished his goal, telling him at one point, “You know Bernard, I don’t know if in 50 years my iPhone will still be a success but I can tell you, I’m sure everybody will still drink your Dom Pérignon.”
Arnault puts it all down to talent. “In today’s business, since the ’80s when I bought Christian Dior, it’s the same combination that explains success,” he told CNBC. “You have to work with some of the best inventors, creators, designers and be able to market their products and create with their products, desire in the world.”
Case in point: last year LVMH hired Virgil Abloh, Kanye West’s longtime creative collaborator and founder of coveted fashion brand Off-White, as Louis Vuitton’s artistic director for menswear. And
Abloh has already started cross-pollinating in the LVMH universe, having designed a limited edition bottle for Moët & Chandon. His “innate creativity and disruptive approach have made him so relevant,” Burke said of his appointment, “not just in the world of fashion but in popular culture today.”
The typical owner of a storied 165-year-old brand like Vuitton may not want “disruptive” in the mix, but Arnault has guaranteed the famed monogram will find a new generation of fans.
“He has no interest in standing still, he has no interest in repeating himself,” as legendary Vogue editor Anna Wintour puts it. “He has no interest in anything remaining the same. He is a man that is intrigued by what can happen, not by what has happened…. Fashion is an industry that exists on change and he totally and completely understands that.”
Antoine Arnault adds, “A lot of people see him as a great financier, a great strategic mind in terms of how to build an empire. That’s not at all how he thinks, in my opinion. I think his big strength is actually to speak to creative people and to make them thrive under his management. It’s not to create profit or create more revenue or double the size of the business. I know that’s the consequence and that’s usually what happens, but his real talent is with creative minds.”
In 2014 Arnault realized his longtime goal of opening a museum and cultural center in Paris. Already a landmark in a city known for them, the Fondation Louis Vuitton is an LVMH-funded space for exhibition and events, designed by famed architect Frank Gehry.
They met at the Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum Bilbao 13 years earlier, and spent several years overcoming the technical difficulties and opposition to the edifice, best described as a transparent cloud made up of a dozen massive glass sails.
“He thinks a lot like an artist,” Gehry told CNBC. “I think in his business life and world he has to be careful, conservative. But he’s a delight to work with as a creative person because he’s open to ideas…. He says things just very softly, but I know, when he says it, he means it. And I go for it and then we have fun trying to make it happen.”
Arnault has of course collected a lot of personal and professional honors in the course of his life and career, but the most prestigious are France’s Grand Officier de la Légion d’Honneur and Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres, as well as honorary Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. No doubt he should save room on his lapel for a few more.
“In terms of where we are in the life of Bernard Arnault and LVMH,” Blankfein opines, “he’s got a lot of runway ahead of him. And he thinks young and he thinks current. I wouldn’t be giving him his lifetime achievement award yet. I would wait a while longer because I think there are still more chapters” to come.
We’ll raise a glass of Dom to that.
Jewels in the Crown
LVMH’s vast luxury holdings include some of the world’s most exclusive, and profitable, brands in the world.
Formed in 1987 with the merger of fashion house Louis Vuitton and spirits icon Moët Hennessy, in just over 30 years LVMH, under Bernard Arnault’s guidance, had built up a market cap approaching €150 billion (about $170 billion) by the summer of 2018.
In 2017 the group had revenues of €42.6 billion, or about $49 billion, an increase of 13% over the previous year. With a portfolio of 70 luxury brands and a retail network of over 4,370 stores worldwide, LVMH has achieved astonishing figures; on the wine and spirits side alone it sold about 66 million bottles of champagne and about 91 million bottles of cognac in 2017, while its fashion and leather goods business brought in €15.47 billion in revenue, or about $18 billion.
Louis Vuitton, the world’s most valuable luxury brand according to Forbes, has a value of $33.6 billion on its own, while, as of press time, those who invested in LVMH shares ten years ago would have made five times their money today.