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What Donald Trump Can Learn from LVMH’s Bernard Arnault

By Jackie Mallon

Feb 20, 2017

Business |OPINION

“What I love is to win. What I love is being number one…Business is very exciting. That moment when you’re about to do a huge deal and you’re not sure if it’s going to happen or not…”

You might think these words were lifted straight out of Trump’s 1987 book “The Art of the Deal” but they were spoken by Bernard Arnault in a 2015 interview with London’s The Telegraph. On paper, the two magnates have much in common.

With only three years difference in age, they have amassed a fortune and built a reputation as dealmakers. As CEO and chairman of LVMH, the largest luxury superpower, Arnault is the richest man in France with a fortune Forbes estimates at 41.6 billion dollars. The magazine also describes him as “one of the world’s ultimate tastemakers.” As the first billionaire President of the United States, that original global superpower, Trump’s fortune is estimated by Forbes to be 3.7 billion dollars. However in contrast to Arnault’s tastemaker title, Graydon Carter of Vanity Fair describes Trump as a “short-fingered vulgarian.”

Birds of a Feather

Both men met recently in NYC so there is clearly mutual interest there. Their Trump Tower tête-a-tête to discuss expansion of LVMH’s successful Californian manufacturing plant concluded with Trump calling Arnault “one of the great men.” (You might say they even similarly name their erections––architecturally speaking, that is: Arnault has an LVMH Tower in midtown Manhattan mere blocks away, which houses management of U.S. operations.)

The striking parallels can be traced back to their early career: Arnault upon graduation with an engineering degree joined his father’s company and began to steer it away from its core construction business and into real estate, specifically, holiday accommodation, eventually succeeding his father as president. Trump began working for his father, Fred, whose company built low-cost housing in Queens and Brooklyn before succeeding him and plunking down a Trump Hotel in every major international city.

The Family Business

Both are family men whose adult children are crucial to the running of their businesses. Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, occupies the role of his closest counsel, and sons, Eric and Donald Jr., are executives in the Trump Organization. Arnault’s son, Alexandre, was beside his father at the Trump Tower meeting and eldest daughter, Delphine, is one of LVMH’s top management.

Neither are technophiles. Trump according to many reports does not use email nor own a personal computer, preferring to tweet on his smartphone at night, and Arnault said in his interview with The Telegraph, “I’ve no email––just a phone, and I would never text, just call.”

But for all their similarities, it is what separates them that is most revealing.

International Star Power

Tall, lean, and tailored in midnight blue Dior Homme, Arnault shuns publicity, rarely gives interviews, and doesn’t court celebrity. Trump, lurching for the spotlight in limply-fitted navy with a dangling red tie possibly intended as a hasty nod to patriotism but hardly qualifying as dapper, is a former reality star who continues to boast about his ratings as host of The Apprentice and obsess over the size of his inauguration crowd versus Obama’s.

With a reported six bankruptcies to his name, a slew of law suits by and against him, and his divisive politics ensuring liberals boycott his hotels, business doesn’t run smoothly for Trump. Even his White House cabinet has been rocked by daily tumult such as the resignation of his National Security Advisor amid scandal, the senate’s rejection of his Secretary of Labor pick, media outlets banning Senior Counsellor, Kellyanne Conway, due to a perceived lack of credibility, and weekly parody of his Communications Director, Sean Spicer, by Saturday Night Live.

Arnault, since 1987 when he smoothly mediated conflict between the CEO of Moet Hennessy and the president of Louis Vuitton thereby positioning himself to become the merger’s largest shareholder, has built an empire of 70 brands, among them Dior, Celine, Veuve Clicquot and Bulgari. Each brand’s individual success is attributed to Arnault’s policy of allowing it to operate independently, and promote its own point of view and identity. Incidentally, two have even spoken out against Trump and his policies, Marc Jacobs and Kenzo.

Certainly there is no comparison between the assembling of a cabinet in three weeks versus an empire over thirty years, but as we already seem to be witnessing the wheels falling off the Trump Administration it might be time for some self-evaluation.

The Balance of Power

Arnault has earned the sobriquet of “a wolf in cashmere” for his steely appraisal and stealthy acquisition of the right brands for his stable. Trump’s Twitter meltdowns, bungled roll-out of controversial Muslim ban (subsequently described as “not a ban”), antagonistic dialogue with foreign leaders, and handshake that resembles an arm wrestling match call to mind a bull in a china shop.

Perhaps a comment about the importance of balance by Arnault to The Telegraph could prove enlightening to our new Commander-In-Chief, who chooses not to receive traditional security briefings because he says, “I’m, like, a smart person. I don't have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years.”

Over to you, Mr Arnault:

“Instinct and concrete facts. It’s imperative that both play a part; instinct is a dangerous thing and basing things solely on facts rarely works. You have to be just as mistrustful of straightforward rationality in business as you do a uniquely gut approach.”

What about the duty to our planet? Investments in education? These, unfortunately, seem to be areas of the Venn diagram in which the two leaders do not overlap. Donald Trump’s head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, denies the science behind climate change and has a history of attempts to get rid of the agency, even suing it fourteen times. Trump has also mentioned pulling out of the Paris Climate Change Agreement, reducing EPA regulations, and is an investor and supporter of the fossil fuel industry.

Drill for facts over fuel

Meanwhile on the other side of the vulnerable ocean this week, Bernard Arnault announced plans for a “major investment” focusing on sustainability in Central St Martin’s, the premier London design school which has furnished much of the talent within his fashion houses. A new CSM-LVMH director of sustainability and innovation will be appointed as the conglomerate works together with students to develop “new holistic solutions that balance the needs of people, planet and business.”

The concept of balance seems to be a recurring one in Arnault’s strategizing. Essentially he understands that we are all students learning how best to undo the damage already inflicted on the planet, and education and environmental best practices go hand-in-hand. But Trump’s prioritizing of drilling over data, his history of creating fake universities for personal gain and his selection of schools-for-profit Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, suggest neither are particularly high on his agenda to Make America Great Again.

Artful Leadership

Monsieur Arnault is a patron of the arts whose brands epitomize luxury, never brashness, who plays classical piano in his spare time. LVMH has for years partnered with the Hyères International Festival of Fashion and Photography to award grants to emerging talent (Victor & Rolf are past winners) and is also behind The Young Fashion Designer Award. A respected art collector who owns works by Picasso and Warhol, he created in 2006 the Louis Vuitton Foundation dedicated to presenting contemporary art in a state-of-the-art building designed by Frank Gehry.

It remains to be seen how Trump’s presidency will affect arts funding but The Hill reports that the National Endowment for the Arts (N.E.A.) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (N.E.H.) would be eliminated entirely, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (C.P.B.)—which, in part, funds PBS—would be privatized.

Instant gratification may be behind Trump’s fondness for communicating in 140-characters. He admits to rarely reading but avidly watching television. However responses that offer long-term solutions for future generations to what he describes as “American carnage” that ensure “America will start winning again, winning like never before” require meaningful dialogue and analysis. Arnault’s message of informed and collaborative leadership is already resonating with the business minds of tomorrow: For the 11th consecutive year, LVMH has been voted by Universum, France, as Most Attractive Employer among students of business and management.

Time Will Tell

The oldest brand within LVMH is champagne-maker Château d’Yquem which can be traced back to 1593, a good 200 years before George Washington became the first president of the newly independent United States of America. Marrying one’s vision of a better future with respect for history and what’s already great about the country, is what will lead to long-lasting success.

President Trump, take note, the stakes have changed. There’’s more to the art of the deal than a handshake and photo op. That is, if you truly want to be “one of the great men.”

By contributing guest editor Jackie Mallon, who is on the teaching faculty of several NYC fashion programmes and is the author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

Homepage image: Albin Lohr-Jones / DPA, Ivanka Trump image: Brendan Smialowski / AFP, other images from LVMH and Donald Trump Facebook pages.