François Pinault, a humble country boy who now bestrides the world of luxury goods like a colossus. The first time I met François Pinault was a brief intersection on the terrace of the Hotel Monaco in Venice, where he was having lunch with Jean-Jacques Aillagon, the French minister of culture under Chirac. Pinault was relaxed and smiling and I introduced him and his guest to, appropriately, the Italian minister of culture, Lorenzo Ornaghi, who was there for the Venice Biennale of Architecture and the Mostra del Cinema, the Venice Film Festival.
It was quite the impromptu eminent cultural gathering. I liked Pinault’s smile and his attitude, which was measured and open at the same time. Sure of himself but not pretentious. We made an appointment to meet in Paris, at the headquarters of Artemis, his holding company which controls both PPR — Gucci and Stella McCartney, Saint Laurent Paris and Bottega Veneta — and his many other activities and properties, which include Christie’s.
RAGS TO RICHESSE
His office is in a very grand hôtel particulier in Rue François Premier, close to the Avenue Montaigne and the Grand Palais, a few minutes’ walk from the Elysée Palace, and when we meet Pinault is wearing a single-breasted, tailor-made navy blue suit, black moccasins very well polished, a blue striped shirt with elegant gold and lapis lazuli cufflinks and a navy blue tie. In line with his simple good taste, his office is minimalist. With him are his assistant and Jean-Jacques Aillagon once again. I ask him if he feels he has changed since he was the son of a wood merchant in Bretagne; now, of course, he is one of the richest men in the world, whose fortune Forbes estimates at $13 billion. He replies:
‘I left my village to join a small city, then I left my region to come to Paris, and now I have become a citizen of the world — but still I am as thirsty for and as curious about what surrounds me.’ Although today he is a very rich and powerful man, he says he never forgets where he came from and the many humiliations he had to face in his life: ‘I learned from the humiliation never to humiliate other people.’ In others, enduring humiliation often turns into inflicting humiliation — not Pinault, though. His admiration for Warren Buffett, as humble as a billionaire can be, seems fitting, too. Is it true that he never has any regrets? ‘I do not live in a state of nostalgia — nostalgia makes you sad. I wanted to get out of my social class, I wanted to have money to be my own boss and not dependent on anyone.’
But he does obviously regret the fact that he did not attend university; instead, he went to work in the wood trade, in his father’s lumber mill, and then was a soldier in Algeria. Later, when his timber business expanded, he instinctively understood one of the entrepreneur’s maxims and hired people he considered better than himself. He works hard, too, starting his day at 5am and often by 7am taking meetings. ‘If you want to make the difference there is only one way, to work very hard: I had no tennis, no golf, no skiing in my life.’ Nevertheless, although he is clever, tough and diligent, he also credits good fortune. Time and again during our interview he says you need ‘to have baraka’, an Arab word that means luck.
Which was the first deal, I ask him, that made him look beyond local timber — that made him see the wood for the trees, so to speak? At the end of the Seventies, he says, instead of being happy with his local success, his home, his Mercedes, his house by the sea, he decided to move to Paris and enter the world of big business, buying and selling new companies. It was the Eighties which saw him leave wood work, although his improved fortune and new friends didn’t make him happy, and he did not allow himself much of a social life: ‘I did not want to drown myself in a sterile social life — you lose too much time. What is important in business is your business surface.’
Jacques Chirac became a close friend of Pinault over the years, and Pinault knows the new president, François Hollande: ‘He is an open man and you can talk to him. It is important for politicians to engage with businessmen.’ Engagement with businessmen has not been Hollande’s strong suit; see the row with Lakshmi Mittal over closing furnaces in north-eastern France and the rout of French industrialists over the 75 per cent rate of income tax. Unlike his erstwhile foe Bernard Arnault, who applied (and was rejected) for Belgian citizenship, Pinault says that whatever measures the government takes, he prefers to stay in France. He does not want to leave the country that gave him the opportunity he has so successfully seized. ‘In any case,’ he says, ‘France cannot have a tax system so different from other European countries forever.’
But going back to his life and business, I ask him how he became a globe-striding businessman. He started locally, buying the Printemps chain of department stores, the mail-order company La Redoute and the retail company FNAC in the early Nineties. But soon he realised it was the rest of the world that was most promising: ‘I understood globalisation, and I believed in the growth prospects of globally known brands. When my oldest son François-Henri, who is now the chairman of PPR, was in California, I realised he was quite interested in the fashion business. I understood that we had to move on. When, at the end of the Nineties, we had the opportunity to buy Gucci, I didn’t hesitate one second. I moved on.’Then came Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Bottega Veneta, Boucheron, Brioni, Puma… PPR sold Printemps and is in the process of selling La Redoute and FNAC. Once these have been sold, the group would have 95 per cent of its revenues coming from outside France — from Asia, America.’
What about Christie’s? ‘Artemis, my personal holding, bought Christie’s in 1998. It was an extraordinary brand that was going through a bad period. Now it is a great business.’ It was under Pinault’s ownership that preceding years of corruption — a cartel between Christie’s and Sotheby’s that saw the owner of the latter go to jail for a year — were exposed. Since the bloodletting, Christie’s has been buoyed by the global art-market boom: last November, for example, it set a record for a Postwar and Contemporary auction by making $412 million.
And Château Latour, another legendary name he has bought? ‘I come from a world of farmers, I am a country boy and I wanted to invest in a property in the countryside; in other words, I wanted to own some land.’ (One of the best and most renowned vineyards is a very particular — and very expensive — piece of land.) ‘Through friends at Lazard, Antoine Bernheim and then Bruno Roger, I understood that the owners of Château Latour were considering selling it. I reacted quickly and bought Latour without visiting it. Although it is a fantastic first growth, I did not think that it would have become such a great investment. At the time vineyards were making no money. Again I had baraka.’
Not everything always goes well, of course. What is his attitude when things go wrong or something does not go the way he wants? Pinault’s model is Winston Churchill, who said ‘never surrender’, and that for him is valid in professional and in private life. He regrets that he devoted little time to his children when they were young, but now they are very close to him. François-Henri, who has a degree in economics, is his successor; his second son, Dominique, is a lawyer with his own activities; and his daughter Laurence works in Théâtre Marigny, the theatre near the Champs-Élysées, which he also owns. François-Henri trained for fifteen years in the group and was very carefully watched to see if he was capable of running it.
When Pinault speaks, his blue eyes are very lively and he is surprisingly energetic considering that he only arrived from Los Angeles that morning. (He does concede that you sleep better on a private plane.) He still gets anxious about business, even on vacation, so he spends most of his time on the phone, but he has a home in St Tropez, a home in Dinard in Brittany (a house in the country like all the ‘French bourgeois’, he says), one in London and an apartment in New York. In Venice, even though he owns two extraordinary buildings — the Palazzo Grassi, which he took over from the Agnelli family, and Punta della Dogana — used for showing his collection of Contemporary art, he stays in a hotel, usually the Cipriani or the Gritti.
Taking a lesson from Talleyrand about the importance of food, how good food and good wines create a pleasant atmosphere and make any kind of meeting or conversation easier, in Paris he has a very good chef. His wife, Maryvonne, who was an antique dealer in Rennes, has maybe the most important collection of 18th-century furniture in all of France. There are also beautiful objects and paintings by Picabia, Picasso and the Old Masters of the 16th and 17th centuries. Of late is it his art collection that has pushed Pinault into the public eye. In 2005 he bought the Palazzo Grassi for some of his 2,500 artworks — currently he is showing Jeff Koons and Thomas Houseago — and in 2007, after a long, public and bitter battle with the Guggenheim Foundation, he bought Punta della Dogana for the more monumental works of art in his collection. The architectural project there is by Tadao Ando.
Pinault thinks that ‘Italy is more fun’ than other countries. ‘The Italians live well, they are well dressed and the women are pretty,’ he says. He enjoys its art, too, collecting works of Maurizio Cattelan and Rudolf Stingel. He started his collection by buying a small painting of Paul Sérusier representing a Breton woman in the courtyard of a farm; the woman looked like his grandmother, he says. Then he started collecting art of the 20th century, from Mondrian to Man Ray. As he says this, he pauses the conversation for a moment and goes into the room next to his office to take a photograph of a Man Ray that he just bought in an auction. He quickly understood that it was interesting to follow Contemporary art and artists: in 2007 he bought a very important installation of Sigmar Polke paintings, and he owns works by Subodh Gupta, Paul McCarthy, Bruce Nauman, Donald Judd and Robert Ryman. More of his collection will be shown in temporary exhibitions, starting with France this year, then Berlin.
We move on to a discussion about the global economy. He thinks Europe has to defend itself and consider itself as an entity. While the southern European countries go through a tough period, the Germans have to understand that for them the French, Spanish, Italians and Greeks are important commercial partners, important clients, and so it is in their interest that these countries get out of the crisis soon. He believes in Europe: ‘There is no choice other than Europe. It will succeed for the next generations.’
The Middle East? ‘The situation is as always very unstable.’
China? ‘In spite of a small slowdown, China remains the great power of the future. The road is traced, even if the US and the dollar are far from being dead. Likewise, Brazil is now an emerging power with interesting prospects. Africa, too, will make it since it has all the commodities, but it will take time, they come from very far.’
What is the main danger facing us today? ‘The big danger is the return of populism. The system is tired, even if democracy is still the best system.’ Pinault insists on the fact that we have to think that as Europeans we are 400 million people living in a politically stable area for the time being. About France, he concedes a loss of speed, but is confident about the future, given the capacity of his country to overcome difficult times and the direction taken by François Hollande’s government to tackle the economy’s structural problems.
I ask him if he is an optimist. ‘No, I am an active pessimist. But you still need a little bit of blue sky.’
This interview first appeared in Spear’s Magazine.
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