LMVH buys Bulgari in bid to be bling king

By John Lichfield

As jewel heists go, this was the Big One - the richest and shiniest ever.

Bernard Arnault, the wealthiest man in Europe, and boss of the world's largest luxury goods empire, LVMH, this week smashed and grabbed his way to control of the officially "unsaleable" Italian jewellery company, Bulgari, bauble-maker to the stars.

It was, of course, a perfectly legal raid, which could cost LVMH up to €4 billion ($7.6 billion) in shares and cash for a company which has been family-owned since 1884.

Arnault, 61, has had a long rivalry with the second largest luxury goods empire in the world - PPR, built by another French self-made billionaire, Francois Pinault.

The capture of Bulgari signals war on a glittering new front against Richemont, the jewel-laden, third largest global luxury goods empire, based in Switzerland and assembled by South African tycoon Johann Rupert, 60.

The commercial clout of LVMH - with more than 2500 shops around the world - will be used to challenge Richemont, and its leading jewellery brand Cartier.

This will also be a clash in styles between the urbane, arts-loving socialite Arnault and the reclusive Rupert.

LVMH (Louis-Vuitton-Moet-Hennessy) already has many of the greatest names in handbags (Louis-Vuitton), fashion (Dior, Givenchy); alcohol (Moet) and perfume (Guerlain).

It was, until Monday, relatively light on jewellery and watches, apart from TAG Heuer and Hublot.

Although Bulgari is the smallest of the world's leading jewellery companies, it is one of the most glamorous. Past clients include Elizabeth Taylor.

The company was started in Rome in 1884 by Greek immigrant Sotirios Bulgari. It has 260 shops worldwide. Adding Bulgari to the portfolio will increase LVMH's interest in the jewellery and watch sector by 70 per cent, but leave the company trailing behind Richemont, the undisputed world leader in top-class bling.

Maybe not for long. Market commentators, taken by surprise by LVMH's shopping expedition, predicted Arnault would look for new jewellery and watch-making acquisitions soon.

They also predicted the deal could set off an avalanche of wider takeovers in the luxury goods sector. Sales to China, Russia and India are booming and Goldman Sachs predicted this week that "600 million new consumers are set to enter the [luxury goods] market by 2025".

LVMH's coup in capturing Bulgari - frequently said "not to be for sale at any price" - interrupted a run of bad publicity for the Paris-based company.

One of the Arnault empire's "founder members", fashion house Christian Dior, was trailed through the mud last week by the "I love Hitler" comments of its British chief designer John Galliano (since fired).

In recent months, LVMH has been in an acrimonious takeover battle with the posh, French handbag and scarf maker Hermes. LVMH acquired 20 per cent of Hermes shares late last year, despite frequent warnings by the smaller, independent company that such interest was regarded as "hostile".

Arnault and LVMH have insisted they are merely courting Hermes in search of "partnerships" and "synergies".

The acquisition of the loss-making Bulgari seems to have been consensual. After secret negotiations ended at the weekend, it was announced that LVMH would take all the family-owned majority stake in the Italian company. LVMH would swap 16.5 million of its own shares for the 152.5 million shares owned by the Bulgari family.

This valued the 51 per cent family stake at €1.84 billion. LVMH is also to offer €12.25 a share to other holders of Bulgari equity - which could bring the total cost of the deal to €3.7 billion to €4 billion.

The Bulgari family will name two representatives to the LVMH board and Bulgari chief executive Francesco Trapani will become head of LVMH's watches and jewellery division.

Arnault started with a small family building company in the north of France in 1971. His early wheeling and dealing, to break into the luxury goods market, was often criticised. He has long since become one of the French great and good.

He fought, and lost, a vicious legal and commercial battle for control of Gucci with Pinault a decade ago. That aside, he has had few failures.

Sources in LVMH said the Bulgari purchase was part of a strategy change. Rather than focus on its struggle with PPR, LVMH will take on Richemont.

The handbag war with Gucci is over. The bauble war has just been joined.

- Independent

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