February 5, 2023


The Joy Of Businnes

Johann Rupert, the luxury boss who saw off a hedge fund in the mood for a fight

The environment at Richemont’s yearly assembly in Geneva on Wednesday was tense as billionaire Johann Rupert presided in excess of a critical shareholder vote. Activist hedge fund Bluebell had accused him of performing as a “padre-padrone”, a godfather-like determine, and submitted resolutions to shake up governance at the Swiss luxurious team.

“I hope this assembly will not flip into a soccer match,” stated the 72-yr previous Richemont chair immediately after a heated trade with Bluebell’s consultant.

It was a deft observation that lightened the mood and made available a glimpse of the character of the South African tycoon, explained by one particular buddy as a “resourceful and thick-skinned . . . street fighter”. Persons who know him effectively say that, while he can surface significant-handed, he values propriety.

“Johann is incredibly straight and very loyal,” mentioned Patrick Thomas, the previous chief govt of luxury group Hermès who joined the board of Richemont final yr. “He won’t offer with men and women he doesn’t have confidence in.”

Thomas additional: “He can appear throughout as a tiny little bit tough but he’s basically incredibly delicate and has solid human convictions.”

An investor mentioned: “You see this bullish, bombastic outdated-model chair, but there’s a different facet to him . . . straightforward and honourable.” 

The Bluebell episode propelled Rupert and his spouse and children organization into the spotlight at a time when they are also grappling with the dilemma of succession and a looming downturn in the world-wide economic system that may moist demand from customers for Richemont models this sort of as Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels. Richemont’s shares have lagged these of rivals Hermès, LVMH and Kering over the previous five a long time.

In the end, Rupert very easily noticed off the obstacle from Bluebell.

Shareholders overwhelmingly turned down its 3 resolutions to reconfigure the board, a signal they nevertheless dependable Rupert to lead despite the hedge fund’s critique that he employs the dual-course construction to dismiss minority shareholders. His relatives keeping company only owns a 9.1 per cent stake, but its B shares hold 50 per cent of the voting legal rights.

Notably, shareholders turned down Bluebell’s nomination of previous Bulgari executive Francesco Trapani as a director. Richemont argued he was way too carefully associated with LVMH.

Richemont’s governance composition is a legacy of conclusions Rupert, a college or university dropout and sports fanatic who started off out in finance, created in the 1980s when he recognized its headquarters in Switzerland and stated its shares.

The move permitted the Rupert loved ones to diversify exterior apartheid South Africa the place Anton Rupert, Johann’s father, experienced started a business empire from a £10 investment in cigarette manufacturing in the 1940s. A youngster of the melancholy, the elder Rupert realised that men and women would preserve obtaining tobacco and alcohol by any downturn, and finally amassed investments in field, banking and luxurious that were being later housed in the Rembrandt Group.

Richemont was founded when the youthful Rupert spun off Rembrandt’s intercontinental belongings in 1988.

Rupert’s upbringing and family background have instilled in him a cautiousness that manifests by itself in Richemont’s fortress-like balance sheet. Dubbed “Rupert the Bear” in 2006 for predicting a earth economic disaster, the South African is noticed as extra hazard averse than rival controlling patriarch Bernard Arnault. The French billionaire utilized savvy acquisitions to establish LVMH into the world’s major luxurious team, with a current market capitalisation 5 moments that of Richemont.

In distinction, Rupert has performed less important promotions, preferring as a substitute to spend to develop the models Richemont presently has. Just one of his most important bets proved value damaging — the team booked a €2.7bn non-hard cash write down previous thirty day period soon after selling a majority stake in its unprofitable ecommerce procedure Yoox Internet-a-Porter.

Rupert has cultivated a world-wide community of billionaires, financiers and athletics stars from whom he seeks insight and advice. “He’s the only man or woman I’ve satisfied who listens by talking the complete time,” claimed the investor. “He talks, dominates and usually takes it all in.”

He has a few youngsters with his spouse Gaynor, just one of whom is on Richemont’s board, and splits his time amongst London, Geneva and the relatives farm in the Stellenbosch wine region.

He has in no way missing touch with his roots in South Africa. “The family was a huge critic of apartheid, in particular Johann,” recalled Lord Robin Renwick, a former Richemont board member. “Not lots of other senior businessmen were being ready to stand up and criticise apartheid at that time.” 

Renwick, who was then a British diplomat, said Rupert helped with the marketing campaign to get Nelson Mandela out of prison. After his launch the pair turned friends, Renwick included.

“In South Africa, Johann is like a Warren Buffett figure”, celebrated for his philanthropy, conservation and work creation, claimed Renwick. He is also a favourite bogeyman of South Africa’s populist Financial Freedom Fighters bash.

A fracas with a small activist fund is compact fry for a person who clashed with former South African president Jacob Zuma. “I dislike what he permitted to happen to the state, but I do not despise him,” Rupert mentioned in 2018.

Hunting forward, he faces significantly increased challenges than Bluebell. An economic slowdown hazards hurting luxurious desire. LVMH’s Arnault has extensive coveted Cartier, and Richemont rejected an unspecified tie-up tactic from Kering a handful of decades back simply because Rupert insisted he had no intention of marketing.

Inevitably he will have to hand about the reins to a new chief, when also seeking to preserve Richemont’s independence. The company claimed it has a succession plan but has not shared it. The investor places it bluntly: “He’s acquired a succession difficulty.”