Photograph: Getty Images
Photograph: Getty Images

Johann Rupert: The Silent Achiever

After 25 years heading Richemont, chairman Johann Rupert has announced a year-long sabbatical

For someone of his stature, Johann Rupert keeps quite a low profile. So when he announced earlier in May that he will be taking a one-year sabbatical starting September, the media was abuzz.

Rupert is the chairman of Swiss firm Compagnie Financière Richemont SA, the world’s second largest luxury goods maker that owns a plethora of brands in watchmaking, jewellery, clothing and leather accessories and, of course, Montblanc pens.

Rupert, along with his family, has a net worth of $6.6 billion, according to Forbes magazine, that makes him South Africa’s richest man. His company, into the 25th year of existence, owns 19 brands, more than half of which are at least a century old.

The announcement of his break comes two months after the 62-year-old declined a third stint as chief executive and appointed Bernard Fornas, the former head of Cartier, and Richard Lepeu, who was previously deputy chief executive, as his successors.

Weathering slowdown

The news also comes at a time when the luxury goods industry is adjusting to a slowdown in demand from China, the new powerhouse driving the luxury goods business.

But Richemont has weathered the conditions better than most. The company announced earlier in May that revenue for the year to 31 March reached €10.2 billion, up 14% from the year before.

Net income climbed 30% to €2.01 billion in the 12 months through March, compared with Bloomberg’s average estimates of €1.96 billion. Revenue gained 14% to €10.15 billion. Sales in April rose 13%.

“The April number bodes well," Rey Wium, an analyst at Renaissance Capital in Johannesburg told Bloomberg. His forecast was for growth in the mid-single digits. The company has announced a dividend of 1 Swiss franc per share, an increase of 82% over 2012.

Richemont in a reply to an email seeking queries said it has no further comment to make with regard to this story.

The company said in the earnings report that “despite the slowdown in the Asia-Pacific region and continuing uncertainty in the world economy", sales were up 13% year-on-year in April. The group, however, cautioned that one month’s data can’t be taken as an indication of the year as a whole.

The broader luxury industry has been showing signs of slowing in the recent months. Last month, PPR SA, the French owner of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, missed first-quarter sales forecasts amid slowing growth in Europe and China.

Hermès International and LVMH, the world’s largest luxury company, have also reported sharp slowdowns.

Bucking the trend

One reason behind the success of the group is Rupert’s habit of getting rid of unsuccessful businesses sooner than most other people. The Geneva-based firm, around the time of announcing quarterly results, announced the departure of Marty Wikstrom, the head of the fashion and accessories business that accounts for less than 20% of Richemont’s €10 billion in revenue.

Richemont provided no reasons behind Wikstrom’s departure in a media release, but thanked her for her “many contributions" and said she had helped position the business for future growth. Wikstrom, a former managing director at London department store Harrods and president of American retailer Nordstrom, was appointed to Richemont’s board as a non-executive director in 2005. She’s departing the fashion unit immediately. She was hired to revamp the soft luxury unit, which was struggling to turn a profit with Lancel, Dunhill, Chloe, Hong Kong fashion house Shanghai Tang, and Parisian designer Azzedine Alaia. The declining fortunes of that unit and the departure of Wikstrom may be an indication of a quick selloff.

Background

Rupert was born and brought up in the heart of the South African wine-producing region where he still lives. He went to Paul Roos Gymnasium school for boys and the University of Stellenbosch, studying economics and company law. He dropped out of university and took apprenticeships at New York banks before returning home in 1979 and founding Rand Merchant Bank.

He founded Richemont in 1988 by spinning out the international assets of Rembrandt Group Ltd (now Remgro Ltd), a South Africa-based company founded in the 1940s by his father.

Described as “reclusive" by the Financial Times and Barron’s, Rupert rarely gives interviews and shuns public events.

Other Interests

When not in office, Rupert divides his time between philanthropy and golfing.

A former cricketer, he founded the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation in 1990. Laureus, well known for its annual sports awards, funds 65 projects globally and brings together world-class athletes from all over the world to run sports projects in socially challenged parts of the world.

Rupert is an avid golfer and serves as chairman of the South African PGA Tour and chairman of the South African Golf Development Board.

Sabbatical plans

Rupert, who remains Richemont’s controlling shareholder, said he would return, but wanted to have a break after 25 years of building up the luxury goods group. “I just want to be the master of my own time for a while," he said. “It is ironic someone in the watch business should not be in control of his time."

Rupert’s sabbatical will start after the company’s annual meeting in September. Deputy chairman Yves-André Istel will chair board meetings in his absence. There might not be any major acquisition during the period.

Rupert told analysts at a 16 May meeting that Richemont doesn’t plan to buy any big companies.

The billionaire businessman said he had about 50 books he wanted to read and might travel to Antarctica.

Bloomberg contributed to this story.

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