Even men know luxury brands need more of a woman's touch

LVMH has many female executives,including its head of human resources. Margareta Pagano meets Chantal Gaemperle

You can't beat LVMH for glamour; the French luxury goods house owns Dior, Givenchy, Guerlain, Fendi, Pucci, Kenzo and Louis Vuitton luggage, and, following last week's takeover of Bulgari, some of the world's finest trinkets. It's a company made for women: 80 per cent of LVMH's shoppers are women, three-quarters of its 83,000 employees are women, 61 per cent of its executives and 31 per cent of its executive committee members are women.

Yet when it comes to making big decisions such as paying ¤4bn for Bulgari or approving new products like "vibrating" mascaras, it's still mainly founder Bernard Arnault and the boys who decide. (The men have been known to test new mascaras.) Of the 18 board members, only two are women – Arnault's daughter, Delphine, and Bernadette Chirac, the wife of France's former president.

But even Arnault wants more women at the very top: a third non-executive female director will be joining in May and more will follow. He's given Chantal Gaemperle, the head of human resources and synergies for the group, the task of helping push the proportion of female executive committee members to 35 per cent by 2012. Gaemperle, who joined LVMH from Nestle four years ago, admits the group could do better: "We are pleased with the way progress is being made but the most important thing is that we have diagnosed the problem and now have a visible agenda to follow."

Part of that agenda is being imposed as LVMH, along with all of France's listed companies or those with more than 500 staff, are now required to follow the country's new quota laws which demand that 40 per cent of non-executive directors be women within six years.

But, Gaemperle adds: "Quotas for the board positions are only one aspect. More importantly, we need to get more women into the most senior executive positions because then they feed through to board level. We have to look at the facts: around the world, 50 per cent – in some places more – of all graduates are women but they are not represented in those numbers at the top of business. Yet they are as educated as men, but not coming through enough into senior positions. For me, in human resources, this is about talent and it must be a competitive advantage to have as much diversity as possible."

Headhunters used by LVMH have been told always to include women on their candidate lists, while women internally are picked out as high-flyers and groomed for the top through its FuturA training programme. Gaemperle doesn't say whether she supports statutory quotas or not but says feelings in France are mixed about the new law, with much of the criticism coming from women who don't like the idea of getting – or being seen to get – jobs other than on merit.

We met at LVMH's offices in London last week where she was hosting a conference – EllesVMH Women in Leadership – with 40 of the group'stop executives from around the world to celebrate International Women's Day. There were talks from Bridget Farrands, the co-author of Lost in Transition, and London Business School's Rob Goffee on leadership issues plus a chance to network – in work time.

Impeccably dressed in black from top to toe, the Swiss Gaemperle cuts a striking figure; her English is fluent and for one of the luxury industry's first ladies, she's understated and gentle. But she's refreshingly candid too about what some would say are the most nitty-gritty of issues facing men and women at work. "Sadly, it's still the women who take on most of the home responsibilities so we have to educate people to share more. It's about parenting, sharing childcare between partners, taking barriers away from women who wish to succeed at work. Take networking – most women don't want to sacrifice too much of their time outside of work to socialise and meet people so it's important we offer them the opportunities in business hours."

What Gaemperle won't do is stereotype women as better leaders, even though much of the research into gender leadership has shown that having more women on the board improves company performance.

"I don't think it's a helpful distinction to make because it leads to stereotypes and that can be dangerous; you get women who are just as interested in power for power's sake as you do men. What I do think, however, is that women have different competences and, because of family life and having to juggle so many things, they come to work with a different experience. And it is that diversity which givesus a competitiveadvantage."

She's also keen to improve the image of theso-called "soft skills" – communications, marketing, legal and human resources – in which women tend to specialise and which are just as vital to business as "hard skills". "Yes," she laughs, "even human resources. I can't think what's soft about looking after and training 83,000 people of 55 different nationalities and abilities around the world."

Gaemperle calls the diversity of LVMH's brands and products her "ecosystem". "We have so many different companies, different experiences that everyone can have a career adventure in LVMH, and I like to work on the 'talent circulation' so people from champagne at Dom Pérignon can switch to Kenzo or Fendi. The possibilities are endless."

Soon she will have another 4,000 workers in her ecosystem following the takeover of Bulgari; half of them in Europe and the rest spread around the world. The Rome-based jeweller, founded in 1884 by Sotirio Bulgari, draws on hundreds of years of tradition dating back to early Greek silversmiths, and is still run by members of the founding family. Bulgari also has a high proportion of female staff – 64 per cent, and 58 per cent of whom are in managerial positions, and although the chief finance officer, Flavia Spena, is a woman, there are none on the board.

What's so extraordinary about LVMH's swoop on Bulgari is the faith Arnault is putting in the continued growth of the luxury goods market at a time when so many other industries are struggling. LVMH is still booming – sales last year rose to ¤20bn and profit soared 73 per cent to ¤3bn, with strong growth still forecast to come from its 50 brands.

It's Arnault's first acquisition in 10 years and even analysts like the Bulgari deal despite the hefty 60 per centpremium that he's paying, valuing Bulgari at some 26.4 times earnings. The industry average is eight times earnings. To head off the recession, Bulgari has been introducing new lower-end products, and more at the top too; its Sotirio Bulgari retrograde date automatic watch sells for $18,900.

Gaemperle is confident that the well-off, and the not so well-off, will keep buying quality products despite these tough times. "People still want to buy quality; shoppers in Japan and China still want authenticity and craftsmanship." Growth in luxury goods sales shows no sign of slowing, she says. The Far East, the US and developing markets all have lots of potential. Mongolia's Ulan Bator has a Louis Vuitton shop, for example, but not a McDonald's. "We see room for big expansion."

What the world really wants to know, though, is what Arnault, who is the world's fourth richest man according to Forbes, will do next. He and his family own 47.6 per cent of LVMH, worth about £25.4bn. He is also sitting on a 20 per cent sake in Hermès, acquired in a controversial derivatives raid without the knowledge of the target's founding family. The raid caused a panic at Hermès, and legal action is still being threatened.

Even if Arnault doesn't bid for the rest of Hermès, he's making sure a rival will have him to contend with. And then there is Burberry, often touted as a perfect fit with the LVMH stable. Wouldn't that be a brand worth adding? "Ah, Burberry," smiles Gaemperle. "It's a very good company – run by women, you know."

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