“Bernard, you look a little sad,” once remarked the late consultant Jean-Noël Tassez, who was escorting French luxury tycoon Bernard Arnault to his car after a dinner in Saint-Tropez.
“As long as I’m not the richest man in the world, I won’t really be happy,” replied the billionaire.
His dumbfounded companion was unsure whether he was being serious.
Depending on the day, Mr Arnault is the richest man in the world. Today his personal fortune stands at $188 billion, placing him behind Elon Musk, the Tesla and Space X boss.
The pair met for a power lunch earlier in 2023 with a combined wealth of almost $0.5 trillion.
Securing that top spot could be expected to be a source of pride for the Frenchman born in northern Roubaix, and who once confessed: “What I love is to win. What I love is being number one.”
However, last year the 74-year-old told The Telegraph that it was “just a number”. Wealth was not what got him out of bed in the money but “just a consequence of what I do”.
Born into an affluent and strictly Catholic family, Mr Arnault’s father made a small fortune in construction. His son got his start by putting up $15 million from that business to buy Christian Dior in 1984.
Since then, he has gone on to build the largest luxury goods company in the world, with a market capitalisation of €407 billion. Its portfolio of companies encompasses luxury fashion house Louis Vuitton, jewellery brand Tiffany’s, suitcase line Rimowa and champagne maker Moet & Chandon. In all, LVMH has 75 fashion and cosmetics brands.
That has seen him earn the moniker “the pope of fashion”. But he has other nicknames, notably “the Terminator” for his ruthless habit of mounting raids on companies and ousting their previous owners. It has mostly worked, though he failed in his bid to take over rival family fashion firm Hermès.
Mr Arnault’s holding company Agache backs venture capital firm Aglaé Ventures, which has investments in businesses such as Netflix and TikTok parent company ByteDance.
His huge financial clout has seen him brush shoulders with countless politicians, notably Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron, who invited him to the banquet for the King and Queen last week at Versailles.
“I’ve personally known every American president since Reagan,” he once said.
He has equally long and strategic relationships with Chinese and Russian leaders.
Case of different vintages
There is a long history between Mr Arnault and Vladimir Putin. Back in 2003, the Russian president was welcomed with great pomp at the Château Cheval-Blanc vineyard in Saint-Emilion, then owned by Mr Arnault and Belgian billionaire Albert Frère.
Putin left with a case of wine of different vintages corresponding to key dates in his life: his birth in 1952, his marriage in 1983, the birth of his children in 1985 and 1986, and finally 2000, the year of his ascension to the Kremlin.
“We need to talk to the Russians,” Mr Arnault told French magazine Paris Match in April 2017.
”The ties between our two countries go beyond political situations. They are historic, eternal.”
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Mr Arnault has spoken little about the conflict and “temporarily” ceased all LVMH operations in Russia.
But in 2022, he told The Telegraph he believed “the French president is right to keep talking to the Russian president because even in periods like this you have got to keep talking”.
Since then Mr Macron has all but cut off relations with Putin.
Married twice, Mr Arnault is said to have wooed his second wife, Helene Mercier, a Canadian concert pianist, by playing Chopin and other classical composers on the piano.
The tycoon has five children who all hold senior positions at LVMH; in July 2022, he proposed a reorganisation of his holding company Agache to give them equal stakes.
Rather like the Murdoch family, there has been much speculation about who will succeed him.
While the decision is far from clear-cut, Mr Arnault’s oldest child Delphine is seen by many as the most likely candidate to take the helm. She was named as chief executive of Christian Dior – LVMH’s second largest brand after Louis Vuitton, where she had previously been deputy CEO – earlier in 2023.
All have undergone rigorous training for their posts. One of Mr Arnault’s right-hand men, Sidney Toledano, told the Wall Street Journal that the LVMH chief would pair his children with executives to monitor their progress in their roles, and ask “about some of their character traits, or if there’s a need for a little correction”.
Aside from Delphine there is Antoine, who leads the listed company which holds the family stake in LVMH and Alexandre, who is head of products and communication at Tiffany & Co.
Another of his children, Frédéric, is the chief executive of Tag Heuer. His fifth, Jean, is the director of marketing and development at Louis Vuitton’s watches division.
Despite speculation over succession planning, Mr Arnault has given no indication he plans to retire soon, recently saying he intended to stay on for 10 years “minimum”.
State within a state
The company recently raised the maximum age requirement for its chief executive to 80 from 75.
In a recent profile, Le Monde said Mr Arnault’s company was so powerful it had become “a state within a state” in his native France.
“In a country like France, being the richest man in the world (or the second, when he alternates with Elon Musk) confers a special status. No one says it that way, but no one disputes it: LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault is held up on par with a head of state. Never before had France occupied the top spot in the rankings of which the American press is so fond.
“Also unprecedented is the fact that the company is valued at between €400 billion and €500 billion – more than the national budget,” it wrote.
“For the first time in France, where there is nothing above the state, a private individual is more powerful than the king,” it cited economist and philosopher Jérôme Batout as saying.
Away from work, Mr Arnault is a tennis enthusiast who occasionally plays with friend Roger Federer, 42.
An art lover, he has adorned his Paris home with paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Damien Hirst, Maurizio Cattelan, Andy Warhol and Pablo Picasso.
In 2014, he opened the Louis Vuitton Foundation, a huge building designed by Frank Gehry west of Paris dedicated to contemporary art.
Russian insurance tycoon
Nikolai Sarkisov and his older brother Sergei control RESO-Garantia, a large Russian insurer. Forbes listed the pair as Russia’s sixth wealthiest family in 2018.
The company was built by Sergei, who headed the Soviet state-owned Ingosstrakh insurance company’s representative office in Cuba in the 1980s and briefly worked for Lloyds before founding his own company in 1991. Nikolai, 55, joined four years later and is believed to be responsible for overseeing the firm’s relationships with its biggest corporate clients.
Today RESO Garantia is one of Russia’s largest insurers, with around 11 million customers. The wider RESO group also has subsidiaries in vehicle and property leasing and medical services.
Sergei and Nikolai Sarkisov control 63 per cent of the company. The remainder is owned by AXA, the French insurer, which pulled all its members from the board following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The French company still holds its stake but says it has no control over the running of the company.
The pair have built an extensive luxury property portfolio and are known to own land and apartments in Monaco, Vilnius, and France. In October 2020, La Parisien reported burglars had made off with €0.5 million in jewellery and Rolex watches from an apartment Nikolai owned on the Avenue Foche.
In 2021 French anti-corruption detectives said they were investigating Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president of France, for possible influence peddling after he signed a €3 million contract to advise RESO.
Mr Sarkozy argued his work for RESO was strictly in accordance with the law. The investigation was preliminary and no further action has been announced since it was first reported.
The pair are dual Russian-Armenian citizens and active in Armenian diaspora organisations, on occasion representing Armenia as honorary consuls.
Nikolai in 2020 publicly appealed for calm and offered to compensate businesses damaged after clashes between the Azeri and Armenian communities in the Russian capital triggered by the war in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Neither of the Sarkisov brothers is subject to Western sanctions. RESO-Garantia was in 2022 named as one of several potential buyers for Citi Bank’s Russian assets as the US investment bank sought to exit the country following the start of the war.