PARIS — Bernard Arnault was a bit like the proverbial postman Thursday — neither war, nor SARS, nor falling tourism prevented him from delivering a positive outlook for luxury giant LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.
Addressing back-to-back annual shareholders’ meetings for LVMH and its parent, Christian Dior SA, an upbeat Arnault reiterated that the group is on track to deliver a “tangible” increase in operating earnings this year thanks to juggernaut brands like Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, Dom Perignon, Hennessy and Moët & Chandon.
Despite his sanguine view on most things, even Arnault couldn’t hide a few bumps. Responding to a question about De Beers LV, the jewelry venture LVMH formed with the De Beers Group, Arnault said no further stores will be opened beyond the London flagship until the strategy and product are fine-tuned. This represents a step back from earlier expansion plans, which in November 2002 called for a second store in Tokyo in the second half of 2003 followed by one in New York, but not before 2004.
And in discussing some of the group’s smaller brands, Arnault said, “We cannot go faster than the evolution of a brand,” in response to a question about the dearth of activity around the houses Christian Lacroix and Kenzo. “It takes time.”
Yet the overall message was overwhelmingly positive. Addressing concerns that the killer pneumonia SARS could hamper the luxury sector going forward, Arnault reported that sales of Louis Vuitton increased last week in Hong Kong, one of the epicenters of the disease, at a time when some brands are showing decreases of up to 50 percent. He said Vuitton continued to vault at double-digit rates in April and that wines and spirits have been showing “excellent results” since the end of March.
Arnault cited a waiting list of 6,000 people for the Louis Vuitton Tambour watch, but declined to give more specific figures about recent sales trends.
Last month, LVMH said sales fell 5.2 percent to $3 billion in the first quarter, but that included a negative currency impact of about 11 percent, as reported. At the time, analysts pointed to “organic” growth of 6 percent as the more telling figure, suggesting the French group is showing resilience in the face of a difficult environment.Stressing that regions affected by SARS account for only 6 percent of its business,Arnault said Thursday he expects the epidemic to be under control within three months. He also reminded the audience that the death toll for SARS, which now stands at about 580 people, pales next to the scope of diseases like AIDS and malaria, which kill millions each year.
He also downplayed American boycotts of French products in retaliation for the country’s opposition to military action in Iraq. “That isn’t really a problem,” Arnault said. He also characterized the impact of the Iraq war as “something that’s now behind us.”
Reprising themes from a presentation to analysts last March, Arnault urged shareholders not to lump together all luxury players. Just as Renault’s success stands out in the automobile industry and L’Oréal’s in cosmetics, he said LVMH should be judged by the success of its best companies.
He also reiterated that he would continue to apply a policy of “selective investment” in brands that offer the strongest potential for profits. As for the others in its stable of some 50 names, Arnault said “small” and “medium” brands should be considered for “future growth potential.”
One of the few fashion brands slated to receive fresh emphasis is Fendi, with Arnault praising its network of boutiques and creative teams lead by “the great designer Karl Lagerfeld.” He said Fendi would be “headed down the same road” as Vuitton and Christian Dior with a similar business model.
During a question-and-answer period, Arnault was asked if the group might shed DFS and Sephora, which he once described as noncore. He replied that a disposal was not “the order of the day” and that LVMH would continue to improve the profitability of the chains. “Perhaps one day we will think about [selling], but not before two or three years,” he said.
Only one question drew a gasp: when a shareholder asked Arnault what he thought of the luxury holdings of his archrival François Pinault, who owns 63.28 percent of Gucci Group.
The LVMH chief didn’t even utter the P-word, responding in rapid-fire manner: “As far as competitors, there are two I admire: Chanel and Hermès. Next question.”Arnault’s positive messages seemed to please investors. Shares of LVMH shot up 6.1 percent Thursday to close at $48.81 on the Paris Bourse, converted from euros at current exchange.
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