PARIS — Hermès International said Tuesday it was handing over the reins of the company to the sixth generation of descendants of founder Thierry Hermès but, in keeping with its 2012 theme, the French luxury house has given itself the gift of time to ensure a smooth hand over.
Hermès chief executive officer Patrick Thomas told the company’s annual general meeting that Hermès chief operating officer Axel Dumas, 41, would be named joint ceo in June 2013 for an unspecified period of time before taking over the role completely.
“I am certain that Axel has all the requisite talents to head the company,” Thomas told shareholders gathered at the Palais des Congrès in western Paris.
Meanwhile, Bertrand Puech, 76, the executive chairman of Emile Hermès Sarl — which represents the family shareholders — said he would step down in favor of his nephew Henri-Louis Bauer, 46, effective July 1.
“The mandate of executive chairman of Emile Hermès, which was handed to me five years ago, has been for me essentially a mandate of transmission from the fifth to the sixth generation. It is therefore time for me now to step aside,” Puech said.
Both decisions were approved last Thursday at a meeting of the board of Emile Hermès, but were the fruit of a long-term strategy, senior Hermès officials said on the sidelines of the meeting, where a giant screen displayed images from the brand’s 2012 campaign, carrying the tag line “The Gift of Time.”
“It is very important for the company internally to see that things are happening gently and without drama. There is no brutal, sudden change,” said deputy ceo Patrick Albaladejo.
The importance of family unity has never been greater, as Hermès — founded in 1837 as a saddle-maker — tightens ranks against a potential assault by luxury conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, which owns 22.3 percent of Hermès’ capital.
“Our policy will remain unchanged,” said Dumas, referring to the family’s hostile stance toward LVMH and its chairman and ceo, Bernard Arnault.
The future Hermès ceo is the son of the late Michel Dumas, former deputy ceo of the luxury house, and the nephew of the late Jean-Louis Dumas, the charismatic former ceo of Hermès. A graduate of Sciences Po university in Paris and Harvard, Axel Dumas began his career at banking group Paribas before joining the family firm.
Dumas headed several divisions, including the all-important leather goods department, before being named chief operating officer in 2011. He is one of seven members of the executive board of Hermès, alongside his cousins, creative director Pierre-Alexis Dumas and deputy managing director Guillaume de Seynes, the latter of whom had also been touted as a potential candidate for the ceo post.
Thomas, who was the first non-family member to head Hermès, said the board of Emile Hermès had considered candidates from both within and outside the family, gradually forming a consensus around Dumas.
“There was a period of consideration, but the support was unanimous,” he said after the annual meeting. “As a member of the management board, Guillaume de Seynes took part in this decision.”
Thomas — who will turn 65 in two weeks — touted Axel Dumas as a worthy successor to Jean-Louis Dumas, who died in 2010 at the age of 72 after helming Hermès for almost three decades, steering it through a period of rapid growth and global expansion.
“What characterizes him is a good balance between his ability to envision, develop and improve product, and his talents as a businessman,” said Thomas. “In a house like ours, it is not enough to use just one side of the brain. It’s better to use both sides.”
Thomas said he would remain in his post until at least the end of 2013, but added that the transition period would not drag on indefinitely. “It is not a question of 10 years, it is a question of months,” he said.
The company took several additional steps Tuesday to strengthen its barricades against a creeping takeover.
Shareholders approved the naming of Nicolas Puech, the brother of Bertrand Puech and the single largest family shareholder, as the 11th member of the supervisory board.
Nicolas Puech, who owns 5.8 percent of the capital, does not plan to add his shares to H51, the family holding company which groups 50.15 percent of the Hermès share capital. But his arrival on the supervisory board is a concrete symbol of his allegiance to the Hermès clan, made up of the Dumas, Puech and Guerrand families.
Thomas sought to play down the significance of the move, which follows media reports last year suggesting a family rift, after Nicolas Puech told a French newspaper he thought a family holding group was not a good idea.
“He has been placed at the center of the story since LVMH acquired its stake, but the event should not be exaggerated,” Thomas said.
Shareholders also gave the green light to a change in statutes requiring holders of more than 0.5 percent of shares to register them to their name.
Thomas said that after a record 2011, the outlook for 2012 remained positive — despite financial volatility linked to the European debt crisis and production bottlenecks that have curbed sales of Hermès handbags and silk scarves.
The executive is expected to remain involved in the running of Hermès even after he hands power over to Dumas.
“There is no precise plan regarding how long Patrick Thomas will stay before handing over completely, but even when he does, that does not mean he will disappear from one day to the next. The transition will be extremely harmonious and progressive,” Albaladejo said.