LVMH: It's a family affair for Bernard Arnault

How succession at the world's largest luxury goods maker is a lesson for family-run businesses

Clockwise from top left: Bernard Arnault, Delphine Arnault, Antoine Arnault, Jean Arnault, Alexandre Arnault and Frederic Arnault. Getty Images / AFP / Bloomberg
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Family businesses can be tricky proposals. Families can fall out, split or end up with internal feuds worthy of a Netflix mini-series.

The worlds of fashion and luxury goods have more than their fair share of family-owned and family-run businesses.

Chanel is controlled by lain and Gerard Wertheimer, having been founded by their grandfather, Pierre, and Coco Chanel more than 100 years ago.

The Missoni family still own the Italian knitwear brand of the same name that was set up by Ottavio Missoni in the late 1950s. And, likewise, the US fashion label Ralph Lauren remains under the stewardship of the Lauren family, with Ralph Lauren himself as executive chairman and his son, David, as chief innovation officer and vice chairman on the board.

Family first

But the daddy when it comes to family businesses is LVMH, the French luxury goods giant owned by the Arnault family.

The head of the family, Bernard Arnault, was recently declared the world's richest man with a net worth estimated by Forbes magazine to be $180 billion.

The company the family controls, LVMH, is a luxury goods conglomerate, with brands ranging from Louis Vuitton to Tag Heuer, from Tiffany to Moët and Chandon, from Christian Dior to Bulgari.

Indeed, LVMH has about 75 brands in its stable, more than 5,500 shops and more than 175,000 employees worldwide. In the first nine months of 2022, LVMH made €56.6 billion ($61.07 billion) in revenue, up 28 per cent compared with the first three quarters of 2021.

But the Mr Arnault, 73, is looking to the future. Who will be running Europe's most valuable company when he steps down? In a series of strategic management moves this week, it became clearer what the company will look like after he retires.

Thomas Chauvet, luxury analyst at Citi, told The National: "Succession planning is very important at LVMH. Decisions are taken with a long-term strategic view. It's a case of having prudent succession, rather than a big bang."

As part of the reshuffle this week, Mr Arnault's daughter, Delphine, 47, has been promoted to run the fashion brand Dior.

Delphine Arnault is the eldest of Mr Arnault's five children and for the past 10 years has been the executive vice chairman at Louis Vuitton, which contributes nearly 50 per cent of the group's overall earnings.

Meanwhile, the current head of Dior, Pietro Beccari, is moving to replace long-time Louis Vuitton chief executive Michael Burke.

Delphine Arnault returns to Dior having worked there prior to 2013, and will be keenly watched to see if she can match Mr Beccari's performance, who managed to triple revenues at Dior in just four years.

"Her keen insights and incomparable experience will be decisive assets in driving the ongoing development of Christian Dior," Mr Arnault said of his daughter's promotion.

"This is not a coup," Thomas Chauvet, luxury analyst at Citi, told The National. "These are two managers who have been selected to run two very important brands. LVMH has a huge pool of talent.

"Delphine Arnault's promotion is the latest move in what is a very long process of succession at LVMH."

'Sense of shared purpose'

Ken McCracken and Hakan Hillerstrom are consultants who specialise in family businesses. In their book, Fourteen Steps to Stronger Family Governance, they said: "The greatest strength in a family business is a clear and strong sense of shared purpose among the owners and the wider family. It can generate a sense of belonging, worth and shared resolve that non-family businesses are unlikely to be able to generate among their owners. This is a competitive advantage that family businesses should try to maximise."

It's certainly something the fashion company Prada has tried to maximise.

Founded by Mario Prada and his brother Martino in Milan in 1913, the Italian company really came to prominence under Mario's granddaughter Miuccia and her husband Patrizio Bertelli in the early 1980s.

Last month, Patrizio Bertelli and Miuccia Prada, the couple who run the Prada Group, effectively handed the company reins to Andrea Guerra, a luxury industry veteran, on the understanding that the couple's son and great grandson of the Italian firm's founder will become chief executive within a few years.

But feuds and infighting can destroy family businesses. One of the best examples of this was the long-running dispute and legal action involving the members of the Pritzker family, owners of the Hyatt Hotel Group.

When the family patriarch and co-founder of Hyatt Hotels, Jay Pritzker, died in 1999, the business was split between 11 cousins, each of whom eventually walked away with about $1.3 billion.

Happy families?

As far as the Arnault family is concerned, there are no real signs of discontent between the siblings.

Analysts at RBC Capital Markets said the management reshuffle "reflects ongoing leadership transition within the Arnault family".

Last month, Bernard's eldest son, Antonie Arnault, 45, was made the chief executive and chair of Christian Dior SE, the holding company that controls 41 per cent of the capital and 56 per cent of the voting rights in the LVMH group.

Perhaps the most important succession move made by the Arnault family in recent years came last summer, when the family's holding company, Financiere Agache, which itself controls Christian Dior SE, turned itself into a French legal entity known as a "société en commandite".

Not only does this make it easier to facilitate family control over itself and, by extension LVMH, but it also protects against unwanted takeovers. It is not that common in France, but two of the country's other big family-owned businesses, Hermes and Michelin, have made similar moves.

The other three Arnault children, Alexandre, Frederic and Jean, all hold senior positions in LVMH.

Louis Vuitton through the years - in pictures

Since 2020, 30-year old Alexandre Arnault has been an executive vice president at the jewellery brand Tiffany. Before that he was the chief executive of the luggage-maker Rimowa.

Frederic Arnault, 28, is chief executive at the watchmaker Tag Heuer and 24-year old Jean is a watch development and marketing director at Louis Vuitton’s watches division.

Some observers believe that all the pieces are in place for Bernard Arnault to step aside and leave the running of LVMH to his children now and later to his grandchildren and further descendants.

Any further hints will be closely analysed when LVMH unveils its 2022 profit numbers, expected in less than two weeks.

However, Bernard Arnault could opt to carry on for a few years. Just last year the company changed its own bylaws to increase the age limit for a chief executive allowed to run the company, from 75 to 80.

Updated: January 13, 2023, 9:42 AM