An engineering degree, Sun Tzu mentality: How Bernard Arnault became the richest man in the world

Bernard Arnault net worth
The richest man in the world Bernard Arnault net worth is US$237.6 billion, built on an unusual education and a 2,000 year-old Chinese philosophy. Source: Alain Jocard/AFP

The richest man in the world Bernard Arnault net worth is US$237. 6 billion, according to Forbes Real-Time Billionaires List.

He is the founder and chairman of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the world’s largest luxury goods company with 75 elite brands in six sectors.

These include Christina Dior, Givenchy, Louis Vuitton, Moet & Chandon, Hennessy, Tiffany & Co, Hublot, Fenty Beauty by Rihanna, Benefit Cosmetics, and many more.

The Bernard Arnault net worth mostly come from how profitable these brands are — despite a cost of living crisis and pandemic lockdowns.

In 2022, LVMH had a record revenue of 79.2 billion euros (US$83.4 billion). Arnault controls half of LVMH.

The Bernard Arnault net worth comes from a 97.5% stake in Christian Dior, which controls 41.4% of LVMH.

Such eye-popping wealth does not come from being timid or shy about being ambitious like the French are.

In Arnault’s rise to become the richest man in the world, it took an engineer’s degree and the tactics of a  Chinese war general born 500 years before the birth of Jesus Christ.

Bernard Arnault net worth and why it’s often linked to a Chinese war general

Getting to the top wasn’t easy. Arnault had to adopt a certain mindset. 

“I always liked being number one,” the 74-year-old told Financial Times.

“I did not succeed at the piano, I did not succeed at tennis. I consider that success is to arrive at a point where all my teams, the group is the number one in the world.”

He’s been described as “extremely competitive, unafraid of a fight and undaunted by public opprobrium” — that is, the “Sun Tzu of luxury.”

Sun Tzu is a military general who served at a time when China was divided into six or seven states that often resorted to war with each other in their struggles for supremacy.

He’s the author of the seminal book on strategy and tactics “The Art of War.” What worked for rulers and commanders, as well as Donald Trump and fictional mob boss Tony Soprano, worked for Arnault too.

Some of the greatest lessons from this 6,000-word booklet include:

  • “Know the enemy and know yourself, and you can fight a hundred battles with no danger of defeat.”
  • “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”
  • “Engage people with what they expect; it is what they are able to discern and confirms their projections. It settles them into predictable patterns of response, occupying their minds while you wait for the extraordinary moment.”
  • “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.”
  • “The skilful leader subdues the enemy’s troops without any fighting.”

Arnault has fought many high-profile battles in building his luxury empire, including slinging insults to Tiffany & Co in the buying of the jeweller.

Arnault won, saving US$420 million off the original $16.2 billion price.

But the Bernard Arnault net worth wasn’t built on aggressive buyouts alone.

The last quote above — “The skilful leader subdues the enemy’s troops without any fighting” — is just as applicable.

Bernard Arnault and the power of an engineering degree

Born in Roubaix, France, on March 5, 1949, Arnault attended Maxence Van Der Meersch High School in Roubaix.

His first love was music, which was passed down from his grandmother, according to the documentary screened on the France 2 TV channel in 2014. 

Although he didn’t have the talent to make it as a concert pianist, he did get into École Polytechnique‘s historic and highly selective engineering programme. 

The elite French university is one of the world’s finest engineering schools where major French industrial and energy companies go to recruit the country’s best and brightest.

Overseen by the defense ministry, this is a university where its students are considered members of the armed forces.

Although it was founded by a mathematician, it was militarised under Napoleon I in 1804.

In its later years, it would procude three Nobel Prize winners, three Presidents of France and many CEOs of French and international companies.

Perhaps it’s the combination of strict military training and an engineering degree that played a crucial role in shaping Arnault.

“My studies at École Polytechnique have given me an analytical and synthesis capacity that is inherent in the educational method of I’X and École Polytechnique’s training which allows both to analyse the challenges you may meet in a factual and detailed way,” shares the CEO in a talk at the school.

“In addition, my studies at I’X allowed me to have an initial understanding of human management in the military sector.” 

bernard arnault net worth

École Polytechnique is a higher learning institution under the supervision of the French Ministry of Defence. The Bernard Arnault net worth started with an unlikely degree from this university. Source: Ludovic Marin/AFP

The military general in cashmere coat

Looking at Bernard Arnault today, one might have good reason to think he was a sweet, kind, old man.

His wrinkly face depicts a wealth of knowledge, his eyes tell of laughter, and years of warm and affectionate smiles have crinkled the corners of his mouth.

You might think he is more suited to play the role of a grandfather in a heartwarming Hallmark movie this summer.

Beneath his warm facade, however, is the ruthlessness fitting of the corporate raiders of New York in the 1980s who launched hostile takeovers of companies with undervalued assets.

After graduation, he joined his father’s construction company. The company was scoring success after success.

But five years into the position, Arnault convinced his father to sell the division and step into the real estate sector, where he saw vast potential.

The new company Férinel Inc saw Arnault become president in 1979, where he ran a tight ship, increasing profits and gaining a name in the industry.

As he began to see cash flowing in, Arnault decided he wanted more — and that’s when he set his eyes on a bankrupt French textile company called Boussac that happened to own a house called Dior. 

bernard arnault net worth

Most of Bernard Arnault net worth today can be traced to his decision to takeover struggling businesses. Source: Alain Jocard/AFP

Much of Bernard Arnault net worth today can be traced to this decisive move.

Taking S$15 million from his family and pairing it with a US$45 million loan from French financial institution Lazard Frères, Arnault bought Boussac and gotten what he wanted: ownership of Dior.

However, there were other entities under the parent company, Boussac, including department stores Le Bon Marché, Peaudouce, and Conforama.

He had promised them jobs here would stay — but would later lay off 9,000 workers, sell off the disposable-diaper division (Peaudoce) and most of its textile operations for US$500 million.

bernard arnault

The Bernard Arnault net worth comes from a 97.5% stake in Christian Dior. Source: Charly Triballeau/AFP

How Bernard Arnault became the CEO of LVMH

In 1987, Louis Vuitton and the Champagne and cognac producer Moët Hennes merged. The goal was to be big enough that it could avoid a hostile raider.

But it couldn’t prevent Arnault from taking over from within. As an investor, Arnault moved to strip Henry Racamier, Louis Vuitton’s revered septuagenarian president, of his powers and removed him from the board.

“He’s not a gambler; he’s a strategist,” said a luxury executive to the New York Times.

“His approach is not unusual in the M&A game — it’s just unusual in this industry. He acquires brands the Wall Street way, but then he holds them. He thinks in generational terms.”

bernard arnault net worth

French luxury group LVMH Chairman and CEO Bernard Arnault has married twice. His family consists of five children. Source: Dominique Faget/AFP

Bernard Arnault: The family man

Arnault has been married twice.

His first wife, Anna Dewavrin, gave him two children, Delphine Arnault and Antoine Arnault.

Unlike Bernard, they would go on to business schools but just like their father, they were some of the best B-schools in the world.

Delphine attended a primary school in Paris, close to where she was born. She then completed her undergraduate degree at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

She also attended the EDHEC Business School, graduated and got a job at a consulting firm, McKinsey & Company.

In January 2023, LVMH announced her role as the new CEO, where she continues to drive the company forward.

Her brother Antoine Arnault graduated from HEC Montreal and INSEAD.

He began his career in the advertising department at Louis Vuitton and climbed the ladder to head of communications before he was promoted to CEO of Berluti.

Despite reports of being a nepo baby, Antoine has always maintained that he worked hard in every role:

“We were raised with real values about the importance of work and respect for the people. We’re not in the gossip magazines playing strip billiards.”

bernard arnault net worth

Bernard Arnault’s wife, Helene Mercier-Arnault (pictured in the centre) attends the Fendi Couture runway during the Haute-Couture Spring-Summer 2023 Fashion Week in Paris on January 26, 2023. Source: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP

Not long after, Bernard met Helene Mercier-Arnault, a renowned Canadian pianist. His children with her followed in his footsteps to earn degrees in STEM (that’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

Jean Arnault is Arnault’s youngest son and joined LVMH after graduating. He runs Louis Vuitton’s watches division.

He has a master’s in financial mathematics from MIT and another in mechanical engineering from Imperial College London, according to the Financial Times.

Like his father, TAG Heuer CEO Frédéric Arnault graduated from École Polytechnique with a degree in applied mathematics and computer science. 

He also interned at Facebook and with McKinsey & Company before joining Tag Heuer, according to his LinkedIn profile

Last but not least, Alexandre Arnault is an executive VP at Tiffany & Co.

He comes from a digital background, originally graduating from Télécom ParisTech before gaining a master of research in innovation from École Polytechnique.