Hermès International has entered an “offensive phase” against LVMH, aimed at forcing its much bigger luxury goods rival, headed by billionaire Bernard Arnault, to slash its shareholding in the silk scarves and Birkin bags group.
Patrick Thomas, the outgoing chief executive of Hermès, said the aim of his company’s legal action against LVMH was to get it to reduce its 22.6 per cent stake, to ensure a bigger free float.
Family-controlled Hermès is in legal dispute with LVMH over the latter’s acquisition of 17 per cent of Hermès shares in 2010 and its subsequent stakebuilding. Family members own 70 per cent of the shares.
LVMH might be happy with its shareholding in Hermès but the group was “not a good shareholder for us,” Mr Thomas said, adding that this was “not for financial reasons, but cultural – we are not the same corporate model.”
Asked what a well-functioning free float might be, Mr Thomas said “at least 15-20 per cent”, implying that LVMH reduce its shareholding to 10-15 per cent.
Mr Thomas was speaking as the 176-year-old company announced a 25 per cent rise in 2012 net profits from the previous year, and shrugged off worries about a slowdown in Chinese luxury goods consumption.
Net profit was €740m on sales 23 per cent higher at €3.5bn.
Operating profit, up 26 per cent on 2011 at €1.1bn, was above expectations, while the operating profit margin of 32.1 per cent was a record for the Paris-based company since its 1993 flotation.
Luca Solca, analyst at Exane BNP Paribas, said these were a “good set of results, showing that the limit at Hermès is their own manufacturing capacity”.
Mr Thomas said mainland China accounted for 10 per cent of sales, rising to 20 per cent once Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau were included. Chinese tourist purchases outside the country bumped the contribution up to a total of 30 per cent of sales.
Sales to China grew 30 per cent last year, which Mr Thomas attributed to good communications and to a disproportionate benefit from the country’s “very masculine market”.
Men dominate luxury goods purchases in China and Hermès’ offer is split equally between items for men and those for women, unlike many other luxury goods groups which tend to target women.
Sales growth was also strong in Europe, where it reached 17 per cent, and in France, where sales rose 12 per cent. Sales to the Americas were 14 per cent higher.
All business divisions reported double-digit sales growth.
Mr Thomas, 65, the only non-family member to have headed the company, which started life as a saddle maker, is expected to retire at the end of the year. The reins will be taken up by Axel Dumas, chief operating officer and a member of the family, as announced last year.