The Tiffany deal is LVMH’s biggest ever. The French company’s 75 brands now span everything from fashion to suitcases to Cognac.

(Bloomberg)—France’s richest man is adding the biggest jewel yet to his collection, as Bernard Arnault clinched a deal to buy Tiffany & Co. for $16.2 billion.

If history is any guide, the LVMH chairman will move quickly to apply his tried-and-tested formula for growth to the tarnished U.S. brand: simultaneously expanding its presence across the world, especially in promising Asian markets, while boosting exclusivity and prices.

It’s a difficult balance, but one that Arnault has been honing over three decades as he assembled a stable of luxury labels ranging from Louis Vuitton bags to Dom Perignon Champagne to Bulgari jewelry. While he’s had a few missteps, including purchases of Donna Karan and Marc Jacobs, LVMH (No. 20 in the Internet Retailer 2019 Top 1000) has grown into the industry’s dominant player, with a market value of 203 billion euros ($223 billion). Arnault’s personal fortune has swelled to nearly half that amount.

“We will get our inspiration from our experience with Bulgari,” Arnault said in an interview. “We modernized and expanded their product lines. We reviewed their look. We reviewed communications.”

The 182-year-old U.S. jeweler, known for its robin’s egg blue boxes and a role in Truman Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” is a cultural icon in the U.S., but its reliance on that market and struggles of late have undermined its appeal. Tiffany’s operating margin of 17% is about half the level of LVMH rival Richemont’s (No. 35) jewelry business, which includes Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels.

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Next steps

Arnault signaled he’s already looking at next steps for Tiffany, after sealing a deal over the weekend and announcing it Monday morning. Since buying Bulgari, LVMH has moved the product line upmarket while emphasizing the brand’s Roman heritage and aesthetics. Marketing was focused on what Arnault described as emblematic pieces. Sales have doubled since the 2011 acquisition, with profits increasing fivefold, he said.

LVMH also made Bulgari a more credible player in watches and upgraded its store network with better flagship sites, said Luca Solca, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein. The company has a wealth of experience in brand communications and is better at social media than Tiffany, he said.

“Applying this marketing and communication machinery should go a long way in making Tiffany more relevant in design jewelry and watches,” he said.

LVMH should add more products in the key luxury price segment of $1,000 to $10,000, Solca said. Women’s watches are a big opportunity, he said, given that Tiffany has only a small presence in timepieces and the French company has plenty of experience in that business as the owner of TAG Heuer, Chaumet, Hublot and Zenith.

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LVMH agreed to pay $135 a share for the U.S. jeweler, a 37% premium above the price before Bloomberg reported an initial approach in late October.

The deal should add 5% to net income in 2020, LVMH said in an investor presentation. The company will finance the purchase through an $8.5 billion bridge loan, a $5.75 billion back-up commercial paper line and a 2.5 billion-euro revolving credit facility, to be refinanced on bond markets.

Chief financial officer Jean-Jacques Guiony played down the potential for boosting profitability at Tiffany.

“It’s already pretty high and I don’t think we’ll be increasing it in the future in a very significant way,” he said on a call with investors. He added that LVMH won’t disclose targets for the brand because it has been under pressure from the market.

Global opportunity

Tiffany remains highly dependent on the domestic market, with the U.S. accounting for about 41% of sales.

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“Tiffany is an iconic, emblematic brand of America, with a great history,” Arnault said. “The weakness area is Europeand that, we know what to do and how to address. And there is a great potential in China.”

The jeweler’s struggles in the U.S. fueled an activist campaign by Jana Partners LLC and led to the replacement of Tiffany’s CEO in 2017. Sales in the Americas dropped 4% in the first half, damping a burst of enthusiasm earlier this year that new CEO Alessandro Bogliolo’s tweaks were boosting Tiffany’s prospects. Even in Asia, revenue growth has been sluggish.

Bogliolo has been pruning Tiffany’s lower-end offering in an effort to boost profitability, though the strategy has yielded uneven results. The CEO has worked for LVMH before, heading Bulgari when the French company bought it eight years ago, and then shifting to run North American operations of beauty retailer Sephora the next year.

LVMH usually replaces management of brands it acquires with its own executives after a transition period. Alexandre Arnault, the founder’s 27-year-old son, runs Rimowa, the German luggage maker the French conglomerate bought in 2016.

The Tiffany deal is LVMH’s biggest ever and the first major acquisition since Bernard Arnault branched out by striking a deal for the Belmond hotel group last year. The French company’s 75 brands now span everything from fashion to suitcases to Cognac.

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When asked what’s next on his list of acquisition targets, Arnault laughed and said, “One thing at a time.”

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