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$193bn: how did this French businessman get so rich?

Bernard Arnault frequently beats Elon Musk to ‘world’s richest man’ title, we look at his complex relationship with France and what he owns

Billionaire Bernard Arnault bought Dior’s parent company in 1984; he owns a 101m-long yacht called Symphony (amongst many, many other things) Pic: thongyhod / Sorbis / Sergey Sivkov /Shutterstock

He is known in the business world as ‘the wolf in cashmere’ for his ruthless tendency to swallow up luxury brands.

But a more conventional appetite was on display in June when photos emerged of Bernard Arnault enjoying lunch with fellow billionaire Elon Musk in Paris.

The images sent the internet into overdrive with speculation about what they may have been discussing, not least because the pair currently boast being the two richest men in the world.

At the start of the year, Mr Arnault, founder and CEO of luxury goods company LVMH, officially held top spot.

His ‘ranking’ has since slipped to second – at the time of writing, he had added US$30.9billion to his net worth so far this year, however, Mr Musk added US$106billion.

The 74-year-old and his family still enjoy a net worth of more than US$193billion, according to Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Mr Arnault was also recently spotted inspecting luxury venues in a Beijing shopping mall. Wealthy Chinese shoppers are said to be key to LVMH’s growth. 

Early years in family firm

Outside of France, where he has topped the rich list since 2005, little is known about the notoriously private entrepreneur.

He was born in 1949 in Roubaix (Hauts-de-France) to a wealthy family and developed a fascination for his father’s civil engineering company from a young age. 

He joined the firm in 1972 after studying at the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique and became executive director at the age of 27.

Photo: former US president Donald Trump and  Bernard Arnault; Credit: MediaPunch/Alamy Live News

Mr Arnault soon convinced his father to switch the company’s focus to coastal real estate and it was in this role that he first crossed paths with former US president Donald Trump in the early 1980s, when they both worked in New York.

Mr Arnault had moved to the US to escape what he saw as a hostile business environment following the election of socialist president François Mitterrand.

Read more: Who owns France’s media and what are their political leanings?

New York cab driver gave him luxury idea

While living there, he built The Princess, a seaside resort in Palm Beach, Florida, but a more formative moment came during a much earlier trip to the country in 1961.

In an exchange with a New York cab driver, Mr Arnault says he got his first inkling of the power wielded by luxury brands when the driver told him he had no idea who France’s then-president was, but he had heard of Christian Dior.

“I was fascinated to understand that France has one name with international fame,” Mr Arnault later explained in a speech to students at the Ecole Polytechnique in March 2017.

When he found out Christian Dior was for sale in 1984, he made his move. 

Its parent company, Boussac, had gone bankrupt, and the French government was looking for a buyer.

Having reportedly made assurances that jobs would be preserved, he went on to axe around 8,000 staff and sold off most of the company’s assets, apart from Dior. 

Other luxury brands followed

By 1990, he had taken control of Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH), an integration of aspirational brands including the fashion house Louis Vuitton, champagne-maker Moët & Chandon, and the cognac producer Hennessy.

The group has since expanded to incorporate other leading companies in fashion, fragrance, jewellery and watches, fine wines and spirits, and even hotels, including the London-based group Belmond, whose holdings boast the Cipriani hotel in Venice and the Orient Express.

Art lover and shrewd businessman

Along the way, Mr Arnault has also bought up newspapers and amassed a substantial art collection, including paintings by Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol, and Henry Moore sculptures.

He is the founder of the Fondation Louis Vuitton, a Paris art museum and cultural centre designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry, which opened to the public in 2014.

“You can’t put a price tag on a dream,” he said, when asked about the final cost of the project. 

Media speculated it had ballooned from initial projections of €100million to end up just short of €800million.

Rather too handily, many people thought, the Fondation was able to claw back a large proportion of that sum thanks to a generous 60% tax cut for companies investing in cultural patronage initiatives.

Read more: Plain sailing? Not for the Paris art museum inspired by a ship

Scandals have dogged the billionaire

Mr Arnault was among the high-profile names listed in the Paradise Papers, a leak of more than 13.4 million confidential electronic documents relating to offshore investments and revealing the financial hideaways of famous brands and power-brokers.

Meanwhile, 2016 saw the release of the documentary film Merci Patron!, which took aim at Mr Arnault’s outsourcing of French jobs to foreign labour.

In this critically acclaimed film, director and left-wing politician François Ruffin takes on the case of two textile workers who were made redundant when operations at the factory where they worked, run by one of Mr Arnault’s companies, were relocated to Poland. 

It follows Mr Ruffin’s efforts to force the billionaire to compensate for “ruining their lives”.

Even before that, Mr Arnault had attracted critical headlines for trying to claim Belgian citizenship. 

In 2013, he announced he had abandoned the attempt because he did not want the move to be misinterpreted as tax evasion, but not before socialist-leaning newspaper Libération ran the expletive-laden headline Casse-toi riche con! – telling him bluntly to get lost.

Business is a family affair

As for his personal life, Mr Arnault has been married twice – since 1991 to the Canadian concert pianist Hélène Mercier. 

He is said to be competent on the instrument himself, and reportedly wooed Hélène by playing to her on one of their early dates.

Photo: Bernard Arnault and his wife Helene Mercier; Credit: U PI / Alamy Banque D'Images

All five of Mr Arnault’s children – Delphine and Antoine from his first marriage, and Alexandre, Frédéric, and Jean from his second – have roles in brands controlled by their father.

“In the luxury business, you have to build on heritage”, he has said in the past. He is clearly laying the groundwork for his own impressive, albeit controversial, legacy.

What does he own?

Wines and spirits industry: 

Dom Pérignon, Moët & Chandon, Mercier, Ruinart, Krug, Chandon Estates, Mountadam, and many more.

Fashion and leather: 

Louis Vuitton, Celine, Kenzo, Marc Jacobs, Givenchy, Dior, Christian Lacroix, and many more.

Perfume and cosmetics: 

Christian Dior, Givenchy, Guerlain, Kenzo, Urban Decay, and many more.

Retail: 

DFS Group (which owns Samaritaine Paris), Miami Cruiseline, Sephora, Le Bon Marché Paris.

Watches and jewellery: 

Tiffany & Co, Tag Heuer, Omas, Fred, and more.

French newspapers/media: 

Les Echos, Le Parisien, Radio Classique, La Tribune.

Mr Arnault and his family have shares in: 

LVMH (47.35%), Hermès (2%), Carrefour (8.6% at the end of 2019).

His properties include: 

A private 2,000m² mansion on rue Barbet-de-Jouy in Paris’s 7th arrondissement, bought for €25million in 2005; 

Château Saint-Rémy-des-Landes in  Clairefontaine-en-Yvelines (Yvelines); 

A villa in Saint-Tropez; 

Nyn Park, a 129-hectare estate north of London, where he built a 4,300m² country house.

He owns 25 wineries around the world, including Domaine des Lambrays in Burgundy. 

He is also reported to own five properties in Beverly Hills. 

In addition, he has a 54-hectare island in the Bahamas archipelago and a 101m-long yacht called Symphony. 

He sold his private jet, which was worth around €68million, after it started being tracked on Twitter and now rents them instead.

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