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The stylish approach to empire building

The French multi-billionaire François Pinault has created a global commercial powerhouse. Glamour, grit and culture underpin his success, Colin Randall, Foreign Correspondent, writes from Montpellier.
François Pinault is 65th richest in the 2015 Forbes global rankings and France's fourth-wealthiest man. Jean-Sebastien Evrard / AFP
François Pinault is 65th richest in the 2015 Forbes global rankings and France's fourth-wealthiest man. Jean-Sebastien Evrard / AFP
MONTPELLIER // If France deserves a reputation for valuing style but considering capitalism a dirty word, it seems a curious coincidence that one of its most prominent capitalists has combined grit, glamour and culture in amassing and enjoying his fortune.

François Pinault is fabulously rich - 65th in the 2015 Forbes global rankings and France's fourth-wealthiest man, having once been top of the list - but he rose from unpromising beginnings.

The son of a small-time timber merchant, he dropped out of school without qualifications at 16 and underwent compulsory military service in Algeria in 1962, the year the country gained independence from France.

With bank and family loans, he embarked on the entrepreneurial life with his own rural logging company.

The business grew rapidly as Mr Pinault, showing a ruthless streak, snapped up dozens of small companies facing bankruptcy and made them succeed.

But as the family empire evolved, its new activities could hardly have been more different than the dusty world of timber. Its reach now extends to ownership of the fine art auctioneers Christie's and, among top-end retail interests, brands such as Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney and Balenciaga.

Balenciaga last week appointed Demna Gvasalia as its new creative director to replace Alexander Wang, who left to develop his eponymous business.

Mr Gvasalia, a German national of Georgian origin, launched his own Vetements brand in 2014 after designing for Maison Martin Margiela and LVMH's Louis Vuitton.

The Balenciaga chief executive Isabelle Guichot said Mr Gvasalia was the best choice for the job because of his "mastery of techniques", "expertise and fashion knowledge", and "innovative and carefully considered approach".

Mr Wang had replaced Nicolas Ghesquière in 2012, now at Louis Vuitton, who was largely credited with having infused new life into Balenciaga over more than a decade and helped turn it into a global brand.

Balenciaga is Kering's fourth-biggest fashion label after Gucci, Bottega Veneta and Saint Laurent.

Mr Gvasalia will present his first collection at Paris Fashion Week in March.

International expansion has taken Pinault businesses to 120 countries in sectors ranging from designer clothing and accessories to football, publishing and art.

Group revenues in 2014 amounted to ?10 billion (Dh41.23bn) with an operating income of ?1.7bn and a worldwide labour force of 37,000. Mr Pinault's personal fortune is put by Forbes at US$13.7bn.

The main focus of the empire, the running of which has been gradually transferred to Mr Pinault's son, François-Henri, over the past 12 years, is the Kering group, founded by Mr Pinault senior more than half a century ago.

A twin role is also played by Artémis, a holding company created in 1992. It has almost half the shares in Kering and François-Henri heads both groups.

Now, there is a new trophy asset. In July, Artémis launched a takeover of the cruise ship operator Ponant, specialists in upmarket polar tours.

High-profile acquisitions are nothing new for Artémis or Kering. The process by which Artemis bought Christie's for $1.2bn began in early May 1998, with the purchase of a 29.1 per cent stake in the historic London auction house, and was completed the same month.

Artémis also owns the Chateau Latour vineyard, the French Ligue 1 football club Stade Rennais, the news magazine Le Point and a Parisian theatre, the Marigny. And as always, the Pinault family is at the centre of power, reinforced by the choice of François-Henri's wife, the Mexican-American actress and film director Salma Hayek, as Ponant's non-executive chairman.

Hayek is the mother of his daughter Valentina, born in 2007. François-Henri has also reached an out-of-court paternity settlement with his one-time girlfriend, the Canadian former supermodel Linda Evangelista. The terms were not disclosed though Evangelista had reportedly sought monthly payments of $46,000 to support their son, nine this month.

At 79, François Pinault shows no immediate sign of releasing his grip. "Don't worry about me," François-Henri recalls his father replying when asked how a man who "dislikes holidays and travel but detests inactivity" would fill his time.

Mr Pinault senior remains the honorary chairman and majority shareholder of Kering, is encouraged by his son to keep a close eye on key parts of the empire and pursues his passion for art with indefatigable energy and a surprising willingness to travel.

His collection of modern and contemporary paintings is formidable. With more than 2,000 works - "officially, that is; the true number is double," says the French business publication Challenges - he was called the most powerful person in modern art by the magazine ArtReview. In 2005, he bought the Palazzo Grassi in Venice to showcase his collection.

He was born at Les Champs Géraux in northern Brittany in August 1936. On completing military service in the Maghreb, he married his first wife, Louise, the mother of François-Henri, and worked in his father's timber yard. After taking over the business, he began its expansion in 1970 and, by 1973, was able to sell it at a price equivalent to Dh1.83bn at today's values. From his second wife, Maryvonne, a Breton antique dealer, he gained a love of art.

Mr Pinault befriended senior French politicians, notably Jacques Chirac, later the president and to whom he has remained close. But in the run-up to France's 2012 presidential elections, he supported the socialist, François Hollande, who was victorious against Mr Chirac's centre-right successor, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Mr Pinault has crossed swords with business rivals and the authorities alike. In 1991, Artémis was controversially involved in the purchase of the failed Executive Life Insurance, once California's biggest insurance firm. An ensuing scandal led to criminal investigations, lawsuits and, eventually, a huge settlement by the French bank Crédit Lyonnais, which was still under majority state ownership when accused of being the true purchaser of the company.

An article in The Economist in 2003 said the acquisition of Executive Life made Mr Pinault the bank's most important customer "and tied its survival between 1993 and 1995 to that of Mr Pinault's empire . the tale of the Executive Life deal is highly complex, but its eventual effect is clear: a large transfer of wealth from French taxpayers to Mr Pinault."

In 2003, he fought a bitter but ultimately successful battle to take over Gucci. His competitor was another self-made French billionaire, Bernard Arnault, the owner of Kering's great luxury goods rival LVHM, famous for Louis Vuiton products, Moët & Chandon and Hennessy drinks and 60 subsidiaries in fashion, jewellery and perfumes including Givenchy, Bulgari and De Beers jewellers. Christian Dior, which has a controlling interest in LVMH, is also Arnault-owned and he chairs both companies.

Analysing the competing conglomerates for the Business of Fashion website, Luca Solca, the head of luxury goods at Exane BNP Paribas, says that while LVMH's domination in the unrelated categories of leather goods and drinks "helps to smooth the volatility of its operating profit, Kering had not generated shareholder value with its forays into lifestyle".

But Mr Solca's conclusions favours Kering, at least for short-term growth. "LVMH couples higher structural appeal with a higher stock market multiple, whereas Kering offers one of the most compellingly low valuations in the sector," he says.

Other analysts warn of the threat to growth for both of France's "luxury juggernauts" from factors including slower demand from Chinese customers.

But Artémis's takeover of Ponant is another bold chapter in the story of a dynasty's ascent of corporate heights.

Mr Pinault has been called a corporate raider, an accomplished if legitimate avoider of tax and above all, according to one unnamed banker quoted by The Guardian, someone whose ability to make money is "almost frightening".

Along the way he has collected not only fine contemporary art - works by Picasso and Mondrian figure in his collection - but admirers in unexpected places. Beyond the political heavyweights, assorted decision-makers and art gurus in his circle, he has given generously to such causes as anti-racism activists and the post-conflict work in Bosnia of the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy.

Jean-Michel Lemétaye, a former French farming union leader and fellow Breton, was also close. Before his death two years ago, he told Challenges: "We have in common things that are very simple and private. He's a wealthy man with depth and a great heart."

Partial retirement, valued friendships and submersion in the pleasures of art tell only part of the story, however.

The man who directed the Ponant negotiations was not François-Henri Pinault but, at 26 years his senior, François.

The corridors of power, both commercial and political, may not have seen the last of him yet.

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Published: October 13, 2015 04:00 AM

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