PARIS -- Acquisition-hungry Bernard Arnault, who last week gained financial control of Guerlain SA, may be eyeing Van Cleef & Arpels as another addition to his luxury goods empire.
While statements from the involved parties about Arnault's interest in buying and Van Cleef's interest in selling are not consistent, Arnault, chairman of LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, has made no secret of his interest in acquiring a prestigious brand in the jewelry and watch business. It is the one important sector of the luxury goods industry in which LVMH does not have a strong presence.
In addition to the Guerlain deal, LVMH controls the perfumes and fashion businesses of Christian Lacroix, Givenchy and Kenzo; Parfums Dior; Louis Vuitton; Hennessy brandy, and one quarter of the French champagne market, including brands like Veuve Clicquot, Pommery, Dom Perignon and Moet et Chandon.
Founded in 1906, Van Cleef & Arpels is totally owned by around 20 members of the Arpels family. Jacques Arpels, the 80-year-old head of the family, is president.
Speaking through a spokeswoman, Van Cleef & Arpels managing director Ferdinand Ripoll said, "We cannot make an official statement. It's clear that LVMH wants to buy a great jeweler. He's certainly interested in us, but he's not the only one. Van Cleef & Arpels is 100 percent family owned and plans to stay that way for the moment."
The spokeswoman declined to name any other possible bidders.
The prestigious Paris-based jeweler, however, has apparently been on the block for some time.
"My understanding is that the business has been up for sale for two years," said Jean Weber, president of Start, Style & Art SA, the Swiss company that controls the worldwide watch license of Van Cleef & Arpels.
"Mr. [Jacques] Arpels is an old man. Maybe he wants out. Though I really couldn't say if LVMH is interested," added Weber.
A spokeswoman for LVMH said: "Our group is looking at a number of prospectuses, but we are not in a hurry to buy anything. It all depends on the price and other factors. Van Cleef & Arpels may well have been one of the companies we have had a look at, perhaps, but I can say no more than that."Analysts in Paris say Arnault is eager to establish a presence in the jewelry business.
"Mr. Arnault clearly would like to have a strong name in jewelry. He told us that two years ago at a meeting of analysts. It's the one area of luxury goods where LVMH is weak," said Jean-Marie L'Home, an analyst with Paris stockbroker BZW Puget Mahe.
L'Home cautioned that any LVMH bid for the jeweler would probably have to involve Elf-Sanofi, the state-run beauty company that controls the Van Cleef & Arpels perfume license.
"Elf-Sanofi makes any bid complicated. Frankly, it's hard to see Arnault working with Elf-Sanofi -- very hard," said L'Home.
LVMH certainly can afford to make still another acquisition. In a deal completed last week, Guinness PLC, the British alcoholic beverage company, paid LVMH about $1.4 billion for 34 percent of its Moet Hennessy beverage business.
According to figures reported to the government, Van Cleef & Arpels earned a net profit of $4.4 million (24.8 million francs) on sales of $36.7 million (207.3 million francs) last year. These results were down from 1991, when net totaled 35 million francs and sales, 227 million francs, and they were well below 1990 figures, when net was 50.3 million francs and sales reached 305 million francs.
Weber declined to provide sales figures for Van Cleef & Arpels watches, but did say that between 7,000 and 8,000 watches were sold annually.
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