Bernard Arnault – who now surpasses the wealth of Elon Musk with his family – gradually built LVMH into a global luxury empire, buying up iconic brands and cementing his reputation as a formidable and voracious businessman.
With $184 billion on Thursday, the 73-year-old Frenchman and his family topped Forbes’ billionaires list, ousting the Tesla, SpaceX and Twitter boss from the top.
LVMH – the world’s leading luxury group – has more than 75 brands acquired over time.
These include some of the most recognizable names in fashion and prestige goods, from Louis Vuitton and Kenzo to Moët Hennessy and Tiffany.
“An essential trait in our family is patience,” Arnault confirmed in a 2012 TV profile of his.
A decade later – by which time LVMH’s annual sales had more than doubled to more than 64 billion euros ($68 billion) – he told French broadcaster 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 as “more on the patronage side” during a Senate hearing in January 2022.
During a French Senate hearing earlier this year, Arnault said he intervened to stop LVMH advertising in the Liberation newspaper after it angered him with a front-page article.
“Invest in something promising”
Born on March 5, 1949 in the northern French town of Roubaix, Arnault joined his father’s public works company at the age of 22.
He had just left the elite Ecole Polytechnique and convinced his father to turn the construction business into real estate development instead.
In 1981, after the socialist Francois Mitterrand was elected President, Arnault left France for the United States.
Returning three years later, he bought the heavily indebted textile company Boussac, beating out several serious competitors on promises to save jobs.
However, he initiated a drastic restructuring of the company, retaining only some of its businesses, including fashion house Christian Dior.
At that time, Arnault was 35 years old.
“My father was surprised when I visited him and said: ‘We are going to restructure the family group and try to invest in something more promising, Christian Dior,'” the businessman recalled recently on Radio Classique.
It should be the cornerstone of his luxury empire.
LVMH was formed in 1987 from the merger of suitcase manufacturer Louis Vuitton and wine and spirits group Moet Hennessy.
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The rivalry between the families that own the two companies aided Arnault’s rise and he took control of the group in 1989 after no fewer than 17 lawsuits.
“He’s a tough but unmatched negotiator, a visionary who knows how to surround himself with good people and who always ends up getting his way in one way or another,” Arnaud Cadart, portfolio manager at financial services firm Flornoy, told AFP .
However, Arnault’s rise was not without its failures.
In 1999 he lost the Italian fashion and leather goods house Gucci to his French rival Francois Pinault, head of the PPR group.
Arnault also tried in vain to take over Hermes, known for its silk scarves and leather handbags, by secretly taking a stake in the company.
He rarely speaks in public and does not like being in the spotlight.
Earlier this year, when celebrity use of private jets was followed on social media, Arnault sold the LVMH jet.
“The result now is that no one else can know where I’m going because I’m chartering planes,” he said on Radio Classique.
“It is the lot of the French businessman to embody – sometimes in a totally unjustified way – the critique of the times, since the mindset has been a little anti-corporate in recent years,” he lamented on France 2 in 2016.
That same year, he was impaled in a satirical documentary called Merci Patron! (Thanks Boss!) by filmmaker-turned-politician Francois Ruffin, who often has Arnault in his crosshairs.
Obama, Putin, Trump, Macron…
Last year, LVMH paid a €10 million fine to settle a case as part of an espionage investigation.
Arnault gave up his attempt to obtain Belgian citizenship in 2013, issuing a mea culpa after it sparked a storm of controversy that raged for months amid public debate over the tax regimes of the wealthy.
In 2011 he was received by President Barack Obama at the White House; 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 a guest at the inauguration.
In Japan, China and the Middle East, the luxury mogul has access to top executives.
Arnault has five children, all of whom work for LVMH, but shows little sign of slowing down – or even handing over the reins.
Every week he visits all the Paris-based companies in the group.
At the last AGM, the age limit for his role as CEO of LVMH was raised to 80 to ensure the luxury group remains family-owned.
Married to a pianist and art lover, Arnault also founded the Louis Vuitton Foundation, one of the most prestigious contemporary art venues in Paris.
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