Growing up on the estates of Alpes-Maritimes in the early 1970s, Jean and Mathilde Arnault knew they wanted to do something that would not just leave them rich but change the world. After the young couple divorced in 1991, on either side of the Atlantic, Jean took on greater responsibilities while his older brother Laurent assumed a more expansive role. Just months after their first son Cyril’s birth in 1994, Laurent established himself as the CEO of Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the world’s biggest luxury goods company. Shortly thereafter, Jean – who describes himself as a “big fan of French film and acting” – started his own business, Haut et Court Productions, producing films for television and the stage. Today, with his wife and business partner, who is also his sister, he is the undisputed head of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the world’s leading luxury goods company, with operating revenues of $35bn (£22.7bn).
What attracted you to the family business?
As young brothers, growing up with your parents working in the family business was really a big influence on us. We were six and 10 at the time, and our father was still managing LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton in Paris when we took over the reins of the international business. For most people it’s very hard to do that. We were already producers by then, but we took it up even further, and were respected in the industry and within Louis Vuitton. When Laurent became CEO, the whole family business, which really started with our grandfather, became much bigger.
When it comes to your business, the members of the family aren’t competing. You all work as a unit. It’s an unusual situation. It really draws on the family’s history.
I remember early on my father said: “This is your job, you can do it. If you’re not doing it, you can leave.” When you have grown up with this family tradition of [making] those jewels for the customers, that’s what you’re naturally going to do.
You were part of a family business that became a luxury goods giant. Do you see any parallels in your career and that of your father?
My father is a perfectionist and when he sees something, he is going to use it perfectly. At the beginning he wanted to use foreign actors and stars, and that did not work. He kept it and worked with people who he was comfortable with. When you take this quality and this drive to make your way in the world, it’s an attractive characteristic to have. I’m basically a perfectionist. What makes it possible for me to make it work at the level it is at is that I have a great support group. I’m surrounded by people who’ve worked with me for a long time. In every group you need to have a support group, and these people make it possible for you to be successful. And you need that support group to be respected.
What does Philippe Lévy, the chairman of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, think of your role?
I think he really enjoys working with the family in general. It really adds something special to our business, and when the whole family gets involved, the employees know that we take this work very seriously. We are responsible for all of this. It’s for them what we sell.
It’s an extraordinary place. With all the competition, our success is only one of our achievements. We’re in a family business, our whole lives are devoted to this, and that’s something special.
Did the success of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton make you decide to change the family’s business model to one that is more like a holding company?
A couple of years ago I asked my son Jean, who is 21 years old, who is now in charge of my business, to review all the contracts for one year and give me his opinion. To make a long story short, he decided he didn’t want to do the work. He wanted to pursue a creative career in production. He said it would be better for him to do it, and for me to focus on the board and looking at a more long-term business model.
Does Jean feel like he would like to follow in your footsteps and run the company one day?