Yves Carcelle: a lasting legacy for Indians too4 min read . Updated: 16 Sep 2014, 12:02 PM IST
Yves Carcelle, whose business successes are legendaryunder his leadership Louis Vuitton became the world's most valuable luxury brandhad an abiding passion for India
Imran Merchant was a 25-year-old sales associate at the newly opened Louis Vuitton store in Mumbai in 2004 when he met Yves Carcelle, chairman and CEO of Louis Vuitton, for the first time at a 9am team briefing. A couple of years later, Merchant was in Paris, and he saw Carcelle coming out of the LVMH building. Their eyes met, and Carcelle exclaimed: “Are you Imran Merchant, who worked at the Louis Vuitton store at the Taj?"
“It was a crowded street, and I was surprised he remembered my face," says Merchant, the shock in his voice still palpable after all these years. “That he remembered my name is unbelievable!"
What did they talk about? “I was too small then to have much to say to Carcelle," says Merchant ruefully.
But no one was small for the big-hearted Carcelle, who died last Sunday in Paris at 66. His business successes are legendary—under his leadership Louis Vuitton became the world’s most valuable luxury brand (it ranks No.10 on Forbes’ world’s most valuable brands list, no mean feat), with fat profit margins nearing 40%—but what comes as a surprise is how this super-achiever led straight from the heart. For him, building friendships went hand in hand with building businesses.
Carcelle brought Louis Vuitton to India in 2003—the first store opened in New Delhi—a move that marked the start of the luxury industry in India. In trademark Carcelle style, he started building relationships in the country several years in advance—engaging with the government, media, industry. After the launch too, he kept at it, visiting India five-six times a year, even spending his vacations here, coming back for weddings, or to celebrate festivals. And back home in Paris, he entertained a steady stream of Indian visitors—Bollywood stars, government ministers, socialite customers, even wedding planners—with “ghar ka khana (home-made food)".
His genuine affection for people opened up a two-way street. Tikka Shatrujit Singh, adviser to the Louis Vuitton chairman, who also became a close personal friend over the 16 years that they worked together, says Carcelle “must go down in history as the only CEO who never hosted any dinner in India". It was the other way round—people waited for an opportunity to host Carcelle. He was welcomed into the homes of India’s who’s who—Godrej, Dubash, Birla, Ambani, the Bhartias in New Delhi, Vijay Mallya in Bangalore, the maharajas of Mysore, Udaipur, Jodhpur, the list goes on.
He had an abiding passion for India, so much so that he personally managed the India business. He was drawn by its mystique, the traditions, the religions, the architecture, even the chaos. He loved Indian rituals—if there was a puja for a store opening, he was in his element, his eyes twinkling. He was fascinated by Ganesha, the Hindu god, and his Paris home had beautiful Ganesha statues.
“He had a deep understanding of the complexities and idiosyncrasies of India," Singh says. “Of course, doing business in India was a challenge, but that was one of the things he loved the most. The challenge of unlocking the last frontier greatly engaged him."
Unlike others who wanted to turn a profit quickly in India, Carcelle was in no hurry. “India will have its own beat, its own rhythm," he would say. “We will have to adjust to it." In spite of India’s difficulties, he just kept the faith, and went on engaging with charm, energy and passion.
Indeed, he went the extra mile to promote India on a global platform. He put Diwali windows in all Louis Vuitton stores across the world. He had Marc Jacobs make the sari dress from vintage saris. He hosted Indian artists in Paris. He brought artist Anish Kapoor to India. “He just promoted India at a very different level," says Singh. “He was our ultimate ambassador."
Carcelle had a transformative effect on people. They wanted to give their best for him even if it was 2am in the morning (he would go straight from the Delhi airport to the store, to check the lights, to see everything was fine) or the weekend. He made business fun—there was this unique rush in his restless energy, his creativity, his anything-is-possible attitude. And you were learning from the master himself, growing and changing.
“And how did he change you, Mr Singh?" I ask.
“I became a more compassionate person," he says. “I think he completed me—from a ruthless, narrow-minded, profit-oriented businessman, he made me see a bigger picture. He just opened your eyes."
While Singh may have been in a privileged position, Carcelle seems to have had the same transformative effect on everyone he touched, even junior employees, however briefly he may have interacted with them.
Pranav Vora, who worked as a sales associate at the Mumbai store for five years—and is now a general manager at a luxury real estate company—tells me, “I was born during that time." If he could turn back time, he would love to relive those days. “I wouldn’t mind even going back to the same position," he says.
Such is the power of the universe that Carcelle created.
Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult Of The Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair With Luxury.
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