In October 2010, the fashion world was slapped with some striking news. As noted by no shortage of publications at the time, Hermès’ then-CEO Patrick Thomas would only find out two hours before the rest of the world about the shocking development that would take his company by storm. In fact, he received the news while cycling through the French Alps. He received a phone call; it was Bernard Arnault, chairman of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.
The call was reportedly quite brief – made purely to alert Mr. Thomas that LVMH would be announcing that it had acquired a 17% stake in Hermès, largely a family controlled company, in which the Puech, Dumas and Guerrands controlled a 70 per cent stake. Thomas was – according to sources – so enraged, his response to Mr. Arnault was simply this: “If you want to seduce a beautiful woman, you don’t start by raping her from behind.”
The next decade was filled with a formal investigation by the French stock market authority and rival legal battles between LVMH and Hermès. The parties were unable to resolve their differences, which played out in French courts, until late 2014.
Here is a look back at the budding rivalry between the two luxury giants, and a timeline of one of the single-handed most intense show downs the fashion industry has ever seen – or in Thomas’ words, “the battle of our generation.” The official transactions at play date back to 2001.
– 2001-2002: LVMH acquired an initial stake in Hermès of 4.9 percent through subsidiaries.
– 2007: LVMH resumed accumulating shares in Hermès by buying equity derivatives through financial intermediaries and subsidiaries, with each keeping holdings below 5 percent. In France, companies are required to disclose when they take a stake worth more than 5 percent of a another company’s capital if the target is listed on the stock market. However, equity swaps are exempt from such rules.
– October 23, 2010: LVMH announced (to much surprise in the market) that it had acquired a cumulative 14.2 percent stake, gained partly via derivatives that allowed it to avoid having to legally declare its holding. LVMH executives repeatedly stated that the conglomerate is a legitimate shareholder in Hermès and not planning a takeover.
LVMH Vice President Pierre Gode, for instance, said in a statement: “It would be folly on our part to hamper the success of this great brand. LVMH has no intention of aggressively taking control of Hermès. I make the wish that these artificial, sterile and groundless quarrels stop.”
– November 2010: The French financial services watchdog, Autorité des marchés financiers (“AMF”), announced investigation of LVMH’s investment in Hermès.
– December 2010: In an attempt to defend itself from what it labelled “a hostile move” by LVMH, Hermès set up a private holding company, which owns 50.2 per cent of Hermès shares. The holding has first right of refusal when a family member decides to sell shares.
– January 7, 2011: French market regulators have allowed the family that controls Hermès International to pool their assets without offering to buy out minority shareholders, an exemption from French law that shores up their defense against a possible LVMH takeover. According to the AMF ruling, LVMH will not be permitted to buy out minority Hermès shareholders, effectively ending any possibility of a takeover.
– March 7, 2011: Hermès CEO, Patrick Thomas, attacked LVMH’s methods in acquiring 20 per cent of the company. Of LVMH’s tactics, Patrick told the press: “If you want to seduce a beautiful woman, you don’t start by raping her from behind.” He also stated that “there is no interaction between LVMH and us. We don’t plan to have any.”
– May 30, 2011: Hermès chairman, Bernard Puech, tells French newspaper, Le Figaro, in an interview that he wants LVMH to halve its 21 percent stake. He also said: “After six months, we are the target of incessant attacks of the kind we’ve never seen in 174 years, even though LVMH says its approach to us is friendly. With friends like these, who needs enemies?”
– December 31, 2011: LVMH announced that raised its stake in Hermès to 22.6 percent.
– July 10, 2012: Hermès filed a criminal complaint against LVMH in a Paris court (which is separate from the AMF’s investigation), accusing the luxury conglomerate of insider trading, collusion and manipulating stock prices. The complaint, while addressing “the way in which LVMH entered the capital of Hermès,” alleged insider trading and manipulation of the share price.
Commenting on the suit, LVMH said: “By filing its complaint, Hermès seeks to bypass the appropriate AMF channels without waiting for the result of the official inquiry and without determining the extent of the AMF’s findings to date. In addition, the filing carries serious and unfounded accusations about market failings.”
– September 5, 2012: LVMH responded to Hermès’ suit by filing a complaint of its own against Hermès for “blackmail, slander and unfair competition.”
Hermès declined to comment on the LVMH countersuit.
– October 2012: The AMF announced that it had uncovered evidence of “wrongdoing” on LVMH’s part and asked the sanctions committee to decide whether to impose penalties on LVMH.
– April 19, 2013: Bernard Arnault states that LVMH came into the holding in Hermès “unexpectedly.” Speaking at LVMH’s annual general meeting in Paris, he further held: “We found ourselves owning shares in this company unexpectedly. We had not planned to be shareholders in this firm. We made a financial investment and that financial investment had an outcome that we had not expected.” See full coverage of this here.
– April 2013: The French stock market authority announced that it found that LVMH had secretly bought shares in rival Hermès to build a stake in the iconic Paris-based design house, and not merely to make a financial investment as LVMH had claimed.
– May 29, 2013: The AMF sanctions committee held a hearing to determine whether there was insider trading and share price manipulation at play in LVMH’s acquisition of Hermès shares, and thus, whether LVMH should be fined. The AMF held that LVMH had secretly bought shares in rival Hermès to build a stake in the iconic Paris-based design house. The stock market watchdog will announce whether or not it will level sanctions against LVMH within the next several months. See full coverage of this here.
– June 5, 2013: Hermès installed Axel Dumas, a member of the brand’s founding family, as co-chief executive. CEO Patrick Thomas announced that he would retire in 2014.
– June 19, 2013: Hermès files an additional lawsuit against LVMH seeking the cancellation of equity swaps LVMH allegedly used to secretly acquire a minority stake. Hermès, which called the move the largest fraud in the history of the French stock market, is seeking the annulment of the financial contracts and wants LVMH to resell the shares back to three banks, Societe Generale SA, Natixis SA and Credit Agricole SA, so that they may be placed back on the market
LVMH files a countersuit against an unidentified Hermès executive for comments made that LVMH had conducted “fraudulent” activity. See full coverage of this here.
– July 1, 2013: The AMF Sanctions committee ruled to penalize LVMH with a $10.4 million fine. See full coverage of this here.
– July 26, 2013: According to LVMH’s first-half financial report, the Paris-based luxury conglomerate had increased its stake in Hermès from 22.6 percent to a total of 23.1 percent. See full coverage of this here.
– September 4, 2013: LVMH announced that it would not appeal the AMF ruling, as “such proceedings would interfere with the sound management of [its] investment in Hermès.” See full coverage of this here.
– September 3, 2014: Following intervention by a French court, LVMH announced that it would distribute its 23 percent stake in Hermès to its shareholders and institutional investors and agreed not to buy more shares in Hermès for the next five years.
According to a statement from LVMH: “Hermès Executive Chairman Axel Dumas and Bernard Arnault both express their satisfaction that relations between the two groups, representatives of France’s savoir-faire, have now been restored.” See full coverage of this here.
– October 20, 2014: LVMH filed a regulatory statement outlining how it would execute the divestment of Hermès shares. See full coverage of this here.
– November 3, 2014: LVMH released a statement asserting that upon approval of the LVMH board, it would relinquish its Hermès shares on December 17, 2014. Dior, which would receive shares from LVMH, would relinquish them to its shareholders, as well. See full coverage of this here.
– December 17, 2014: LVMH officially relinquished its Hermès shares. LVMH distributed the 23 percent stake – which was worth $7.5 billion at the time – to its shareholders and institutional investors. Arnault and his family now own less than 10 percent of Hermès.
– November 28, 2016: Hermès has become a civil claimant in a criminal case against Bernard Squarcini, a spokeswoman for the French luxury firm has confirmed. Hermès decided to become a civil claimant in the criminal case against former police chief Bernard Squarcini, who ran the Direction centrale des renseignements généraux domestic intelligence service under former President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The case at issue centers on the criminal complaint that Hermès filed against LVMH in July 2012 in a Paris court, accusing the luxury conglomerate of insider trading, collusion and manipulating stock prices.