Arnaud Lagardère: Dad, I shrunk the empire

Arnaud Lagardère, heir of the Lagardère business empire, has been bailed out by the French establishment – again. But this time he is determined to prove his mettle.

Twenty years ago, LVMH founder Bernard Arnault sat down for dinner with his old friend, Jean-Luc Lagardère, at the Paris Polo Club after their regular game of tennis, says the Financial Times. They were joined by Lagardère’s son and heir, Arnaud. At the time, Lagardère was the more celebrated of the two business leaders – having built one of France’s great industrial empires, with interests ranging from aerospace to publishing. But he already had an eye on his own mortality. “If anything happens to me,” he told Arnault, “you must look after Arnaud.” Three years later, he died.

Fast-forward two decades, and the luxury tycoon – now the richest man in Europe – appears to be honouring his pledge. Last week, Arnault announced he would buy 25% of Arnaud Lagardère’s personal holding company, through which he controls the publicly traded Lagardère Group. The deal saves Lagardère junior “from an embarrassing reckoning with his French creditors”. Perhaps more importantly, it also gives him “a powerful ally” in his “long-running battle” with Amber Capital – the London-based hedge fund that has been agitating to overhaul the group, now mainly a media empire whose assets include the publishing house Hachette, a chain of newsagents, and several high-profile magazine titles including Paris Match and Elle.

“French tycoons like to scratch each others’ backs,” says Bloomberg. Especially, it seems, when the threat is “hedge-fund humiliation”. Arnault is actually the third Gallic billionaire to ride to the rescue of the Lagardère’s “indebted heir” in his time of trouble. Vive la French establishment! Arnaud Lagardère, now 59, clearly holds a special place. But he has also attracted “plenty of scorn for both his management style and the performance of the business”, says the FT. Considered something of a playboy, “Lagardère spends several months of the year in Florida and once skipped a board meeting to attend the Roland-Garros tennis tournament in Paris”. During his tenure, he has refocused the group away from its industrial heritage to concentrate on the media side of the business – with mixed success. In 2018, the left-leaning newspaper Libération splashed him all over the front page under the headline Papa, j’ai rétréci l’empire (“Dad, I shrunk the empire”). 

A reluctant chief executive?

Lagardère is obviously no dunce: he took a masters in economics before joining the family firm in 1986, and spent his apprenticeship as the dauphin working in different roles across the group. Nonetheless, his extracurricular activities with the opposite sex have long been the subject of public fascination, and many have concluded that Lagardère is “a reluctant chief executive”. Lagardère threatened to sue one French paper that “questioned his dedication”, but the press continued to have a ball. 

“Maybe I’m an atypical boss, so what?” a defiant Lagardère told the business paper, Les Echos. “Being happy in one’s private life is a source of stability for a chief executive.” Well, not necessarily. Now financially shored up, the enfant terrible of French business intends to make Lagardère “a global leader” in book publishing and travel retail, notes the FT. “I have spent a lot of time defending myself and the company, now I want to move forward,” he says. “If I’m lucky, I have 15 or 20 years left ... to strengthen my family’s company.” Le tout-Paris is watching. 

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