When Jean-François Palus was 12 years old, his father gave his sporty son his first pair of much cherished Puma rugby boots. Thirty-nine years later, Mr Palus, group managing director of French luxury/lifestyle conglomerate PPR, can have his pick of Puma sports shoes: he now oversees the German sportswear group, whose board he chairs.
Within the next few weeks, the world’s third-largest sports shoe company by sales – after Nike and Adidas – will welcome a new chief executive after a turbulent year in which the underperforming group’s previous top management has left. That has led to a more hands-on role for Mr Palus, who will become the new chief’s direct boss.
It is the culmination of a dash up the inside track of PPR that was fast enough to make a Jamaican sprinter envious.
The former Arthur Andersen auditor moved from head of PPR’s mergers and acquisitions unit to deputy chief executive to his boss and friend, François-Henri Pinault, chairman and chief executive.
As a result, Mr Palus has become more visible and vocal as a group spokesman, having previously confined himself to talking to analysts in his role as former finance director.
Mr Palus and Mr Pinault, both in their early 50s, have known each other for three decades, having studied in the 1980s at HEC, the Paris business school also attended by France’s President François Hollande.
Mr Pinault, who became chief executive in 2005 of the company founded by his father, François Pinault, is in the final stages of transforming the once timber, and then retail, focused Pinault-Printemps-Redoute into a clothes and accessories group rooted in two sectors: luxury and sports and lifestyle – dominated by Puma.
Two years ago, Mr Pinault decided to run the luxury business – which includes such brands as Gucci, Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen and Yves Saint Laurent – directly, with the help of Alexis Babeau, luxury’s managing director. Since last year, the sport and lifestyle division has reported directly to Mr Palus.
Antoine Belge, luxury goods analyst at HSBC says: “François-Henri Pinault wanted to be more hands-on regarding the luxury side of the business by heading it directly himself. But in order to do that, he needed a real number two for the rest of the business. Naming Jean-François Palus was a real sign of confidence in him.”
At press conferences, the two can seem like something of a double act: the urbane and cautious Mr Pinault contrasting with the forthright Mr Palus who has kept his local accent from his Castres home town in the deeply rural Tarn region of south-western France.
“Look at how elegant he is in his Brioni suit,” teased Mr Pinault at one press conference, soon after PPR bought the Italian menswear brand, famously and fictionally beloved of James Bond. Mr Palus tossed him a peeved look.
Colleagues say the two understand each other very well and that their private meetings contain a lot of humour and jokes.
The luxury business is by far the bigger part of PPR, accounting for 64 per cent of sales and 90 per cent of operating profits. As a result, many analysts have suggested the group should drop the sports lifestyle segment entirely. Mr Palus faces a big challenge if he is to prove such sceptics wrong. His charge is to lift sales almost threefold in the sports and lifestyle division, to reach its Ambition 2020 target of €9.5bn from last year’s €3.5bn.
Mr Palus knows the scale of the task. Last October he admitted, “Puma is a fantastic brand, but the results are not fantastic at all.”
One person who knows Mr Palus and did not wish to be named, said: “That’s the big test for him – someone who’s come from the finance side to demonstrate he’s got the skills to develop that business.” As he begins that race, at least he’s got the right shoes for the job.