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Bernard Arnault just bought Tiffany. Who is he?

The founder, chairman and largest shareholder of LVMH is one of the richest men in the world and the godfather of the modern luxury industry

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Mr Arnault is tall - about 6 feet - thin and soft-spoken, collects contemporary art, plays tennis seriously and is a talented pianist. He is also very competitive.

New York

ON Monday morning LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the world's largest luxury company, announced it had proposed to - and been accepted by - Tiffany & Co, the American jeweller made famous by its blue boxes, Truman Capote and Audrey Hepburn.

The man behind the largest-ever deal in luxury: Bernard Arnault, founder, chairman and largest shareholder of LVMH. If you don't know who he is, you should.

Mr Arnault, 70, is one of the richest men in the world - worth US$106.9 billion as of Monday morning, according to Forbes. He is French, and the godfather of the modern luxury industry.

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Though his father made his money in the construction business, Mr Arnault saw very early on the opportunities in taking a group of family-run artisanal companies, professionalising them and leveraging their strength to the group benefit.

He says he figured it out when he came to New York in the 1980s, got into a cab and discovered that his driver had never heard of (Charles) de Gaulle, but he knew Dior.

In that moment, the idea for an empire was born.

LVMH is a group of 75 - 75! - brands that span fashion, watches, jewellery, wine, spirits, retail, beauty and hospitality. There's no way to list them all, but they include: Dior, Vuitton, Fendi, Celine, Pucci, Marc Jacobs, Hennessy, Dom Pérignon, Bulgari, Tag Heuer, the Paris department store Le Bon Marché, Sephora, the hotel group Cheval Blanc, Moët & Chandon, Fenty, DFS Group, Make Up For Ever and Krug (to name a mere few).

LVMH is three times larger in market capitalisation than its closest rival, Kering (owner of Gucci, YSL and Alexander McQueen), and five times larger than Richemont (owner of Cartier, Chloé and Net-a-Porter).

It is the second-most valuable company in Europe, with a market capitalisation of more than 200 billion euros (S$301 billion), after Royal Dutch Shell.

Mr Arnault took the principles of the masters of the universe - the corporate raiders of New York in the 1980s - and applied them to European luxury. He started with a bankrupt French textile company called Boussac that he bought from the French government in 1985 and that happened to include a dusty old house called... Dior. He sold everything else off, but kept Dior and built from there.

In 1989 he engineered a hostile takeover of LVMH that so freaked out the French business community they gave him the nickname "the wolf in the cashmere coat".

He created the flagship store-as-brand-temple, and embraced the model of taking heritage names deeply embedded in European history and installing buzzy young designers at the top to shake up the image and give them cultural currency.

But he has always placed the brand above the individual, a decision that makes him, depending on who is watching, either a genius or a bloodsucker on the body of creativity. However, Mr Arnault clearly loves his brands and will invest in loss-making names for years until he gets the creative balance right.

Mr Arnault is tall - about 6 feet - thin and soft-spoken, collects contemporary art, plays tennis seriously and is a talented pianist. He is also very competitive. He has said he wanted the No 1 company, because he realised he couldn't be the No 1 tennis player or concert pianist.

However, when he was wooing his second wife, Canadian pianist Hélène Mercier, he did it by playing for her. She said she realised he was serious about her when she could see how nervous he was.

He has two children from his first marriage, Antoine and Delphine, and three from his second: Alexandre, Frédéric and Jean.

Four of them work at LVMH. Antoine is chief executive of Berluti, chairman of Loro Piana and head of communications and image for the whole group; Delphine is executive vice president of Louis Vuitton, member of the executive board of LVMH and spearheaded the LVMH prize for young designers, the most lucrative emerging designer prize in fashion. Alexandre is chief executive of Rimowa, the luggage brand, and Frédéric is strategy and digital director of Tag Heuer.

One of the most popular games among LVMH Kremlinologists is "who's the successor?" So far, it's still anyone's guess.

Is Mr Arnault done buying? Don't be silly. This year alone he made a deal with Rihanna to open a new luxury house with her, and next year LVMH is reopening La Samaritaine department store/hotel/spa on the Right Bank in Paris - after a 15-year, US$1 billion renovation.

This year Mr Arnault also signed a joint venture with Stella McCartney, so she's part of the fold, too, and has become a special adviser to the chairman for sustainability. NYTIMES