PATIENCE WHEATCROFT: The human factor - In a battle for supremacy such as that between Pinault and Arnault for Gucci, business economics may be subsumed by the wish to come out on top

PATIENCE WHEATCROFT: The human factor - In a battle for supremacy such as that between Pinault and Arnault for Gucci, business economics may be subsumed by the wish to come out on top - Gucci has been resurrected as a highly desirable brand. Fashionistas

by PATIENCE WHEATCROFT, business and City editor of The Times
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Gucci has been resurrected as a highly desirable brand. Fashionistas would risk breaking their nails to grab the latest handbag or boot-cut trousers from the Italian fashion house. But that does not explain why two apparently sophisticated Frenchmen have been scrapping for more than two years over the Gucci prize.

There is far more at stake in the battle between Francois Pinault and Bernard Arnault than business ownership. They have become fierce personal rivals. The danger is that, in a battle for supremacy such as this, business economics may be subsumed by the wish to come out on top. And if success is bought at too high a price, the victor may soon tumble.

Rarely is there such an epic fight as that between Arnault and Pinault, who are vying for the title of France's richest man. But even on a lesser scale, business rivalries that become personal can also become dangerous for the shareholders who, all too often, are providing the funding for the gladiators.

Investors in the British company Tomkins may recognise the syndrome.

Greg Hutchings had learned his skills as a corporate gun-slinger working for Lord Hanson. When he left and set about turning Tomkins into a conglomerate on the Hanson scale, one could sense the wish to show his old master that he was now his equal. Hutchings' background is very different from Hanson's, whose family business had provided him with a comfortable cushion from which to build his empire. The chip on his shoulder was sharp enough to scratch anyone who questioned his strategy.

Ranks Hovis McDougall was not an obvious must-have for Tomkins, with its engineering and guns interests. Yet Tomkins joined Hanson in the fight to buy it. Eventually, victory went to Hutchings, but he is still paying the price, for, in his determination to outbid his former boss, he paid too much for RHM and the deal dogged his share price ever after.

Had he not been so intent on gaining RHM, his idiosyncratic approach to corporate governance might not have attracted the hostility that led to his departure from Tomkins.

When a corporate bid battle is waging, it often risks becoming a personal tussle between the protagonists. This seemed to be the case during last year's fight for National Westminster Bank. Perhaps it was inevitable, given that the contenders were Scotland's two major banks. (Investors were so fed up with NatWest's performance that they weren't prepared to countenance the bank holding onto its independence, despite Sir David Rowlands' new management team. No matter how persuasive his arguments, the message from major shareholders was that NatWest did not deserve to survive. Irrational, perhaps. Surprising how often emotion intrudes on investment decisions.)

So Bank of Scotland's Peter Burt found himself pitched directly against Royal Bank of Scotland's Sir George Mathewson - not a particularly edifying spectacle. Briefings against each other's strategies verged on viciousness as the price went up, but it was Royal Bank that won NatWest.

Burt is far from relaxed about his defeat. Intent on proving that he is not a loser, he has turned his attentions to Abbey National, only to find Lloyds TSB trying to knock him out of the ring. Should he lose again, investors will watch carefully to ensure that the need to prove himself does not lead Burt, and BoS, into a dangerous display of corporate machismo.

It could not, however, come near to the extraordinary competition between Arnault and Pinault. Arnault came from a moneyed background and enjoyed the best education France can provide; Pinault boasts that he is a woodcutter's son and has no qualifications. Until less than a decade ago, they appeared content to build their own businesses with admiring glances towards each other. But then they got a taste for luxury brands and, like a Bond Street shopaholic, wanted the best for themselves.

Arnault was first into the sector and had already acquired Louis Vuitton, Moet Hennessy and Dior, among others, before Francois Pinault decided to add something a little more up-market to his chains of supermarkets, Printemps department stores and La Redoute mail order. What better way to start than with Chateau Latour? That purchase in 1993 seems to have signalled the start of the rivalry.

The nature of the battle was apparent when Pinault bought the Christie's auction house in 1998. By the following year, Arnault was the owner of rival Phillips. In the couture world, Arnault is way ahead, with names like Christian Lacroix and Givenchy, but he cannot countenance losing Gucci to Pinault. Management time, shareholders' cash and batteries of lawyers have been thrown at the case.

There is more at stake than profit: this is personal.

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