Power Players

Who is Bernard Arnault? The new world’s richest person admires Buffett and Jobs while running Louis Vuitton and Dior

LVMH chair Bernard Arnault speaks at the Viva Technology conference in June 2017 in Paris, France
Chesnot | Getty Images

When Elon Musk became the first person in history to lose more than $200 billion in net worth, the door opened for someone new atop the rankings of the world's wealthiest people.

That would be France's Bernard Arnault, the 73-year-old co-founder and CEO of LVMH, the luxury goods conglomerate known for operating iconic brands like Louis Vuitton, Tiffany and Christian Dior.

Arnault passed Musk to become the world's most wealthy person last month. He still holds that title today, according to estimates from Forbes and Bloomberg.

Forbes pegs his net worth at $191 billion, while Bloomberg offers a more conservative estimate of $172 billion, as of Thursday. Either way, he's been a billionaire for years — using strategies gleaned from Steve Jobs and Warren Buffett to build wealth and ascend the rankings.

Who is Arnault?

The French multibillionaire's name should certainly ring some bells. He's been a fixture near the top of the world's wealthiest people rankings for years, even nabbing the top spot from Amazon's Jeff Bezos as recently as 2021 before moving aside for Musk.

The son of a construction magnate, Arnault took over his father's firm in the 1970s and eventually pivoted to real estate before moving on to textiles and retail.

In 1985, he began building what is now LVMH by taking $15 million from his family business to buy Christian Dior from its bankrupt owners. He still holds a 97.5% stake in the iconic French luxury fashion house.

They launched a fantasy sports company at 22. It's now worth $8 billion
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Over the subsequent three-plus decades, Arnault expanded his luxury retail empire by helping merge Louis Vuitton with spirits company Moët Hennessy and taking a controlling stake in the resulting holding company, called LVMH.

Today, he controls roughly half of LVMH, which has a market valuation of nearly $390 billion. It recorded nearly $60 billion in sales over the first 9 months of 2022.

Arnault likes to frequently check in on the retail locations of LVMH's brands and their competitors, reportedly visiting up to 25 locations some days. He's also publicly taken pride in maintaining and growing some of France's most iconic brands and designers.

"I see myself as an ambassador of French heritage and French culture," he told Forbes in 2010. "What we create is emblematic."

How did he become the world's wealthiest person?

Arnault's recent ascension to the top of the billionaire rankings coincides with the rapid evaporation of a huge chunk of Musk's wealth, following the Tesla and SpaceX CEO's takeover of Twitter in October 2022.

Amid global market turmoil, Arnault's wealth has held fairly steady in recent months. The vast majority of Arnault's wealth is tied to LVMH's stock, and since 2020, the company's stock price has grown by nearly 65% overall.

Correspondingly, Arnault's personal fortune has grown by tens of billions of dollars over that period. Forbes estimates that Arnault's fortune more than doubled to $150 billion last year, up from $76 billion in 2020, as demand for luxury goods rose after an initial pandemic dip.

Arnault's biggest business inspirations

Arnault has called one of his fellow billionaires his biggest business inspiration: Berkshire Hathaway chairman and CEO Warren Buffett.

The renowned investor is "the person who I admire most in business," Arnault told Forbes in 2017, adding: "He is a long-term investor and has brilliant ideas and he sticks to them."

Buffett famously sticks to a "buy-and-hold" investing strategy, preaching long-term patience over watching the markets closely day-to-day.

Similarly, Arnault has called patience "an essential quality" in business. He reportedly courted Italian jewelry brand Bulgari for a decade before pouncing when the brand was struggling, acquiring the company in 2011.

But Arnault seemingly hasn't completely followed in Buffett's footsteps.

Buffett has donated more than $45 billion of his fortune to charity since 2006, according to Bloomberg. In 2010, he co-founded the Giving Pledge, promising to give away at least half of his wealth philanthropically before he dies.

Arnault has made no such promises, at least publicly. His most high-profile act of philanthropy came in 2019, when his family pledged a $226 million donation to aid the restoration of Paris' iconic Notre Dame cathedral, which suffered a devastating fire that same year.

Arnault didn't immediately respond to CNBC Make It's request for comment.

Buffett isn't the only American business icon who inspires Arnault. The LVMH CEO has also expressed admiration for Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

The admiration may have even gone both ways: Arnault told Forbes in 2017 that Jobs once approached him for advice on Apple opening retail stores.

Jobs succeeded at Apple due to "a combination of creativity and a keen sense of how to manage for growth," Arnault told Forbes. Being LVMH's CEO requires a similar approach, he added, because he has to "transform creativity into business reality all over the world."

"To do this, you have to be connected to innovators and designers, but also make their ideas livable and concrete," he said.

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