CARTIER - SAN DIEGO

LONDON — With a surge in fourth-quarter sales and Compagnie Financière Richemont in recovery post-pandemic, the last thing on Johann Rupert’s mind is selling the company he founded more than 30 years ago.

While he’s happy to cooperate with competitors including Farfetch, Kering, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton and Bulgari, Rupert’s Richemont will remain proudly independent.

Rupert, chairman, founder and shareholder of reference, said the group has invested — and reaped far too many rewards — for the company to sell or merge now with a competitor. If that happened, he said, then all of the shareholders would suffer.

“Richemont will remain autonomous,” said Rupert on Friday as Richemont reported a 30 percent uptick in fourth-quarter sales and an 8 percent decline in fiscal full-year sales to 13.14 billion euros.

At constant exchange, sales were down by 5 percent in the 12 months to March 31.

Profits climbed 38 percent to 1.29 billion euros, with the company confirming a “strong start” into the new financial year, “with accelerating trends” across all business areas.

China, the U.S., e-commerce and the jewelry houses have all been performing strongly, with Rupert cautiously upbeat about the future prospects for the company, and for luxury generally.

He sought to quash ongoing speculation of a tieup with Kering once and for all.

He admitted that he “gets on really well” with Kering owners, the Pinault family, and with Francois-Henri Pinault in particular — but there is no way he’s selling to them.

“We already collaborate with Kering in eyewear — and we’ll do it with others as well.”

He did admit that Kering had approached him “a long time back,” but said it was not in the spirit of “’We want to buy you,’ but rather ‘Let’s work together.’” Rupert added that he’s had similar approaches in the past “from at least three people.”

Rupert also noted that Kering’s approach took place “when our share price was in the 50s,” and now it’s nearly doubled.

On Friday, Richemont shares closed up 5 percent at 99.36 Swiss francs.

He pointed to a “blogger’s report” and described it as “old and stale and secondhand — and just unnecessary. It was an inconvenience to François-Henri Pinault and to me. The bloggers get the news a year or so later, and often from third parties.”

Rupert also reiterated the company’s investment strategy, talked about how the organization works — and argued that he’s not the only one in charge.

“We tend to buy things, and then build brand equity and value. We have a collegial board, and a corporate culture that is totally different to other companies,” said Rupert, adding that Richemont’s board takes time to discuss issues, and is so in tune that “we’ve never had a vote.”

Rupert’s not keen to spin off his brands, either. He’s proud of Richemont’s nurturing approach, and said he’s willing to wait years for brands to flourish — despite the pressure from markets for quick results.

In 1997, he said he purchased Panerai for $1 million, “and today I wouldn’t sell it for $1 billion.” He purchased Van Cleef & Arpels for $300 million two decades ago, turned it around and said it now has a free cash flow that’s bigger than Tiffany & Co.’s.

Richemont ended the year with a 1 billion euros increase in its net cash position to 3.93 billion euros, which came from cash flow from operating activities and strict working capital management.

The company has proposed a dividend of 2 Swiss francs for its A shares, which are listed and traded on the SIX Swiss Exchange.

Rupert also addressed the future of AZ Factory following the death of its founder Alber Elbaz last month from COVID-19 complications. AZ Factory is a joint venture between Richemont and Elbaz and the first collection launched earlier this year.

Rupert said that everyone is in a state of shock “and great sorrow” about the designer’s death in Paris at the age of 59. He said Richemont is in discussions with Elbaz’s longtime partner Alex Koo, his family and nephews about how they want to proceed.

“They must indicate their wishes to us, and it would be disrespectful to comment” before then, Rupert said.

He added that the designer left behind collections that have not yet been presented, and that he and Elbaz were “planning so far into the future and laughing so much. His death is a personal loss. It’s hard even to contemplate that he’s gone now from all our lives.”

Regarding the overall company, Rupert said that Richemont had been “stress-tested” like never before during the COVID-19 crisis last year, and he’s confident about the future.

He said that business turned a corner last August, and began picking up in earnest in mid-February, with strong sales trends continuing.

“We are performing very well, even in comparison to our luxury goods rivals, and there are real signs of growth not only in China but also in the United States of America,” Rupert said.

Sales in the Americas region declined by 10 percent at constant exchange in fiscal 2021, but had been steadily improving throughout the year, with 21 percent growth in the fourth quarter.

Sales in Europe were down 30 percent, given all of the travel restrictions, a freeze on international tourism, curfews and the temporary closures of stores. Richemont said all the main markets, excluding Russia, recorded double-digit declines, although sales recovered in the fourth quarter.

“Where markets are already open, we’ve done very well and where markets are not open yet,” Richemont has been doing well online, Rupert said.

Jewelry performed robustly during the year, with the category exceeding 2019 sales levels.

The division delivered 3 percent sales growth at actual exchange rates and 7 percent at constant ones, with Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and Buccellati adding products to their best-selling collections.

Cartier chief executive officer Cyrille Vigneron said the fourth-quarter performance was “quite promising” for high-end jewelry generally. “The customer appetite is there, and there is a long-term [positive] trend for branded jewelry.”

Richemont’s specialist watchmaking division, which includes IWC, Panerai and Vacheron Constantin, saw a double-digit sales increase in Asia Pacific, partly supported by the opening of five flagships on Alibaba Tmall Luxury Pavilion and the participation in Watches & Wonders fairs in Shanghai and Sanya.

In mainland China, watch sales grew in the triple digits.

Overall, the division posted a 21 percent decline in sales for the year, lifted by a 10 percent uptick, year-on-year, in the final quarter.

Rupert noted that the restructuring and “very heavy investments” aimed at fixing the watch division were paying off, and the retail network has also improved.

Some 73 percent of sales are now through internal, or franchise stores, with sales to local clientele growing in the “double-digits,” and partly mitigating the contraction in inbound tourism due to the decline in international travel from the pandemic.

He said that for the past four years, “sell-in has been less than sell-out, which stops the gray market and discounting.” The division’s recovery, he said, “has been constantly accelerating” from the third quarter of the fiscal year, with the first four months of the calendar year trading above 2019 levels.

Online retail sales, including Net-a-porter, Mr Porter and Yoox, grew by 6 percent in the year and now account for about 21 percent of group revenue. The company added that it is seeing “triple-digit growth” in the online retail sales of its individual brands.

Online was the only sales channel that grew in the 12 months, with retail down 1 percent and wholesale and royalty income falling 27 percent. Rupert said that Richemont’s “massive investments” in e-commerce and online over the past five years are finally starting to pay off.

Richemont also noted that online distributors, including Net-a-porter, reduced their operating loss to 223 million euros in the year, reflecting “strict” cost controls, lower operating expenses and tight inventory management.

Richemont said its partnership with Alibaba has led to the opening of 11 flagships on Alibaba’s Tmall Luxury Pavilion, for Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels; IWC Schaffhausen, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Panerai, Piaget and Vacheron Constantin; Net-a-porter; Chloé; Dunhill, and Montblanc.

Rupert said the company is learning a lot from its Alibaba partnership, including the fact that Chinese clients want to shop “on their mobile phones, anytime, anywhere.”

He added that Richemont is hard at work building a “hybrid model” with the Chinese giant, one that blends curation with a sophisticated tech platform.

As reported last November, Farfetch has also joined the party, forming a global strategic partnership with Richemont and Alibaba to provide brands with “enhanced access” to the Chinese market, and to accelerate the digitization of the global luxury industry.

Richemont noted that Net-a-porter and Yoox were becoming “hybrids,” operating as multibrand online retailers while also hosting e-concessions.

“This preserves the curatorial dimension of [both retailers] while allowing them to enrich the breadth of their offering with very light additional capital commitment,” Richemont said.

Yoox, which sells out-of-season stock online, will add a marketplace to its platform at the beginning of 2022, expanding its current offer from more than 14,000 brands to include more choice and new product categories.

Rupert said Friday the deal with Alibaba is propelling Richemont’s brands and retailers to “new levels,” with the businesses benefiting “substantially from the exponential customer aggregation of the Tmall Luxury Pavilion platform.”

He added that the Richemont brands are able to offer “a superior customer experience” through the digital platform’s real-time, data-rich ecosystem.

“Our developments with Alibaba are capturing the exciting new paradigm in luxury customer shopping trends — the digital platform ecosystem and the unique retail format,” Rupert said.

“This is providing fresh impetus to our maisons to enhance the customer experience through a combination of online/offline shopping, social media engagement and livestreamed entertainment, also described as ‘shopper-tainment.’”

The deal with Alibaba is one of a number of partnerships with competitors that Richemont has forged in recent years — and weeks.

In April, the group revealed it was teaming with fellow jewelry companies on a platform aimed at improving the traceability of colored gemstones. The platform, developed by sustainability consulting firm TDI Sustainability, wants to help businesses large and small become more responsible and sustainable.

In a separate move last month, Richemont joined Prada Group and LVMH in the Aura Blockchain Consortium, which will give consumers direct access to a product’s history, proof of ownership, warranty and maintenance record.

“We’ve always been open to partnerships, but frankly it is easier to have partnerships with some people than with others,” said Rupert, adding that for Richemont, “a partnership is a partnership — it’s not a Trojan Horse.”

He said he can see lots of collaborations going forward — and not only in the luxury goods business “but in all [businesses] when it makes sense to collaborate.”

Rupert added that ESG or environmental, social and corporate governance, projects are particularly popular among the staff at Richemont. People are proud to be involved, and we’ll work together with everyone in the industry” on it.