Who Is Bernard Arnault, The Man Who Surpassed Elon Musk As The World's Wealthiest Person?

Bernard Arnault, the French tycoon behind a staggering number of luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton, Dior, Moet, Bulgari, Tiffany and more, has another title to add to his name: the world's richest man. At least for a while. Bernard Arnault became the wealthiest man on top of the Fobes list on December 14, 2022, after Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk lost a bit of his fortune. At the time of the shift, the 73-year-old Arnault was worth $171 billion and Musk's wealth was listed at $164 billion on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Arnault is the first person from France — or Europe — to hold the top spot, according to Bloomberg. By Forbes' measures, Arnault was briefly the world's richest person in 2021, but that lasted less than 24 hours.

Bernard Arnault was born on March 5, 1949, in Roubaix, France, an industrial city in northern France along the Belgian border (via Britannica). His father, Jean Léon Arnault, was a manufacturer and the owner of the civil engineering company, Ferret-Savinel. And his mother, Marie Josèphe Savinel, had a fixation with fashion from Dior and wore the house's Diorissimo fragrance, Arnault later told the Financial Times. Arnault's early exposure to — and positive image of — Dior would later play a major role in his future. He had his primary and secondary education at the Lycée Maxence Van Der Meersch in Roubaix and the Lycée Faidherbe in Lille. Eventually, he entered École Polytechnique, France's most prestigious school for engineering, and graduated in 1971.

A move to real estate

Upon graduating from École Polytechnique and passing his qualifying exams to become an engineer, Bernard Arnault joined his father's company, Ferret-Savinel (via Britannica). Within a few years, Arnault was given control of the firm, according to CFI. By 1980, Arnault convinced his father to sell the construction side of the business and changed the company's name to Férinel Inc. He shifted the company's focus to commercial real estate in the U.S. During this period, he also married his first wife, Anne Dewavrin, in 1973 (per HITC). They had two children, a daughter Delphine and a son Antoine. According to Forbes, in 1981, the young family moved to the U.S. in part to avoid additional taxes on the wealthy under a new socialist government and in part to oversee his family's massive investment in America.

In 1984, Arnault had a new obsession — he learned that Christian Dior and its parent company, Boussac, had gone bankrupt. Arnault jumped on the opportunity, putting $15 million of family money into the pot while calling on investment firm Lazard for the rest of the $80 million required, per Forbes. Part of the deal was a promise by Arnault that he would get the firm back up to full production and save jobs from elimination. Instead, he sold off most of the company and laid off 9,000 workers, pocketing $500 million along the way, according to The New York Times. Dior, Arnault's treasure, was kept alive.

Arnault's business style earned him nicknames

For the layoffs, Bernard Arnault became known in the press as "The Terminator," but the nickname that stuck was "The Wolf in the Cashmere Coat" — or "The Wolf in Cashmere" for short, per the Independent. But this wouldn't be the last time the wolf would bare his teeth in business. Arnault took notice when, in 1987, luxury brands Louis Vuitton and Moet Hennessy merged to form LVMH. With $500 million in his coffers from selling off Boussac for parts, Arnault began investing in the new company, per Investopedia.

In a matter of two years, Arnault became the majority shareholder, according to the LVMH website. From there, he took control of the board and fired the two CEOs who were constantly at war, per Investopedia. Arnault claimed that it was just a matter of business and not personal at all. "It's not a dispute over personalities," he told The New York Times in 1989. "It's a dispute over strategy." But close advisers told the newspaper that it was entirely personal, with one saying, "It's all about ego." After taking over as chairman, CEO, and majority shareholder of LVMH — positions he still holds as of late 2022 — Arnault cleaned house of executives who were loyal to the previous CEOs.

More money, more businesses

With LVMH on firm footing and under Bernard Arnault's tight control, he began acquiring an astonishing number of luxury brands, including Dom Pérignon and Veuve Clicquot champagnes and Ardbeg and Glenmorangie single malt whiskeys. The company also owns Christian Dior, Marc Jacobs, Fendi, Givenchy, and Stella McCartney fashion houses. They've bought Fenty Beauty, Make Up For Ever, and Sephora cosmetics, and they own Bulgari, Hublot, and TAG Heuer watches. In addition, LVMH has bought into or outright owns companies outside of its luxury portfolio, including newspapers and radio stations. In January 2021, LVMH completed a $15.8 billion takeover of Tiffany & Co, per CNBC. According to CNN, the company's entire portfolio adds up to a market value of $386 billion as of December 2022.

Similar to the early 1980s when Arnault moved to the U.S. in an attempt to avoid France's rising taxes, in 2012, he looked north for similar protection. The French government had changed hands, Republican Nicholas Sarkozy was out as prime minister, and Socialist Party François Hollande was voted in (per France24). For Arnault, the writing was on the wall: heavier taxes for the wealthy were coming. According to some reports, Arnault made a play to become a Belgian citizen — something that was at odds with his brand as a patriotic businessman, per RFI. For his part, Arnault denied the claim, but, as it turns out, Belgian prosecutors blocked the effort, Reuters reported at the time.

Arnault is the business

From his standpoint, Bernard Arnault believes that protecting his money and the company are the same thing — and both deserve protection for how hard he's worked. For decades, he's begun his workday at 6:30 a.m. by listening to classical music while reading industry news and texting with company executives. "What I have in mind every morning is that the desirability of a brand should be as strong in 10 years," he told Forbes. "It's really the key to our success." Starting at 8:00 am — and for the next 13 hours — he's at his office. "He works 24 hours," Delphine Arnault, his daughter and executive vice president of Louis Vuitton, said to Forbes, adding, "When he sleeps, he's dreaming of new ideas."

Even with his tight schedule, Arnault finds time for leisure, hobbies, and even passions beyond the fashion world. Since he was a child, Arnault has played tennis and is regularly seen courtside at the French Open in Paris. According to Forbes, he plays about four hours each week, telling the magazine in 2019, "I try not to be fat, as you see, and I do a lot of sports." But it's possibly his personal art collection that has drawn the most attention. Per the Financial Times, his first purchase at an art auction was in the early 1980s — an early 20th-century depiction of London's Charing Cross Bridge by Claude Monet. He has since gone on to acquire works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Damien Hirst, Pablo Picasso, and Andy Warhol.

A Gehry-designed museum

The collection became so notable and so massive that Bernard Arnault commissioned famed architect Frank Gehry to design a museum in France to house all of it. "The guy knew what he wanted, and he wanted a building that would be different than anything else anybody had ever seen," Gehry told The New York Times. In September 2014, Arnault opened the doors to Fondation Louis Vuitton. For Arnault, the project always had a community element to it from its inception. "We see our role as bringing the artists we show at the Fondation closer to the public," he said, per the Financial Times, noting that the museum will become property of the city government in 2070.

At 73, Bernard Arnault shows no signs of slowing down. However, per Fortune, his five children appear to be engaged in a battle for taking his spot in the LVMH empire whenever he does decide to retire. All of them have some kind of role at the company. Almost in sync with his boost to the most wealthy person in the world, he named his son, Antoine Arnault, CEO of Christian Dior and vice chairman of its board, per Reuters. But that may mean nothing at all. "I think in business, you have to learn to be patient," Arnault once said, per France24. "Maybe I'm not very patient myself. But I think that I've learned the most is be able to wait for something and get it when it's the right time."